BANGOR, Maine — Heather Gooley was eating lunch in the Eastern Maine Medical Center cafeteria Sunday when Sherry Blanchard walked in.
Blanchard shook her head, indicating her daughter Jackie, who is being treated for bone cancer, was not able to participate in Saturday’s University of Maine commencement ceremonies. Jackie was hospitalized May 3 with side effects from chemotherapy.
Gooley, a nurse at EMMC, met Jackie Blanchard of Corinth 10 years ago, when Blanchard was diagnosed with osteosarcoma. Gooley knew how much walking at graduation meant to the 21-year-old.
“I was heartbroken, because that’s all Jackie’s been working for. Her goal for the last four years was just to graduate,” Gooley said. “It’s kind of what’s gotten her through this illness the last few years.”
After a sleepless Sunday night, Gooley made sure Blanchard got her ceremony.
On Wednesday evening, nearly 70 family members, friends and supporters gathered at EMMC’s Mason Auditorium for a special graduation ceremony for Blanchard. She was accompanied by her parents, Scott and Sherry, and her younger sister Samantha.
Guests included UMaine President Paul Ferguson, former Gov. John Baldacci and Dana Humphrey, dean of UMaine’s College of Engineering.
“All we simply ask is that you enrich the lives of those around you and we know that we’ve had a return on our investment,” Ferguson said, recounting some words from Saturday’s commencement address.
“I think we’d all agree that Jackie is already well down that path of enriching the world around her,” he added.
Ferguson presented Blanchard, a 2007 graduate of Central High School in Corinth, with her UMaine civil engineering diploma. Humphrey presented her with a medallion as a distinguished member of UMaine engineering’s Francis Crowe Society. She also received a navy-blue hard hat with a UMaine logo from engineering department chair Eric Landis and she was recognized by three classmates.
Other guests included UMaine women’s basketball head coach Richard Barron and women’s basketball coaching staff, several former and current players, and Central High Principal Garry Spencer.
Blanchard served as the manager of the UMaine women’s basketball team for four years and made a lasting impression on the coaches and players.
“She just wanted to continue to help the program in any way she could and she really enjoyed it,” Barron said.
Blanchard set up equipment, ran the clock in Memorial Gym for practices and sometimes participated in drills with the team.
“Basketball’s always been my outlet,” said Blanchard, who played basketball before her diagnosis. “At first to think I had to give up playing, it was really hard, but then I came to terms with it and there were ways I could deal with it still.”
After undergoing surgery in December for a second femur removal, Blanchard was not often able to attend practices.
“I was definitely there when I could be,” said Blanchard, who has undergone six lung surgeries, three on her legs and one on her back.
“I was inspired and in awe of how much she’s accomplished after battling through this for so long,” Barron said. “She never asked for sympathy or attention, she’s just enjoyed helping the program.”
Blanchard’s uplifting personality is the first thing her friends mention. Many are shocked to find out she is battling cancer.
“Everyone just loved her from the beginning. She was such a happy person,” said former UMaine player Samantha Wheeler.
Blanchard said telling people she has cancer only seems to elicit words of sympathy she prefers not to hear.
“I don’t need that from people,” she said. “I’m in the position I’m in, I just have to deal with it. It’s not something that’s relevant to who I am as a person.”
Dr. Loren Walensky of the Dana-Farber Cancer Research Institute in Boston spoke during an emotional video and applauded Blanchard for her continued fight. He said she is “winning the war” against cancer.
Walensky put her 10-year struggle into perspective by calling it a contribution to continued improvements in diagnosing and treating osteosarcoma.
“She’s an extraordinary person,” Walensky said.
Former UMaine assistant coach Gavin Kane of Wilton values the two seasons he spent getting to know Blanchard.
“What a tremendous young lady who has endured so much throughout her early life, yet has always been a very strong and positive person through many difficult times,” said Kane, who during his two-year stint was diagnosed with bladder cancer.
Kane said he appreciated having Blanchard ask him to participate in a cancer awareness fundraiser in Old Town after he was diagnosed.
“We truly developed a great rapport and I have continued to stay in contact with her,” Kane said.
The ceremony ended with a speech by Jackie’s mother.
“Of the many things I am proud of, the one that sticks out above the rest is you never let yourself be defined by a disease,” Sherry Blanchard said.
Even though Blanchard now owns an engineering degree, she can’t get basketball out of her system.
“I love basketball and if I could be around basketball my whole life, I’d be all set. I’d be happy,” she said.
First, she must complete this round of chemotherapy.
“We’re going to get her wrapped up with this treatment by summer so she can start looking for jobs and taking care of her life’s plans,” Walensky said.