Tears, fears and courage during battle against breast cancer

Tuesday October 9, 2012

Holly Moretz folded T-shirts with precision last week.

A board placed in the center helped her perfectly crease each of the Nautica brand shirts -- first one, then two. In no time, there were stacks upon stacks of folded shirts displayed on one of the shelves in Nautica at the Lee Premium Outlets.

Customers trickled in steadily. Moretz kept folding.

She said it kept her mind off the pain she was feeling in her lower abdomen, as well as the more emotional pain of days gone by that were a constant battle ever since she received a life-changing call from her doctor's office in June 2011: Moretz, 45, was one of more than 230,000 women in the United States that would be diagnosed with breast cancer that year.

The store manager, Paul Breault, felt the lump on Moretz's breast after he asked her to confirm what she thought she felt. He was there that day in June that she got the call at work.

"I took a look at him, and [nodded] my head ‘yes,' " Moretz said. "A tear rolled down my cheek. I didn't want him to see me cry, so I turned my back to him so I could pull myself together. Then, I went back to work the rest of the day. I just knew it was going to be positive."

That call was as tragic as it was timely.

Around that time, the managers of all of the Lee Premium Outlets -- "We're like family here," Moretz said -- were meeting to plan for the outlet mall to host the 2011 Making Strides Against Breast Cancer. Historically, the walk was held at the Ashuwillticook Rail Trail in Adams.

"We were reaching out to store managers to find a survivor who'd share their story at our walk event," said Arlela Bethel, the walk manager for the county's Making Strides Against Breast Cancer event. "[Moretz] happily stepped up to the plate to share her story so others would know what she was going through for others who want to get involved as well.

"Holly not only wanted share her story, but her words of encouragement and hope," Bethel said.

Saturday will mark the second year that the walk will be held at the Lee Prime Outlets. It will begin around 7:30 a.m., and is a non-competitive 3- or 5-mile walk.

Though Moretz underwent a partial mastectomy very shortly after her June 2011 diagnosis, her radiation treatments lasted through December.

It bogged her down, she said.

She had to demote herself from management because she was spread too thin with driving from her Otis home to the hospital in Springfield and then to work at the Nautica store in Lee.

"Every day, I'd pull up to the cancer clinic, and every day I'd cry just looking at the sign," Moretz said. "I'd walk in to radiation, then I'd go into work like nothing ever happened."

But there was one day that Moretz didn't have to go straight to work after radiation, she recalled in a story that was told less with words and more with long pauses punctuated with sharp breaths, a runny nose and sobs.

"I pulled over on the side of the road, and I just cried. I didn't ask why. I didn't wonder why. I thought of all the mean things I'd ever done to anybody, and I just said, ‘God, please forgive me,' " Moretz managed to muster.

The friendship between Breault and Moretz stays as professional as it can when they're on Nautica's time clock. By the time Moretz got that fateful call in June 2011, she had already been employed for about eight months.

Breault saw this before. His sister was diagnosed with cancer when she was 12.

"When you work with someone for 40 hours a week, it does get personal," he said. "At the time, she didn't have someone to lean on. I was her ‘retail husband.' "

But business was still business. With the store's "open-door policy," Breault said he divided his time between his managerial duties, and his retail relationship with his "retail wife," Moretz.

"She'd occasionally just look out the window, and there was no longer a smile. You could tell she was upset," Breault said. "It was always on her mind."

Moretz fought on, making an attempt to mask her pain and confusion. She continued to fold Nautica shirts, and straighten up shelves, and help out with customer service. At home, she masked her pain from her family -- anything not to worry herself or others.

"I think it's in my nature to stay busy," she said. "It's a good thing for me. Dwelling on it is not going to change it. Dwelling on it is not going to get rid of it."

Moretz took a leave of absence from working at the end of 2011, even though it was one much shorter than requested by her doctors, Breault said. Things were steadily getting back to normal.

But like cruel clockwork, Moretz got a call at work in June 2012. It was another breast cancer diagnosis. This time, it was her mother's, Nanette Sheldon.

The emotional flood gates opened back up. Moretz went to work at her mother's home, getting her hands on any arduous task she could fine at her mother's home in Buffalo, N.Y. Lawn care, home improvement and cooking her mother's meals were just some of the chores Moretz created for herself.

Sheldon had both of her breasts removed just last month and wouldn't need chemotherapy, Moretz said.

"I could collapse and turn into a puddle, because the emotional drain of fear wasn't there anymore," she said.

Sheldon won't be participating in the walk at Lee Prime Outlets, but has helped Moretz raise money by making pink, ribbon-shaped lollipops. At $737, Moretz is the top participant in Berkshire County, according to the event page on the American Cancer Society's website.

Moretz will be at the foreground of her team, the Nautica Striders, at Saturday's walk. However, it might be met with pain.

The estrogen drug Tamoxifen that Moretz is taking can cause uterus or ovarian cancer, Moretz said. As she folded shirts at Nautica last week, she was in "excruciating pain" from a new growth of cysts and fibroids in her lower abdominal region. She's going to get it checked out as soon as she can, Moretz said.

"I know my relationship with God," she said. "I have a new saying, and that's, ‘It's OK, and if it's not OK, it will be OK.' "

To reach Adam Poulisse:
or (413) 496-6214.
On Twitter: @BE_Poulisse.


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