A teacher and divorced mom of five, she had been getting annual mammograms since she was in her 30s. And on the recommendation of her physician had been doing breast self-exams every two weeks.

Her vigilance paid off . In November 2012, she discovered a lump that had not been there two weeks earlier. It turned out to be an invasive form of cancer.

“Anyone can get a fast-growing cancer and a self-exam helps you get to know your breasts so you can pick up on any changes,” said Phillips. “As soon as I felt it, it was clear right away that something had drastically changed in a short amount of time.”

Phillips said she found the lump on a Sunday, called her doctor the next morning and was scheduled for an immediate mammogram at Franklin Memorial Hospital. That was followed by an ultrasound to pinpoint the location and a needle biopsy of the tissue.

She was diagnosed with two forms of invasive cancer.

“That was when things got scary. I had to think very fast,” Phillips recalled.

Within three weeks, Phillips had both breasts removed in a bilateral mastectomy. She opted not to undergo reconstructive surgery.

“It would have slowed the process. The doctors wanted to hurry things along to get the chemotherapy started and move on to radiation,” she said. “At that point, saving my breasts was the least of my worries.”

Phillips said her siblings, close friends, and long-term boyfriend, Chris Begin, quickly formed a strong support system that helped her through that difficult time.

But the only time she remembers crying was when she met with the breast care specialist at the Martha B. Webber Breast Care Center at Franklin Memorial. One of the things they talked about was how to tell her children she had cancer.

Phillips’ children are Cameron Salisbury, 24; Keirstein, 21; Drew, 17; and twins William and Aidan, 12.

“I hadn’t told them at that point because I wanted everything in place first. I didn’t want to worry them more than I had to,” she said.

The breast care advocate guided her to books and directed her to the American Cancer Society’s web site (www.cancer.org).

“I learned that I should be matter-of-fact when I talked to them and just tell them, ‘I have breast cancer and I’m going to be OK,’ and that I will look a little funny and will be bald from the chemo and might be a little sick, but that will mean the drugs are doing their job and killing cancer cells,” Phillips said.

“They’ve been okay with that. They ask questions and we talk about it, and we are all working very well together.”

After she recovered from the surgery, she began 16 weeks of chemotherapy at the Alfond Cancer Center at Maine General Hospital in Augusta. She is now undergoing six weeks of radiation at the Dana Farber Cancer Institute in Boston.

While there, she will stay at Hope Lodge, a facility that provides lodging and food at no cost to cancer patients, and is supported through donations to the American Cancer Society, the sponsor of the Relay For Life, the organization’s major annual fundraiser.

On May 31, Phillips will be participating in the Franklin County Relay For Life event in Farmington as a member of the Franklin Savings Bank team. The 12-hour event runs from 6 p.m. Friday, May 31 to 6 a.m. Saturday, June 1, at the Farmington Fairgrounds on High Street. To donate on behalf of Phillips or her team, go to www.relayforlife.org.

The community has been a huge support for Phillips and her family.

“Without them, we wouldn’t be in the positive place that we find ourselves in now. We feel blessed to be living in an area where everyone helps everone during difficult times. It doesn’t matter about politics, religion or financial need. In a time of crisis, it is all about compassion and the human spirit of helping others when they need it the most,” she said.

Family, friends and the community have helped Phillips and her children remain positive and has instilled in them a desire to give back and “pay it forward,” she said.

In response to Phillips’ illness, friends created a web site where people can sign up to bring meals, help with errands and drive the kids to activities and sports. An account set up at the University Credit Union provides help with out-of-pocket costs that insurance doesn’t pick up. And at Mt. Blue Middle School, her sons’ coaches made sure the boys got to practices and meets, and that they had uniforms and up-to-date equipment.

Also, a UMF professor and her students stepped up to help Phillips’ twins with a challenging social studies project when she was unable.

Phillips is a teacher at the Cushing School in Wilton, taught kindergarten to eighth grade, is a member of the Farmington Historical Society, was a school volunteer, a ski coach at Titcomb Mountain, taught Sunday school, volunteered with the Franklin County Children’s Task Force Parent 2 Parent program, and offered a parent education program for parents of young siblings at Franklin Memorial. She and a friend also started a playgroup for twins at the University of Maine at Farmington that was used as a teaching opportunity for early childhood education students.

Relay For Life is an international event that joins communities in the fight against cancer. Teams of friends, families, schools, businesses and organizations raise money to fight cancer, then come together at a local track for the overnight event where members take turns walking through the night.

Teams set up campsites and enjoy entertainment, activities and special ceremonies all night, and cancer survivors and caregivers are the guests of honor. An inspirational event is the luminaria ceremony where votive candles are lit inside white commemorative bags that line the track and honors or remembers a loved one lost or affected by cancer.


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