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Tea and empathy: Hot tea, fancy hats and a listening ear

  • Author: Jamie Gonzales
  • Updated: September 28, 2016
  • Published October 2, 2015

It's 3:30 p.m. on a Sunday and everyone at the Enchanted Mermaid—Margy Johnson's home—is wearing a hat for afternoon tea. Hats with peach chiffon rosettes, black feathers, yellow grosgrain ribbon and white wool with black netting are perfectly in sync with auntie's and grandmother's china carefully laid on the table.

This is the second "sisters' tea" for Rebecca Hubbard and her sister Cheri Gillian.

"Margy was really a great support for Rebecca when Rebecca was diagnosed [with breast cancer]," said Cheri. "The first tea we had here was with our older sister, who is also a breast cancer survivor. We had tea and hats and the whole bit. It was a real boost to the spirit."

"Even with my funky wig, we still found a hat that worked," added Rebecca with a laugh. She had been diagnosed with breast cancer right before Christmas, undergone a bilateral mastectomy with reconstruction in January 2013 and begun chemotherapy in February. In April, the story of the three-sister support network made its way to Margy, herself a breast cancer survivor. She arranged for the trio to have tea with her, one of many such gatherings Margy, who also serves as executive vice president of Alaska Dispatch News, has hosted in the last few years for women with breast cancer.

A new tradition

In the hallway of the Enchanted Mermaid there's a framed sketch of three women—Margy and her sisters. Atop the glass, she's added a tiny pink ribbon over each of their hearts. Her younger sister was diagnosed at 27 and her other sister shortly thereafter.

"My sister had been sick for quite a while and when we took her in for her fifth check-up—we were in Seattle—we learned it had metastasized to her lungs and we were just breathless," said Margy. "We just walked out of there going, 'Oh my gosh.'"

They wandered into the Four Seasons in downtown Seattle. "They were having tea and we sat down and went, 'Let's just do this,'" she said. It became a tradition whenever they got bad news.

"Everybody has got auntie's china or silver, so this whole beautiful custom came of that," she said.

Not your typical tea talk

Holding a coffee table book about tea, Margy ushered everyone from the sitting room to the tea table and read a quotation: "What better way to suggest friendliness than to create it with a cup of tea."

Everyone sat and admired the china with gold leaf accents, the tiny silver teaspoons and the fresh scones with strawberry jam. Margy gestured to the pot of jasmine tea and continued, "Find yourself a cup of tea—the teapot is behind me—now tell me all about a hundred things."

And they did.

Rebecca and Cheri talked mammograms and family history. Rebecca was the seventh woman in her family to receive a cancer diagnosis. Because of her family history, she had started getting annual mammograms at age 30.

"Knowing we had all the breast cancer in our family, in the back of my mind, I thought it was going to get me someday," she said. It didn't soften the blow when something turned up on her mammogram, though. She went back for a second mammogram, then an ultrasound, then a biopsy.

"I was thinking, 'What do I do? Who do I tell?'" she said. It was just days before Christmas and she wanted to protect everyone from holiday-ruining bad news.

Margy empathized. "The hardest part about all of it, for all of us, was telling our parents," she said, referring to herself, her two sisters and her brother, who had non-Hodgkins lymphoma. "Once you figure out your own course of action, it's like, I'm either going to get better or I'm going to die. That's it. But to try and tell your mom and dad, that was definitely the hardest part for each of us."

Rebecca waited to tell her own parents—her mom is also a breast cancer survivor—until after Christmas. But she told her husband and she told Cheri, the two people who would become her local support pillars in the months that followed.

"I had a lot of support from both, but it was different: I cried on my husband's shoulder and Cheri made me take singing lessons with her," Rebecca said, smiling at her sister across the table.

The role of the ‘cancierge’

When their mother was diagnosed with breast cancer some 25 years ago, Cheri found herself devouring research and insisting that she accompany her mother to doctor appointments to ask questions.

"Like with our mom, Cheri was the one going to doctor's appointments with me, asking questions and writing stuff down," Rebecca said. "I was just sitting there, like OK."

Cheri added, "We asked all the questions. Margy had suggested that. She said, 'Get your stuff together. Keep a log.' And I thought, I can do that. I can't fix this, but I can do that."

She likened her role to that of a bridesmaid—someone who isn't at the center, but who's there to facilitate, a role others have termed "cancierge."

"Cheri went with me to pick out the wig, to buy the [button-up] shirts because I couldn't raise my arms," Rebecca said. "She did all those girl things, those womanly things, that my husband wouldn't have been able to do."

And in the midst of it all, they took singing lessons with Peggy Monaghan of Arctic Siren Productions. Their debut performance was at the Tap Root, where they sang Venus, by Shocking Blue.

"At first I thought Cheri was being a pushy a big sister, but then I realized she was doing it to get me out and distract me," Rebecca said.

One of the scariest things about being a cancer survivor, Rebecca and Margy agreed, is the fear that any day it could come back. Is this a cold or is this cancer?

"I live with that every day," Rebecca said.

As teacups were cleared and the last crumbs of chocolate on china were whisked away, Margy invited the ladies to her walk-in closet (and fancy hat storage area) for one last photo op in their borrowed scarves and hats. By the end, everyone was mugging and laughing.

"Cancer is a club that no one wants an invitation to, but once you get it, you've got it," said Margy. "It's just up to us to keep reaching out and helping others."

For a list of breast cancer resources and support in Alaska click here.

This article first appeared in the 2015 edition of Alaska Pulse magazine. Contact Pulse editor Jamie Gonzales

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