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Long-distance support for a sister fighting cancer

Blasdell native Mary Reid Gaudio spent the 1980s playing Red Sonja at Universal Studios in Los Angeles. She appeared similarly clad in the movies “Clan of the Cave Bear” and “Amazon Women on the Moon.”

“I was typecast because I was tall – 5-10 – so I got a lot of Barbarian movies,” she said during a recent telephone interview from her home in Sherman Oaks, Calif.

Her sister, Ann Reid, of Batavia, spent part of her younger years in Italy making Spaghetti Westerns with actors that included Jack Palance.

Ann was diagnosed four years ago with leukemia, and Mary – a high school administrator since the 1990s – decided to write a book about her sister’s treatment and recovery. The talks that followed for “The Phone Rang: How three sisters navigate the destructive path of leukemia” (amazon.com and drmaryreidgaudio.com) gave the sisters, including third sister, Chee, time to catch up on their adventurous lives and provide others with far-flung families the sense of what fighting cancer can be like long-distance.

Q. You say the book was cathartic.

In the book, I’m celebrating her life and intertwining my life because we were both in similar careers. I wanted to celebrate here because when you’re so sick, you get depressed. It gave us a purpose to come together.

In the middle of her having chemo, she daydreamed about her past. I wanted to bring this to her living in Italy in 1960s and ‘70s.

Her (former) husband worked for the American embassy and while he was off, she was in movies and theater. She was in the stage version of Hair in Rome, in Italian. That was exciting for her. She worked with Bill Conti, who wrote the music for “Rocky.” She came back to the U.S. in the ’80s. I don’t know the names of the movies because they’re in Italian. When she came back to the U.S. she went on tour with the “Pirates of Penzance” with Jim Belushi and Pam Dawber. She was doing stuff like that back here in the States. Then became a music professor at Genesee Community College.

Q. You grew up in Blasdell but had a family farm, Beauty View Farm, in Cattaraugus, which you also write about. What was that like?

The 400-acre farm has been in the family for more than 160 years. For me and my sisters, and our brother, Paul, it’s been our Shangri-La, actually. I’ve traveled all over the world and been to Giverny in France. This is my Giverny. I love Western New York, I love our farm. It’s the most beautiful.

Q. Talk about your sister’s diagnosis and treatment.

She had an infection that wouldn’t go away and a doctor told her she needed to go to an emergency room. Chee took her to Mercy Hospital and stayed there the whole day, then went back to Batavia. The next thing we know, Ann’s at Roswell (Park Cancer Institute). We still didn’t know why. The doctor walked in and sat down on Ann’s bed and said, “You have leukemia. We’ve had 30 years of research. We know what you’re doing. You’re going to be fine.” The next day, on Sunday, they were already administering the chemo. Our heads were spinning. We thought (of the diagnosis), “That’s not true. It doesn’t run in our family.” We had no clue as what was going on. That was our first day of this roller coaster ride. Then Ann got an infection that didn’t go away. The first round of chemo did not work, so that scared us.

Finally, they were able to cure the infection. The second round of chemo, they killed the leukemia but then she had to have a bone marrow transplant. ... Chee and I as sisters thought we’d be a perfect match. That didn’t happen. The first bone marrow donor backed out. That was an awful situation. The second donor, Ann tried to find and thank. After the transplant, we had to have 90 days of 24-hour round the clock care and I had to find a way to put that together and I’m coming in from out West with her son and daughter-in-law.

Chee and I were talking on the phone every day. That’s why the book’s called “The Phone Rang.”

My mom was going through the end of her life, so I never knew when the phone rang what I was going to hear.

Q. In the midst of treatment, your mom, Maribell, died three years ago at age 96.

Still, we kept celebrating Ann’s life. In all the horrendous, emotional times, we laughed a lot, we talked all the time on the phone, we reminisced about my mom and we constantly got together and surrounded my sister with family, parties and celebrations. We would celebrate every good thing that happened – and we’re still doing that. It’s helping my sister stay positive. Right now we’re in year four of survival. After five years, they say that you’re cured, basically, and that’s what we’re looking for.

I got remarried in middle of all this too, to Gino Gaudio. Everyone came out for our wedding after Ann’s bone marrow transplant. We’ve celebrated July 4 at the farm. All the holidays, Christmas, birthdays, it’s all a big deal. She comes out here for her birthday in February. ... We’re planning a trip to Tuscany in 2018. It’s all that positive thinking.

We’re doing our book talks. We talk about Ann’s survival. One of my friends, neighbors, is a professor at California State University North Ridge and we do lectures to his psychology class of about 250 students.

Q. It sounds like the conversations you had during your sister’s treatment, and in general, are a very important part of this book. Can you talk a bit about some of the conversations that you thought were so meaningful they needed to be part of the book?

Not just her past experience and her being in Italy in movies, but what we talk about now is her new normal. Looking differently. Admitting her age – which I haven’t done yet. I blog about this, too. Looking her age. Asking, “How mobile can she be?” She has neuropathy in the feet and she needs to carry a cane. She thinks the cane may make her look older. It doesn’t. It makes you look more stable. It makes you look younger. And we have to talk more seriously about that. One of the other things that was very worrisome is she doesn’t drink enough water. She gets dehydrated. And then she ends up back in the hospital. So we have to talk about her diet, her new normal, carrying water with her. She’s realizing how important that is now.

Mowing the field at the farm. She’s worried the fields are going to go to seed and trees will grow. She will worry about the bees. The butterflies. You have to be patient and kind, and let her talk about her worries.

Q. You’re donating a portion of the book proceeds to Roswell Park Cancer Institute, where Ann was treated, and We Spark. What’s that?

Ann goes to We Spark when she’s here (in Southern California). Wendie Jo Sperber started it after she got breast cancer. She died in 2005. She was on “Bosom Buddies” with Tom Hanks and Tom Hanks is on the board. It’s a really, really excellent organization and support group.

Q. What is some of the practical advice in the book for someone who might be on a similar journey with a family member?

Communicate. Communicate well. Communicate regularly. Don’t be afraid to say what’s on your mind. We talk to each other frankly and figure out what things need to be said – kindly.

email: refresh@buffnews.com

Twitter: @BNrefresh

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