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October 11, 2013

SURVIVOR STORIES: Janet Hill's attitude is proof positive

UTICA — Flower-filled gardens don’t seem like quite the right place to discuss a topic as terrible as cancer. But amidst green foliage and quaint stone statues at her Utica nursery, Janet Hill speaks with surprising ease about her diagnosis.

Over time, she said, it has become easier to talk about her personal battle with breast cancer. Yet, with each word, one never gets the idea that Hill allowed the disease to change her positive outlook on life. Just as the birds chirped overhead, a spirit of hope rose in her unwavering voice.

“There was no doubt in my mind that it was going to be fine,” Hill said.  

And with that, the disease feared by so many lost a little bit of its darkness.

Hill is proof positive that a cancer diagnosis doesn’t stop a person from fully living. Five years ago during a routine mammogram, the doctor spotted a lesion. In her no-nonsense way, the Illinois native knew what needed to be done. Get the cancer out, she thought, and the sooner, the better. Less than two weeks later, surgery had been scheduled.

“Everybody said get a second opinion. Well, I could see on his screen, I could see the mass,” Hill said. “Why waste time getting a second opinion? Let’s get this out of here. And that’s what we did. We got it really quick.”

Removing the stage 1 tumor was only half the battle. Chemotherapy soon followed to ensure the cancer wouldn’t return. But there was a price to pay for the benefits of the strong medicine. Hill lost her energy. Even walking to the bathroom necessitated effort. Suddenly, the mother, wife and gardener required some assistance of her own.

That summer, Hill made a decision. She took people up on their offers to help, something she recommended that all cancer patients do. An old recliner was converted into a place of refuge as she took some time away from running the garden paradise.

Her two grown children returned home, each at a different time, to be with her during the chemo treatments. And her husband of 50-plus years, then-Courier-Journal columnist Bob Hill, always stayed close by her side.

“We just never ever believed for a second we wouldn’t make 51 or 60,” Bob Hill said.

While research may still be inconclusive on the overall effects of positive thinking on cancer patients, doctors credited much of Hill’s success to her hopeful spirit.

Throughout her life, this attitude has withstood numerous tests. An automobile struck her. An airplane in which she was a passenger crashed. Survival became common for Hill. So did the positive attitude.

“Somebody was meaning I should survive… so I think God had some other reasons to keep me going,” she said. “Go into it thinking this is going to be OK and it will be.”

To her, there’s no disputing the benefits of positive thinking. She called it a “must” alongside taking offers of help for anyone battling the disease.

“The doctor thought I came through it so well because I was physically active working here on the place all the time and I had a really positive attitude,” Hill said. “Those two things combined, she thought, brought me through it really well.”

Community support didn’t hurt either. When her husband wrote of his departure from the newspaper business, Hill was naturally included.

“Janet Hill — my wife of 46 wonderful years — was recently diagnosed with breast cancer,” Bob Hill said in his June 27, 2008, Courier-Journal column. “It was discovered very early. We’ve had excellent care and incredible support from family, friends and co-workers. Her prognosis is very good — but the cancer also gave new and sudden meaning to enjoying the rest of our lives.”

That was that. Nothing somber or tragic were in his words, but only the truth of her illness delivered in Bob Hill’s honest style.

With this announcement came well-wishes. Blankets and other gifts arrived at their old farmhouse from friends, family and even complete strangers. Two boxes have since been filled with all the cards and letters Hill received. Customers of the nursery still ask her how she’s doing.

And the answer? After five years of being cancer-free, Hill’s still doing great. Now in its 13th year, Hidden Hill Nursery continues to grow. Work around the grounds, something the girl from the country always loved, keeps her active.

Just this September, she celebrated her 70th birthday. Later this winter, the couple will journey to California and attend the Rose Bowl parade as a belated birthday present.

From the get-go, cancer never defined Hill. She wouldn’t let it. Nor would she ever allow the disease to win. Much like a Farmer’s Almanac, Bob Hill seemed to well be aware of this outcome when his wife’s journey first started.

“We’re going to be fine. We’re going to be fine,” he said to her on the day of her surgery five years ago.

“And, yep, we are,” she said.

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