Cancer: Tough talk for doctors, patients

Laura Tyrrell, breast cancer survivor and American Cancer Society volunteer advocate, says doctors/patients need more honest, candid, compassionate conversations.
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Laura Tyrrell, breast cancer survivor and American Cancer Society volunteer advocate, says doctors/patients need more honest, candid, compassionate conversations.
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Local Obituaries

Granite Bay cancer survivor and advocate battled to the end for a cure

By Claudia Buck

cbuck@sacbee.com

April 29, 2017 04:04 PM

Right to the end, Laura Tyrrell never stopped fighting cancer, both as a patient and as an advocate for a cure.

Earlier this month, she met with state lawmakers in the Capitol, urging their support for two cancer-related bills. That same day, she was awarded the Capitol Dome, the highest statewide award from the American Cancer Society’s advocacy arm.

Two weeks later, on April 18, Tyrrell died unexpectedly at home in Granite Bay. She was 64.

“She was one unusual woman who was a role model not only for fighting breast cancer but any disease,” said Carol Garcia, co-founder of the Placer Breast Cancer Foundation, a nonprofit that supports cancer research at UC Davis. “She was a role model to fight for your life, do all you can up to the very end.”

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First diagnosed with breast cancer 17 years ago, Tyrrell turned her illness into a cause, working unpaid as a gracious but tenacious fighter on behalf of the American Cancer Society, including trips to Sacramento and Washington, D.C., where she helped urge lawmakers to support cancer-related bills and research funding.

“She was extraordinarily special,” said Jim Knox, vice president of government relations in Sacramento for the American Cancer Society’s Cancer Action Network, the group’s public policy arm. He called Tyrrell one of “the most courageous, tenacious, eloquent advocates I’ve ever known.”

That tenacity was perhaps best exemplified in September 2015, during the American Cancer Society’s annual lobbying day in Washington, D.C.

After years of unsuccessful efforts, the Sacramento group had finally managed to get a face-to-face meeting with Republican Congressman Tom McClintock of Elk Grove, who was considered a tough sell on cancer research funding. Tyrrell was scheduled to meet with him, but the night before their meeting she became ill and was hospitalized for an emergency medical procedure.

The next morning, determined to make her appointment, Tyrrell got dressed in the hospital, hailed a cab and got herself to the Capitol in time for her 2 p.m. interview.

“Nothing was going to keep her from making her case directly to McClintock. That just epitomizes her absolute commitment and dedication,” Knox said.

Those who knew her marveled at her ability to set aside pain and discomfort during years of almost continual treatments for breast, ovarian and peritoneal cancers while focusing on her advocacy efforts.

She spoke to numerous groups, both local and statewide, about cancer research and patient issues. She also made five lobbying trips to Washington, D.C., as an unpaid volunteer with the Cancer Action Network.

“She was one of our most effective storytellers, reflecting the cancer experience and persuading politicians,” said Stephanie Winn McCorkle, an associate director in the network’s Sacramento office. “She was extremely persuasive. Very few politicians could say no to her. She shaped cancer policy in California and on the Hill, no doubt about it.”

In 2014, Tyrrell was also instrumental in helping raise $1.5 million for the Placer Breast Cancer Foundation. “She was a joy to be around. She had such a positive spirit about her,” said Garcia, the foundation’s co-founder. Tyrrell was also detailed and driven, unafraid to continue calling donors to honor their pledge commitments, she said.

Active and athletic, the former teacher was a stay-at-home mom of three teenagers when she got her first cancer diagnosis in 2000. In a 2016 interview with the Bee, Tyrrell recalled the terrifying loneliness she felt when, at home alone, she got a phone call from a doctor’s office that casually dropped the devastating news of her breast cancer diagnosis.

In subsequent years, she spoke often about the need for physicians and patients to better communicate and have compassionate, candid conversations to address the fears that many cancer patients face.

“You need to be your own advocate. You should walk out of your doctor’s office feeling you’ve been heard, cared for and listened to,” said Tyrrell last year, after speaking at a cancer society conference.

Dr. Ernie Bodai, her breast cancer oncologist, remembers her well, as a patient and friend. “Laura was a vibrant woman who faced many challenges in the cancer realm and in the war against this dreadful disease,” he said in an email. “Despite multiple diagnoses, she accepted each with cheer and regarded her diagnoses as a call to action. She fought tirelessly to find a cure.”

“Laura’s passion was she felt she could share her cancer journey and make a difference,” said her husband, a Sacramento-based partner with Kidder Matthews, a commercial real estate company. He said his wife was the family’s rock during tough times and always took time to listen, which “endeared her to so many people.”

Born in Portland, Ore., Tyrrell graduated from the University of Southern California, where she was on the ski team. After earning a master’s degree from Stanford, she started working in Los Altos schools teaching swimming, volleyball and tennis. When Tyrrell and her husband started their family, they decided to relocate to Granite Bay.

In addition to her husband, she is survived by the couple’s three children – Katie Tyrrell Malone, Jeff Tyrrell and James Tyrrell – and two grandchildren.

A supporter of Granite Bay High School’s athletic programs, she was also a member of Destiny Christian Church, where she taught women’s bible studies.

A celebration of life service will be held at the church, 6900 Destiny Drive in Rocklin, at 11 a.m. on May 24. In lieu of flowers, the family is requesting contributions to the American Cancer Society, 1545 River Park Drive, Suite 100, Sacramento 95815.

Claudia Buck: 916-321-1968, @Claudia_Buck