Unknown Journey: Fighting cancer with friendship

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Similarities bring Stillwell, Folino together during breast cancer battle

By Jeff D'Alessio

Mary Jane Stillwell and Debbie Folino have more in common than being married almost the same number of years, being the same age and being mothers.


Now they are joined by one day in August. On Aug. 17, within an hour or so of each other, the women were diagnosed with breast cancer.

“When I saw her story, I couldn’t believe how many similarities there were,” said Folino, who is from Elizabethtown. “When I read about Mary Jane, everything seemed to be the same for me.”

After Folino read of Stillwell’s journey in The News-Enterprise, they became friends through social media, linking up to each other on Facebook. They now sit within a few feet of each other, having chemotherapy pumped into their bodies on Thursdays at the James Graham Brown Cancer Center in Louisville in an attempt to ward off the disease.

Cancer brought them together and links them as a support system for each other in their ongoing battle.

Folino, an Elizabethtown High School graduate, said her family and friends have been “a huge support.” But having someone just a text or phone call away who shares her new life is different.

“My friends have been very good and very supportive,” she said. “But they don’t understand really what it is like, and it’s not something that I will ever want them to know.”

It was a Friday when both received their jolting news. Their emotions ranged from shock to disbelief to a frozen feeling of what the future would hold.

Seeing their spouses and children for the first time after receiving their diagnosis was overwhelming.

“After I heard the doctor say that I was positive for cancer, the rest was just babble to me,” Folino said. “I don’t know what I heard.”

The call came in at 3:07 p.m. That time may never be erased from Folino’s mind.

Their stories are scarily similar.

Being diagnosed with breast cancer for both started with a mammogram, followed by an ultrasound and biopsy. They also have the same doctor.

Folino has been married to her husband, Nick, for 20 years. Stillwell and her husband, David, have been together for 19. Folino has two children and Stillwell three.

Both were 37 when diagnosed.

Now, both have lost their hair and eyebrows through lengthy chemo treatments. Stillwell, of Hodgenville, has one chemo treatment remaining while Folino has four.

Folino underwent a double mastectomy Sept. 6 after her diagnosis of invasive lobular carcinoma. The cancer was in her right breast, but Folino said with her type of cancer, it also was likely to show up in her other breast eventually so she opted for removal. Her grandmother had the same type of cancer and hers spread from one breast to the other.

Stillwell discovered a lump at the top of her left breast during a family vacation last summer. She said she likely faces 30 rounds of radiation treatments as well as a lumpectomy over the next several months.

The women have developed a unique friendship out of a painful stretch of their lives.

“Mary Jane and I talk about the nighttime not being our friend,” Folino said. “She knows exactly what I mean because she deals with the same things. It is dark and it’s quiet in the house. It’s a lot of time to think and that is hard.”

The realization of the cancer road traveled and the one ahead remains a constant reminder for both women.

“Once I said it out loud — that I had cancer — it became real to me,” Folino said.

“It’s always one day at a time. It has to be,” Stillwell said.

Jeff D’Alessio can be reached at (270) 505-1757 or jdalessio@thenewsenterprise.com.

Mary Jane Stillwell is a married mother of three who loves to spend time with her family. She works as an instructional assistant at Abraham Lincoln Elementary School in Hodgenville.
She also has breast cancer.
News Editor Jeff D’Alessio is following Stillwell’s journey in this ongoing series as she faces cancer head-on.
Less than one month after her diagnosis, the 38-year-old started chemotherapy in September at James Graham Brown Cancer Center in Louisville.
Her treatment continues weekly with more rounds of chemo.