Marcia Ray doesn't think this story should be about her.
After 10 years of leading a breast cancer support group at Glendale Memorial Hospital, Ray said, she has heard too many stories harder than her own, seen too many women tougher than herself to justify being singled out.
There's Cheryl Vinier, a 39-year-old woman who went through two bouts of cancer, a bone-marrow transplant, a divorce and a breakup with her boyfriend all within the past six months.
There's Gilda Nickerson, who is facing not only breast cancer but Parkinson's disease as well. And Barbara Frankel, Mary Lou Humble and Olivia Aceves, all of whom--like Ray--have fought breast cancer and survived.
They're the ones, Ray insists, who deserve accolades.
But the 40 or so women who pile into the monthly support group meeting at Glendale Memorial say it's largely because of Ray that they go to the meetings at all. It's Ray, they say, who helps them keep an upbeat outlook on life.
Since helping to start the support group 10 years ago this month, the 72-year-old retired school teacher has encouraged cancer survivors to share their victories and keep a positive attitude in the face of setbacks. She rarely misses meetings, and even flies down from her vacation home in Lake Tahoe during the summer to make the sessions.
"She's very humble, and it's not easy to honor her," said Susan Stanton, secretary of the hospital's Cancer Advisory Board. But having been a member of the group since her lumpectomy seven years ago, Stanton knows "she's someone to look up to."
The women and an occasional husband gather on the second Thursday of each month in the hospital's cancer center, greeting each other with warm hugs and helping themselves to sandwiches and soft drinks before settling down around a large table. The mood is lively and happy, which is the way Ray likes it.
"When I was first diagnosed, I didn't tell my children," said Ray, who developed breast cancer at age 62. "I didn't want a lot of weepy people around me."
Ray makes a point of keeping the meetings as upbeat as possible. During the 10th anniversary meeting this month, there were a few tears and some heartbreaking stories, but the women were also there to enjoy each other's company.
When Aceves joined the group a few years ago, she and her daughter arrived late and had trouble finding the room. She said she stood outside what she thought should be the conference room, but heard so much laughing she thought it couldn't be the right place.
Like many of the women she sees in the group, Ray was inspired out of her own depression. While she was recovering from her lumpectomy in a double room at the hospital, a woman "with beautiful red hair" who had come to visit the person in the next bed "waltzed over to my bed and said, 'So what's your problem?' "
Fighting the urge to say something nasty, Ray told her that she had just had a lumpectomy.
"And do you know, she said she had the same thing three years before with the same doctors. Seeing this woman looking so alive and well was a great help."
Ray's doctor, Sundera V. Ariathurai, said such positive feedback is crucial to recovery.
An oncologist called "Dr. Aria" by his patients, Ariathurai said Ray "is able to maintain a positive outlook about herself, and she's a source of strength and confidence [to the other women]."
After he treated Ray's cancer 10 years ago, he asked her to help start and head the support group.
"Marcia always struck me as being everybody's friend. She has a special type of charm about her," he said. "Even when she was going through the treatments herself, she was out [in the waiting room] comforting everyone else."
Ray brushes aside compliments, saying that she was just one of several people instrumental in starting the group. But the women who attend the meetings credit Ray when they talk about how much the group has meant to them.
"The one thing that I have to say that I love about this group is how much I have learned here," Vinier told Ray, touching her hand at their most recent meeting. "I learned about certain blood tests . . . and when I [got a bone marrow transplant], my fingernails cracked in half. The doctors don't tell you that these things are going to happen. . . . The only people who tell you are the people in the support group."
Ray acknowledges that her decade of support-group work has been emotionally draining, but as a cancer survivor, she said, it helps her to help others.
"Some people are like ostriches, they just want to stick their heads in the sand and not talk to anyone," she said. "But it is so satisfying to know . . . that you can alleviate some of the worry."