My sister-in-law, Julie Travers Robinson, died at age 53 in November of 2018 after having to face some severe obstacles in life and coping with them well. I wanted to talk about her life for a bit as I think there are some lessons to be learned for all of us.
When Julie was 26, she learned that she had developed a tumor on her brain stem. The tumor was malignant and the doctors were able to remove it but she still had to undergo radiation treatments and chemotherapy. This left her with headaches, weakness, and loss of balance. The doctors told her she probably had six months to three years to live. A well-known sportscaster in the Washington, D.C. area, Glenn Brenner, was diagnosed with a similar tumor at about the same time, and he died two months after its discovery. So, the prognosis was not good.
Fortunately she had some very competent and supportive doctors at Georgetown University Hospital, and she appeared to be relatively healthy for ten years. At age 36, however, the doctors discovered she had developed cancer in the thyroid gland located in her neck, probably due to the earlier radiation treatments. This cancer gradually involved her lungs as well and thus began a long and difficult medical journey through many clinical trials of medications and treatments to control the cancer. Some of these medicines, which were often trials of new experimental drugs, left horrible side effects such as pitholes in her tongue and partial blindness in her left eye. There were frequent periods of nausea and headaches, and she had difficulty breathing due to the cancer in her lungs.
Throughout this whole ordeal, Julie continued to work full-time as a personnel specialist at Indian Head Naval Ordinance Station (NOS), a facility located south of Washington. Due to the limited vision in her left eye, Julie had a devise a route to go to work in her car which just involved making right-hand turns. Just imagine if you could only get to work making right-hand turns. Her doctors at Georgetown were amazed that she continued to stay alive and would refer her to new clinical trial studies as they learned about them to control or kill the cancer. No cure was ever found.
What I and many others found remarkable throughout this whole experience was Julie’s calm and positive attitude. Many people easily would have become bitter, cynical, angry, or depressed. Some would turn to alcohol or drugs to deal with the illness. Yet, I never detected any negative periods of irritation or complaining from Julie. She did not want to get caught up in a downward spiral of negativity and despair or burden others with her problems. The strong support of her Roman Catholic faith and church members, as well as family, fellow employees at NOS, and the Georgetown doctors seemed to help her in this.
Julie not only did not succumb to the many negative attitudes that others develop in such situations, but she used her experience of the illness to give more to others. She wrote a short light-hearted monograph entitled “What’s So Funny About Cancer?” where she describes many humorous events which occurred to her when dealing with the illness and the treatments. She felt this would help others also dealing with cancer. She organized family and friends to form a group known as “Team Smiley” which raised money for the American Cancer Society for further research and treatment of cancer. The group of thirty or more people would participate in the annual Walk For Life sponsored by ACS and Julie had special red T-shirts made up for the group with a large smiley face on the front. For a number of years the group plus added family and friends would gather at a local restaurant for a “Celebration of Life” event, giving thanks for Julie’s continued life as well as others. She also offered her home and financial support to several family members who were struggling to get their life together at times. Knowing all of this, the NOS newsletter featured an article about her entitled “Making A Difference.”
A wise person once said,” It’s not the hand which Life deals you that is important. It’s how you play the hand.” Julie had learned to play her hand well and be a source of strength and support for others rather than to withdraw into a life of bitterness and despair. I have always felt a great deal of respect as well as love for her, and I think there is a lesson from her life which is important for all of us to understand. She now has passed the torch to us, and now it is our turn to make a difference for the world and touch the lives of others.