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Tell Me Your Story: Spirit overcomes shock of breast cancer

October 15, 2011

Special to the Standard

NORTH KINGSTOWN – The atmosphere in the Aloxi salon on Boston Neck Road is typically raucous. Women – and some brave men – will understand what I mean.
The three beauty professionals who are fluffing, buffing, curling, coloring and snipping are also joking, teasing and sharing the kind of banter only found in such an environment where secrets are shared and news travels faster than CNN.
One regular male customer, who appears to enjoy the experience, is being gently nagged to sit still, be quiet and stop chewing gum while the electric clippers are humming around his ears.
After lamely insisting he can’t hear a thing, he proclaims that the woman tending him “would love to be married to me!”
Her instant response: “You wish!”
His hearing is suddenly restored.
The upbeat, sunny atmosphere of this enclave is a tribute to its owner, Gail McKenna, who has suffered much that she bravely masks. She is unbowed and undefeated by the breast cancer diagnosed in October 2009, despite the fact that she’s in the middle of a five-year course of Tamoxifen, a powerful drug thought to prevent recurrence of the disease.
“I’m very tired,” she says of the medication’s effect. “It stops all the estrogen; my skin is thinner. The only good thing about Tamoxifen is it builds the bones.”
A South Attleboro native, Gail graduated from Cumberland High School before training at a Pawtucket school of cosmetology. She’s been in business at Aloxi for 16 years.
She was totally blindsided by breast cancer.
“I had a mammogram and they barely saw a little shadow,” she recalls. “I couldn’t even feel it but they thought there was something there. I was getting more scared every second, lying there with the radiologist unable to feel or see anything. Another doctor came and in, after 20 minutes, they found it.”
Gail underwent a needle biopsy, then went home and waited by the phone.
“They called to say it was cancerous. The treatment happened very quickly. South County Hospital has a breast cancer coordinator, Marie McCormick, and this woman put everything together for me. After the diagnosis, Dr. [Umberto] Capuano was my surgeon.
“I went from being perfectly healthy to talking with a man I didn’t know about taking my breast off. I was petrified; my life was put on hold.”
She received a second opinion at Rhode Island Hospital where the diagnosis was confirmed.
Meanwhile, McCormick had assured her that Capuano is known for “getting the margins” – all the tissue surrounding a tumor – during breast surgery.
“Dr. Capuano was highly recommended; I wanted the best I could find,” Gail says simply.
After her diagnosis at the beginning of October, she had surgery later in the month.
“By the end I knew I was okay. He did a lumpectomy and took three nodes. He called and left a message: ‘I have great news. I got all the margins, the nodes are okay. It couldn’t get better. See you Monday.’
“I played it over and over.”
Gail also had five weeks of radiation therapy, five days a week, before embarking on the Tamoxifen protocol.
The response to her situation mirrored the positive, cheery vibe of Gail’s shop.
“I have a wonderfully supportive husband, a girlfriend who was with me every step of the way, great friends, family, customers. One of my customers brought me a beautiful rosary made of blue glass beads.”
Still, the diagnosis itself continues to shock her.
“I said to the doctor ‘This has really taken me by surprise. It’s the last disease I thought I’d get.’ He looked at me and said, ‘Do you remember DDT?’”
“There’s poison in the food, the grass, the air. My warning is: Don’t be surprised; it’s all around us. People need to do what they can” to live as organically as possible.
Gail also tells women to practice preventive medicine and get a mammogram
“I consider myself blessed,” she says. “So far, I’ve had great results.”

Martha Smith is an award-winning journalist and author. Retired, she is an independent contractor for SRIN and can be reached at

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