Probation office deals with cancer and death
There’s something sad about silver linings. Usually, something bad has to happen for people to search for them.The 9th Judicial District Probation Department is an office that’s had to search for silver linings. Adversity and tragedy has tormented the office of about 20 for several years.How’s this for a couple of jaw-dropping facts – three people have had cancer, and two people have died. On April 25, alcohol evaluator Julie Gannon lost her fight with cancer. She was 40.Julie is one of those people that everyone remembers. Her smile, her outgoing spirit, her love of people – Julie is what you might call a giver. “She was always helping,” probation officer Jerilyn Wright said.Julie had a motto, and the simple inscription decorated several items in her office: “It’s all Good.””That’s what she always said,” said former probation officer Susan Cashel, who returned to help out when Julie’s illness got worse. “She had the best smile. It was an amazing smile.”But it wasn’t all good.She had a rare cancer that attacked her hip.Jerilyn, 52, knows what it’s like to battle cancer. On May 19, she will be three years free of breast cancer. But three years is still in that scary zone, so Jerilyn keeps her guard up.”They say that five years is the point when you’re really cancer-free,” she said.When Jerilyn talks about Julie, there’s the sadness that comes with losing a friend. There’s also frustration and guilt, but there’s happiness, too. She admits that her friendship with Julie was as special as they come.”She taught me so much,” Jerilyn said two days after Julie died. “She was only 40, but she lived a full life. She really packed it in.”I miss her so much, but I’m so glad that she’s out of her pain.”Jerilyn’s guilt comes from the inevitable question of “Why?” Why did Julie die and not her?”I was lucky,” Jerilyn said. “I now know that the kind of cancer is everything.”The medical world knows how to treat breast cancer. There’s a system in place. Jerilyn had three surgeries, then it shifted to chemotherapy, then radiation.For Julie, the rare cancer called clear cell sarcoma may have been caused by a bicycle accident years before. Being rare, there’s not a set way to attack it.Doctors thought they got the cancer when they operated in September 2002. But it came back.A tragic deathOutside the Garfield County Courthouse a couple is enjoying the afternoon sunshine sitting on a bench.They have no idea who Ray “Spunky” Combest is, even though his name is engraved on a plaque that’s attached to the bench.”He always told everyone that they should get at least 20 minutes of sunshine a day,” Jerilyn said smiling.Combest was the chief probation officer. He was killed in a head-on collision when another driver came into his lane outside Denver on Feb. 24, 2005.A year later, the office dedicated the bench and the plaque. Along with Ray’s name, the plaque reads “20 minutes of sunshine.”Like Julie, Combest’s personality was as bright as the sunshine he coveted.In November 2005, probation officer Jon Ezequelle discovered he has prostate cancer.Another dark cloud in an office that’s seen more than its share of adversity.Through everything, all the adversity, all the dark clouds, sunshine always won out in the office.”I remember during the Christmas party this year,” Jerilyn said. “We called Jon and sang to him over the phone.”After surgery, Ezequelle now appears to be on the road to recovery.”It’s been a very difficult past two years,” staff assistant Helen Nickel said. “The support here has just been amazing. I’ve never seen such a positive group of people. We really pulled together and even with all that’s happened there’s always a silver lining.”A powerful friendshipSupport and the power of positive thinking is something that started way back in the summer of 2002 for members of the office.Julie died after a three-year, seven-month battle with cancer.Julie and Jerilyn’s friendship started three years and eight months ago with the news of cancer.The bad news wasn’t about them. Jerilyn’s mother had breast cancer and was dying at the age of 70. Jerilyn was making the 13-hour, 780-mile trip to Tucson, Ariz., once a month to visit her mom. Julie was also from Tucson, and volunteered to tag along on the long trips.”On those trips we would just yak and yak,” Jerilyn said smiling. “I remember the first trip, Julie said, ‘We’re almost out of gas, where do you usually get gas?'”Jerilyn laughs as she remembers the trip. “I said, ‘I usually stop in Moab.’ Julie said, ‘I think Moab is back there.’ We were talking so much that we missed the turn. We had to pay a guy $20 for five gallons of gas at a rest area. We had such a good time.”Jerilyn sighed, “We had no idea what was going to come.”That was August 2002. That was the start of a powerful but all-too-short friendship.The next month Julie was diagnosed with cancer.In November 2002, Jerilyn’s mother died.Four months later Jerilyn was diagnosed with breast cancer. The same cancer that killed her mom.Inside Julie’s office all the cards from family and friends, and keepsakes and mementos from her travels, still adorned the walls and her desk a week after her death.Julie battled her cancer with a spirited vigor, and there was always a smile, a joke or an ever-present positive outlook.”She was always positive. Even toward the end,” said Brenda Lawson, a fellow alcohol evaluator. “Her spirit and her personality, that’s what I’ll miss the most.”An office unitedIn December 2003, Jerilyn and Julie were on the same radiation treatment schedule. For more than 30 days in December and January, the pair traveled to the Shaw Cancer Center in Edwards, sometimes six days a week.Jerilyn said the doctors were stunned to find out that two people in the same office were battling cancer.With Julie getting treatment for her hip region and Jerilyn for breast cancer, it led to an ongoing joke.”I don’t know if you can print this or not,” Jerilyn said laughing, “but whenever we’d walk in Julie would say, ‘The boob and butt club is here.'”During that long December, the probation office teamed up to help out. They took turns driving Jerilyn and Julie for their treatment.”It could have really become a burden,” Jerilyn said of the 2 1/2 hour daily trip. “But it became a fun thing. People were really disappointed when they didn’t get to do it.”We had so much fun on those trips.”Some 10 members of the office helped out with the trips.Lessons about lifeThe guilt is something Jerilyn struggles with. The lessons she learned from Julie helps.After Julie’s death, Jerilyn jotted down things to help her deal with the loss of her friend. She put down a timeline of what they went through and the things that Julie did for her.”I couldn’t believe some of the things Julie did,'” she said. “She organized a fundraiser for me to help with my medical bills. Here she is with cancer, too, and she’s doing a fundraiser for me.”In July 2005, Julie got more bad news. The cancer had spread to her lungs and other places.”She was such a dedicated worker, she kept working, even though she was going through all different treatments,” Jerilyn said.”She hardly ever missed work,” Lawson said. “If I ever took a sick day I would feel so guilty.”Jerilyn wrote a letter to Oprah Winfrey trying to get Julie on the “Wildest Dream” show.”I was really hoping, but [Hurricane] Katrina hit the next month, and everything kind of shifted,” Jerilyn said.Words to describe her friendship with Julie come easily for Jerilyn. The memories and their bond easily overpowers the sadness. It’s the ever-present silver lining.”It’s very humbling,” she said about cancer. “I had to learn how to accept people helping me. I was always the type of person that I could take care of myself and didn’t want help, but I’m so grateful for all the help I received.”One of the main things she learned was how to grow from adversity – “there’s always a silver lining.””Another thing I learned was that you can never have too many friends. Julie had so many friends, and now some of her friends are my friends. Same with Ray, he had so many friends,” she said. After seeing all her friends and co-workers reach out to her and Julie, Jerilyn said she is now reaching out.”You have to step out of your comfort zone, don’t ask what you can do, just do it. I remember when people showed up at my door with dinner and I was so grateful. It’s very humbling, but I know now not to wait to be asked – just do it.”Jerilyn is now on the fundraising circuit, hoping to help out whomever and wherever she can.A couple of weeks before Julie’s death, Jerilyn said they knew.”We visited Julie, and she said that she wouldn’t be coming back.”That was as hard as it gets, Jerilyn said. “There was nothing we could do. We couldn’t make the cancer go away. We were still hoping, but I think we all knew.”Cancer has a way of destroying everything in its path, but for the 9th Judicial District Probation office, the silver linings were always present.The office now has two cancer survivors and memories of two positive, brilliant personalities that left their mark on everyone who knew them.Even through all the tragedy and adversity, the office continues to look for and find the sunshine. And there’s a lot more than 20 minutes worth in that office.Jerilyn glances at her notes she’s written down and lets out a small sigh. “I really miss my friend.”Then she smiles as the sliver lining emerges again.
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Ghez, 55, has long been a familiar name around the Aspen Center for Physics, a nonprofit launched in 1962 that seeks to bring the best minds in the world together for collaboration and innovation.