With the help of friends … Anne Gurchick shares her tale of surviving breast cancer | AspenTimes.com

With the help of friends … Anne Gurchick shares her tale of surviving breast cancer

Alison Berkley
Paul Conrad/Aspen Times

When Anne Gurchick started chemotherapy in January 2005, doctors warned that her hair would start to fall out in about 10 days. “I made it to the 11th day and thought, ‘Maybe it wouldn’t happen to me,'” she says, her voice strained with the emotion of that memory. “Then when I was in the shower, I went to rinse my hair and this huge clump came out. I knew I didn’t want to wake up every morning with a head full of hair on my pillow.”Gurchick had been living in Aspen for about eight months when she was diagnosed with breast cancer. She had no family in the area and just a handful of friends she’d recently met volunteering for the Aspen Animal Shelter Board of Directors – namely, Bland Nesbit, Seth Sachson, Melinda Goldrich, Adam Goldsmith and his wife, Louisa.”[Adam] shaved my head, put a wig on me and then we went hat shopping, met Louisa for lunch and made a day of it – a really positive day,” Gurchick remembers, her brown eyes welling up with tears.”From the minute I was diagnosed, people from the animal shelter board were constantly making sure I had everything I needed,” she says. “They drove me to doctor’s appointments, took me to Denver for a second opinion, drove me to Edwards for daily radiation treatments, made sure my dogs were walked, everything. Emotionally they were there to talk, walk, whatever needed to be done. “I had only known them five months. Is that long enough to go through breast surgery with them? No. But it brought us all close enough very quickly.” Today, Gurchick is the one wielding the shears, grooming pets and working the cash register at the Aspen Wags to Riches pet boutique and salon, located in the new Aspen Animal Shelter near the Aspen Business Center. Gurchick is managing partner of shop; her business partners include Cheryl Wyly, Goldrich and the Aspen Animal Shelter.For Gurchick, the shelter’s March 26 grand opening also represented a new start. Not only had she realized her dream of moving to Aspen and working with animals, she is cancer-free and has a full head of hair.

On a recent day, Gurchick is cradling Lu Lu in her arms; the small, white fluffy dog was just dropped off for grooming at Aspen Wags to Riches. The store is a bright, airy space with high ceilings and large windows that overlooks the boarding kennel. It is filled with plenty of things for the pampered pets of Aspen to think their teeth into, including everything from “Chewy Vuitton” animal beds to pet picture frames and large bags of dog food. (A portion of the proceeds from the shop support the animal shelter and Aspen’s homeless pets.)Dressed in a denim jacket with her short brown hair pinned back with little barrettes (she says she’s in one of those “icky in-between stages” in growing out her hair), she looks more like a kid in a candy store than a cancer survivor. Holding this dog in her arms like a baby (despite its incessant whining and yelping), she wears a healthy, youthful glow. The pet boutique is clearly more than just a business for Gurchick.Like many, Gurchick moved to Aspen from Austin, Texas, for a change of lifestyle. In Austin, she owned her own business, an executive suite operation that handled several hundred companies. Despite her success, Gurchick grew tired of the city and the stress of corporate life. In April 2004, she sold her company and moved to Aspen full time.”I’d been coming to Aspen sometimes twice a year since the early ’80s and fell in love with the mountains,” she says. “My dream was to move here, but also to work with animals.”Gurchick’s love of animals began at an early age. “When I was a kid, I’d see a dog that wasn’t chained up and literally take it home with me. It drove my mom nuts because I was always stealing all these dogs and bringing them into the house,” she says with a hearty laugh. “I was always drawn to their innocence and unconditional love.” Gurchick’s bond with her four-legged friends was deepened by the fact her father was in the military. “I lived in nine different places before I was even in high school – Georgia, Germany, England, back to the States. I think animals were the only constant I had as a kid.”Though she had been offered a positions with CARE upon arriving in Aspen, things were slow. So she dropped by the Aspen Animal Shelter and volunteered to walk a dog. “The next thing I knew, I was there every day walking dogs,” she explains. “Then one day Seth invited me to a board meeting and that was it. I was hooked.”

With plans for the new shelter already under way, her accounting and administrative skills coupled with her love for animals made Gurchick a perfect fit for the job.”She really proved herself, first through volunteering and then with her commitment to work on the board,” Sachson says. “She was so enthusiastic about getting involved at first, so passionate about working with animals that I almost couldn’t believe it. But actions really do speak louder than words.”But just as Gurchick was settling in to the life she had dreamed of, things took a turn for the worse. “I had just had a mammogram that came back negative, literally two weeks before my diagnosis. But then I noticed a lump that felt like a cyst. The doctors told me they were 99 percent sure it was nothing and I shouldn’t worry. But when the doctor called me at home on a Friday afternoon, I knew it couldn’t be good news,” she recalls.Gurchick was diagnosed with Stage II breast cancer in late November 2004; she was given two weeks to decide between a simple lumpectomy to remove the tumor or a double mastectomy, just in case the cancer had spread undetected.

“Not only was I in total shock from the diagnosis and trying to educate myself about the disease, I had to make this huge decision about whether or not to have both my breasts removed. I was like a deer in headlights, just nodding and saying ‘OK’ to everything.”Gurchick had a double mastectomy on Dec. 8, 2004. And though the other breast turned out to be cancer-free, doctors did discover cancer in her lymph nodes and prescribed chemotherapy and radiation treatment, which meant six weeks of driving to Edwards almost every day for the 15-minute procedure.

Still, the real shock for Gurchick wasn’t so much the disease, but the way her new friends from the Animal Shelter board rallied around her throughout the ordeal. “I remember waking up the day after surgery and Seth and Adam were in my hospital room, slumped in these two chairs,” she says. “Bland sat with my sister during the surgery, which went on until 11 o’clock at night. I used to call Bland my co-patient because she went through just about everything with me except for the actual surgery.”Sachson says supporting Gurchick came naturally. “The [animal shelter] capital campaign is a nonprofit, so the people involved are so dedicated that it becomes like a family in the sense that we really learn to rely on each other,” he explains. “It’s not like a paid job where money is the motivating factor. This is a really committed, dedicated group that cares not only about the larger Aspen community, but also about each other.”I don’t think any of us thought twice about caring for Anne,” he continues. “We knew she didn’t have family here so it was natural for us to take that role.”

Goldsmith agrees. “There was no defining moment when we became friends, it just evolved. I guess part of the reason we reached out to her was because she was new in town. I had just gone through the same thing with my wife a few years before when she was diagnosed with MS, so I really understood the need to have someone else to rely on. I also told her I had become pretty good at going to the doctor.”Goldsmith also jumped at the chance to turn what could have been one of the most traumatic moments for any cancer patient – shaving her head – into something positive. “I said, ‘Do you want one of your girlfriends to come over and cry all day, or do you want me to come over, shave your head – wham, bam, thank you ma’am – and go out to lunch?’ “”Adam immediately came down to my house with the shears and I started crying,” Gurchick adds. “He said, ‘Come on. Don’t cry. It is what it is.’ And that’s been my mantra ever since.”When I was diagnosed, there was a lot of pressure for me to go right back home to Austin for treatment. But then all these wonderful people who I had found an instant connection with because of our love for animals rallied around me. I was so touched. “You don’t expect that when in a new town. It just says a lot about Aspen and the people here, how they’ll rally around you and take care of you. Aspen is a very special place.”

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