Mary Pat Murray of Snyder thought she had it all.
"Getting an education, getting married, having children, landing a great job and living in a safe neighborhood. You feel you can control everything," said the 38-year-old mother of three.
But that illusion of control was shattered three years ago when she found a golf ball-size lump under her armpit and was diagnosed with stage II breast cancer. At the time she was pregnant with her third child.
"I realized that you can try to prevent a disease to the best of your ability by watching what you eat and drink, by exercising, watching your stress levels. Then the rest is out of your control. That was so hard for me. I am such a logical person."
Unfortunately, losing that control is something many women will experience. One in eight women will develop breast cancer, according to the American Cancer Society.
"Since 1971, more women have died of breast cancer than all the men who have died in World War I, World War II, the Korean conflict and Vietnam combined," Mrs. Murray said.
Coming face to face with her own mortality at 35 "was like a filter lifted from the way I viewed the world and what was important," said Mrs. Murray, whose friends call her Patty. "Bad things do happen to good people. . . . I went through the breast cancer experience as if it were an out-of-body experience. Many people have told me that they have experienced it the same way.
"Months after, I felt as if the whole world was crashing down on me. I thought, 'What's wrong with me? Be happy.' What happens is that you're strong through the whole thing. Then after -- just like a body going into shock after a trauma -- all the emotion came to the surface and you realize what really happened to you, and what you will have to live with many years to come."
Even through her chemotherapy, Mrs. Murray "tried to live life as usual." She still had the Christmas cookie exchange for her Bishop's Committee discussion group.
"It was a bit scary at first. But I'll always turn a negative into a positive, I would have it no other way. My husband calls me the ultimate spin doctor."
Mrs. Murray knows she's one of the fortunate ones. Still, with every new checkup, bone scan and blood test, there is the fear of recurrence.
"You try not to worry, but you are human, and you do. You just try not to obsess about them and the results. You pray and play mantras in your mind like -- 'I am healthy,' " she said.
"The rate of breast cancer recurrence is the greatest in the first five years after diagnosis."
Ellicottville native Dr. Christiane Northrup understands the fear of recurrence. But she is also optimistic, saying, "Women all over the world today are transforming their experience of breast cancer and healing at the deepest levels to go on and live full, dynamic and creative lives."
Although she holds a law degree, these days Mrs. Murray is thrilled just to be at home with her kids, Molly, 7, Jack, 5, and Patrick, 2.
"I know what my purpose is -- just 'to be,' to help my family and others. After my wake-up call, I tell people to slow down," she said. "To figure out what your mission is, to love regardless of outward appearances, to do all this and still be a part of this world."
Mrs. Murray first discovered the painless, hard lump under her left armpit while bathing one fall day. Cancer was already in the lymph nodes.
Her attorney husband, Jack Murray, whom she met when they were both students at Canisius College, said that his wife "is quite a reader. . . . When she was first diagnosed, she grabbed everything under the sun to read and learn."
Within a dozen days of the mammogram, the lump was removed and chemotherapy begun.
Buffalo Medical Group oncology nurse Cindy Harrington called Mrs. Murray "a trouper. It was a frightening time for her," Ms. Harrington said. "She did very well. She brought her children in with her to talk about it, as opposed to holding it in."
"I had to be strong," added Mrs. Murray. "I wanted to be my kids' mommy till they were grown and had kids of their own. I was so happy to have the tumor out. Doctors assured us that our unborn child would be fine, maybe bald at birth."
Patrick Murray was born the following March -- with hair -- in excellent health, at almost 8 pounds. A bone scan after his birth showed that the cancer had not spread to Mrs. Murray's bones. A subsequent mammogram also was clean.
Her oncologist, Dr. Richard Cooper, suggested more chemo and then radiation. She took his advice.
"My hair fell out in August," Mrs. Murray recalls. "My daughter, then 5, actually screamed when it fell out. I had to restore her trust that the medicine was getting rid of the disease that made me sick.
"But the hair loss took on a positive note. To me, it is a sign of what this cancer experience and life in general is all about. It's not about the 'stuff' in life, it's about what you are inside."
Mrs. Murray is now a "chemo coach," giving support to other women going through chemotherapy, and also serves as development director for the Pregnant With Cancer Support Group.
Today Mrs. Murray looks at people differently, trying "not to judge them."
"You never know what people are going through in life. Everyone has a cross to bear. You begin to give them a bit more slack."