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No place like home for Allagash woman battling breast cancer

ALLAGASH, Maine — For Margaret McBreairty, 58, battling her second round of breast cancer is made easier by her supportive family and being able to remain home in her beloved community of Allagash.

Sipping a glass of lemon-infused ice water in her home overlooking the St. John River one recent day, McBreairty’s upbeat demeanor belied the harrowing ordeal she has, and continues to face.

“I have cancer. I never ask ‘Why me’ or ‘Why not me’. There are a million people out there with that. I can have it too,” McBreairty said. “It’s never the destination; it’s always the journey right?”

McBreairty’s journey began with her childhood in Allagash surrounded by her loving parents, four siblings and a solid network of extended family members. In fact, her current home set high on a hill just past the St. John bridge in Allagash once belonged to her aunt and uncle, and adjoins other family property.

McBreairty dropped out of high-school, but soon after earned her GED at the urging of her older brother, Darrell McBreairty, and following a brief stint in college, she decided the military might be the right fit for her.

It seems it was. She served a decade in the U.S. Air Force, working in logistics at bases from Massachusetts to Turkey. While stationed in Turkey, McBreairty said she became clued in to the many private sector contractor positions available in the Middle East.   

“I thought to myself, someday I want to do that,” she said.

Eventually, she achieved that goal. In 2006, while working for a construction company in Iraq editing auditor reports, McBreairty discovered a lump in her left breast.

She didn’t consider the discovery an immediate cause for alarm, as doctor’s had previously treated a cyst in the same breast.

“I had a lump there before which they had drained in the exact same spot so I was pretty confident it was another cyst and thought I would just have to go have it drained again,” McBreairty said.

When she returned home to Maine for a visit, however, doctors here informed her of the breast cancer diagnosis.

She underwent a double mastectomy, radiation and chemotherapy, which seemed to have eradicated the disease.

Confident the cancer was behind her, McBreairty returned to her work overseas, and in July 2017 while home on vacation from Afghanistan, sought medical consultation once again, due to fatigue, weakness and severe pain. It was then that she learned the cancer had returned and metastasized to her bones.

“Bone cancer is crazy, crazy painful,” McBreairty said. “It’s amazing how far I’ve come. When I first got home, I really struggled to lift a single plate. Now I can lift a stack of plates and put them in the cupboard.”

She credits Darrell McBreairty, now an author still living in Allagash, with helping her to preserve her energy throughout her health ordeal.

“I wouldn’t be able to come home here without him. He carries laundry up and down stairs and brings groceries in for me. I try not to overdo it,” she said.

During her cancer treatments and while following up with her oncologist in the Portland area, McBreairty stays with her sister, Ruth (McBreairty) Reglin, her nephew, Ruth’s son Jordan, and Reglin’s boyfriend, Brian Askov, in Windham.

“I don’t know how they put up with me,” joked McBreairty.

Reglin said she is more than willing to do so.

“It’s been difficult in the sense of thinking my sister is fighting for her life and the possibility of losing her,” Reglin said. “She’s also an inspiration to me with her positive outlook. She looks at every day as a blessing.”

Still, McBreairty admitted that this time around there were moments when she began to feel her resolve weaken.

“I couldn’t lay down, it was too painful so I had to sleep in a recliner. At one point I thought, ‘I can’t do this anymore. It’s too painful.’ How do I tell my family I can’t do this anymore? I just can’t,” she said.

This spring, while seeking evaluation for lifelong sinus issues, McBreairty’s doctors  discovered that the cancer had attacked her C1 and C2 vertebrae, requiring emergency spinal fusion surgery by a neurologist in Boston.

As she awaited transport to Boston, doctors had a clear warning for McBreairty, who at that point had no idea the seriousness of the situation.

“They told me, ‘You need to be careful; don’t move your head.’ I thought ‘Now you’re kind of freaking me out,’” she said.

Following the surgery, McBreairty experienced leaking at the incision site which resulted in multiple return trips to Boston for examination and restitching of the wound. She underwent a second operation to repair the issue, which was less than ideal for a woman living at the top of Maine.

“Boston was killing me,” she said. “It was totally insane to go to Boston every three weeks. I had to pay for hotels, gas, tolls. I am not employed and have no income. Since April I made seven trips to Boston.”

McBreairty said that despite the drawbacks, she is thankful that her tumor markers continue to decline and she is hopeful to soon become involved with an immunotherapy treatment program.

“I have a sincerely huge trust in God. I have that faith and trust,” she said. “We’re all gonna die — there is nothing we can do to change that, but it’s not about the dying, it’s about the living. I strived to be a good person before cancer and strive to be a good person now.”

Regardless of what happens, she is determined to enjoy life with her family, which also includes her children, Shannon and Jeremy McBreairty, and granddaughters, Jasmine, who was born in May, as well as Bailey, 11, and  Logan, 9.

McBreairty said she hopes to be well enough to return to work one day, but for now enjoys looking out the sliding glass windows of her front porch to take in the beauty of the Allagash landscape, which she said includes “brilliant sunsets.”

“This is where my family is, but I really do love my community and my people as well. You can see God in the community everywhere,” she said. “The beauty of the place just blows my mind everyday. I went to the Grand Canyon and it was magnificent, but still there’s just something about Allagash. It’s home, and home is the community.”

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