Grace: Catching the Wind

Grace Spencer

What Grace S. says she loves most about sailing and the sea is that you never know what to expect, and so if you’re going to survive, you’d better learn to work with what’s presented to you.

“You know one thing for sure when you’re out on the sea,” she says, “You’re not in control. Mother Nature is.”

It is precisely that uncertainty and modesty that has consistently brought Grace back to the water, to the jib and rudder, working with the elements and the changes and the fates to get where she’s going. “There is nothing like it,” she noted. “When you’re sailing you’re completely removed, you’re in another place.”

Choppy Waters

When Grace was diagnosed with breast cancer in June 2010, she may have been as prepared as anyone could be for the difficult and winding journey that was to come. Who better to navigate the unpredictable waters of the disease than a woman who has worked to catch the wind? Years ago, Grace had undertaken a years-long journey, sailing, with help, from Vancouver, Canada down the west coast of the U.S. through the Panama Canal, in the Caribbean and up the intercostal waterway to Annapolis, MD. If she could make that journey, chances are she could make this one as well.

But the start of her voyage was choppy. As part of a routine self-examination she had discovered a lump in her right breast. At the time she and her husband, a captain, were living in Annapolis, MD. Grace went to a local hospital where she had a mammogram, an ultrasound and a biopsy. She received the results on June 7. It was cancer.

“I remember the exact date because I’ve heard that you’re a survivor from the day you’re diagnosed,” Grace notes. “I’m a cancer survivor from that moment on.”

Grace’s love for sailing and water grew from her roots in Winnipeg, Canada in the province of Manitoba where she was raised. Manitoba is known as the land of 100,000 lakes, and Grace discovered some of them in her 20s in a sailboat. But her Canadian roots also gave her a background in the country’s publicly funded, universal health care system, which differs from the state of health coverage in the U.S. She discovered how different it is when her surgeon told her that her medical insurance wouldn’t be accepted for surgery at the center where she had her tests done.

There is a term in sailing called center of effort. It means the point at which all the forces acting on the sails are concentrated in one place. That moment may have been Grace’s center of effort, the place where everything came together. Because as it had so many times in the past, the tides and winds of fortune at that moment seemed to work together to push her in the right direction. Right toward Mercy Medical Center.

Wind of Change

“After she told me about the insurance, my surgeon in Annapolis said to me, ‘why don’t we see if it can work out at Mercy Medical Center,'” she said. “And it did.”

The surgeon Grace was assigned to at Mercy was Dr. Neil Friedman, the Medical Director of Mercy’s Hoffberger Breast Center. Her plastic surgeon was Dr. Bernie Chang, widely recognized as one of the best in the region. “I felt very lucky,” Grace said. “They were both fantastic. Dr. Friedman was succinct and to the to the point, very professional and Dr. Chang was understated, but he put me at ease. They were both very, very good at what they do.”

Her mastectomy was performed at Mercy in July 2010, but it was not exactly smooth sailing after that. Grace was initially scheduled to have reconstructive surgery the same day, but because there was involvement with her lymph nodes it was delayed. Dr. Chang instead inserted a tissue stretcher and Grace was then faced with six months of chemotherapy, then a short respite followed by six weeks of radiation. A year later, in August 2011, she was cleared to have reconstructive surgery. And finally, the waters began to calm.

“Dr. Chang performed DIEP flap reconstruction and when I came out of the anesthesia he was talking to me and he was like giddy,” Graced noted. “He said that of all the DIEP flap surgeries he’d performed, and there’d been a whole lot of them, mine was one of his top 10. He was pleased, and so was I.”

“Dr. Chang was my miracle worker,” she added. “He even sent me a single pink rose after my surgery; a classy touch. I like the way he put me together. I feel like a woman again.”

And a sailor.

Sailing Calmer Waters

As lovers of the sea, Grace and her husband Harry also love the warm weather. As a result they recently left the cold Northeast Annapolis winters moving to Key West, Florida in 2012. It’s closer to the tropics, and right on the water where Grace can look in nearly any direction and watch the ebb and flow of her beloved sea while she charts her next course.

“I’m still able to do everything I did before,” she noted, “including sailing. And I’m certainly in the right place for that.”

While she waits for the right wind, the right tide, the right moment, Grace has taken a job driving a tourist trolley in Key West because, “well, why not? I can do anything. It sounded like fun and it's a pretty good job - with benefits.”

“I’m a sailor in my heart, I always will be” she added. “What’s really important to me now is that I’m a survivor. Now I’m just waiting for my next ship to come in.”

The Hoffberger Breast Center at Mercy offers comprehensive breast care, thoughtfully designed for women undergoing the journey to overcome breast disease.