- The Enterprise
- The Recorder
Sandy Hawthorn is not one to strike up a conversations with strangers.
But ask her about the multiple emerald green rubber bracelets she wears, the glass locket filled with charms or why her painted nails are tipped with green lacquer and she could go on for hours.
“I wear all this in hopes that someone will ask me something,” Hawthorn said. “I want to spread the word.”
Hawthorn wants to talk about fibrolamellar hepatocellular carcinoma, a rare liver cancer that usually affects people 15 to 25 but is not limited to that age range.
Hawthorn’s daughter, Nicole Geary Phelan, was 22 when she found out she had it.
For six months prior to her June 5, 2008, diagnosis, Phelan complained of chest and shoulder pains.
She was easily exhausted. But she was planning a wedding to her boyfriend of seven years, Sean Phelan. She was looking for a job.
Maybe that was sapping her energy.
And, Hawthorn said, her daughter was a bit of a hypochondriac, a drama queen.
Phelan didn’t have health insurance, which kept her from the doctor’s office.
“Everybody kept saying it was stress. She was planning a wedding,” said Phelan’s longtime friend, Heather Steger of Waldorf.
But after dropping 30 pounds without dieting, and complaining about being in more pain, Phelan went to the emergency room and was told she had pneumonia.
A week later, she was back in the ER and was sent for a CT scan, which revealed two masses on her liver.
She wound up at the University of Maryland Medical Center in Baltimore where she underwent further testing.
She didn’t believe it was that bad, said Hawthorn, who lives in Port Tobacco with her husband, Jay.
“I knew,” Hawthorn said. “But she said, ‘Mom, why are they saying ‘cancer?’’”
The form of cancer Phelan had was such a rare one, little research had been conducted.
It’s a silent one too, Hawthorn said. “Only 200, 250 cases are discovered each year,” she continued. “When she was diagnosed there was nothing out there on the Internet for lay people” to learn more.
Steger recalled the day she learned her friend was sick.
She was in the kitchen of the restaurant where she was a waitress.
“Everything around me slowed down when she told me it was cancer,” Steger said. “I just stared at my phone.”
Phelan couldn’t be sick. She was the redheaded “little firecracker” Steger met on the first day of freshman year at Westlake High School.
“Fourth period, Ms. Anderson’s theater arts class,” she remembered. “She was wearing green Tigger overalls. Once she met you, she was vibrant, the brightest person in the room. We were friends for good.”
Now, Phelan, a bride-to-be, was battling for her life.
Hawthorn was putting the finishing touches on the wedding planning.
Phelan’s younger brother, Cody, a member of the U.S. Air Force was in Iraq, he was brought home June 16 to be with the family on the eve of what would be his sister’s seven-hour surgery to remove the tumor and 30 percent of her liver.
The cancer had spread to her lymph nodes. Some were removed in the procedure but not all.
She was released from the hospital June 30 but returned on July 17. Her health continued to decline.
Here comes the bride
Phelan was determined to marry Sean and told her family she would “break out” of the hospital if she needed to.
On Aug. 16, the wedding day, Hawthorn picked her daughter up at the hospital and took her to Olde Breton Inn where the outdoor wedding was followed by a reception that Phelan didn’t want to leave.
At 9 p.m., Hawthorn finally got her daughter to get in the waiting limo.
“Nikki, the bride and groom usually leave first,” Hawthorn reminded her.
Phelan was readmitted to the hospital and after first learning that she was given six months to a year to live, doctors told Hawthorn that her daughter likely would only have about two weeks left.
Phelan was moved to a nursing home closer to home where friends and family flooded in from all over including Connecticut, Massachusetts and Vermont.
Her father, Dana Geary of Gloucester, Mass., was with Phelan when she died Sept. 18.
Hawthorn has thrown herself into raising money for the Fibrolamellar Cancer Foundation, an organization founded by the late Tucker Davis of Connecticut, who died in February 2010 at the age of 28.
The foundation, run by Davis’ family, funds research, raises awareness and holds reunions for fibroomellar sufferers, their survivors and families.
Hawthorn has traveled to weekend meet-ups, where she has formed close relationships and stays in touch through the organization’s Facebook page.
She and Steger are co-hosting a coffee social for the foundation Sunday in Waldorf, and Hawthorn remains eager to tell her daughter’s story because she’s not here to tell it herself.
“This is her way of working through me,” Hawthorn said.