Since 2007, the Buy-Low Bags and Accessories have been a tour de force at the Canadian Cancer Society’s Relay for Life in Port Alberni.
But the bright light behind the yellow-and-red-clad team is dim this year. Fran Nicholson, who led Buy-Low with her passion and drive, succumbed to a second bout of breast cancer on Jan. 27.
In July 2005, Fran, a senior cashier at Buy-Low Foods, discovered a lump in her breast. She had a biopsy, then a lumpectomy, and an ancillary dissection where some of her lymph nodes were removed. She went through chemotherapy for four months, then radiation for six weeks.
“She was considered cancer-free as soon as they took the tumour out,” said Fran’s husband, Ian Nicholson. “She had five years (clear of cancer) in September 2010.”
Fran started the Bags and Accessories in 2007, after recovering from her first bout of breast cancer.
“That was almost like her insurance policy,” Ian Nicholson said. “She really hoped nobody else would have to go through what she did.”
Fran also signed up as food and beverage co-ordinator for the relay organizing committee, and carried on with both jobs for four and a half seasons.
In November 2010, fed up with the muscle and joint pain that came with the hormonal drug therapy she was required to take, Fran quit taking her medication to see if she would feel better. She didn’t and Ian finally persuaded her to go to the doctor.
She had a bone scan done on Dec. 24 and on Dec. 27 an oncologist from Victoria called them with the bad news: cancer had returned.
“I had to go to her work and tell Fran to go home because they were concerned about the strength of her left femur,” said Ian.
She had one session of radiation at the end of December and was back in Victoria on Jan. 19. On Jan. 27, the breast cancer that had metastasized in her bones finally beat her.
Once the shock wore off, some of Fran’s colleagues at Buy-Low gathered to talk about keeping the Relay for Life team going. This year, the Buy-Low Bags and Accessories have 40 members spread over three teams—there is a limit of 15 members per team. “We’re doing it in (Fran’s) memory,” team captain Jody James said. “It was such a passion of hers that it felt weird for us not to.
“For us, it is a thank you; a goodbye. She did it all,” James said. “It took eight of us to muster up what this one lady did.”
Fran’s Buy-Low Bags and Accessories have set a goal of $10,000 for the June17-18 event this year; a modest total compared to some of the years that Fran led the team, but still manageable, James said. So far they have raised about $6,500, including $3,100 at their annual parking lot carnival.
(Their next fundraising event is a bottle drive Saturday, May 28 from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. in the Buy-Low parking lot, then a car wash on Saturday, June 4 from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. in the same place.)
The relay organizing committee is also feeling Fran’s loss. “It’s been really, really difficult,” leadership co-ordinator Melissa Bigmore said. “Our first meeting after she passed away we went to a bar and had a drink for her. We really miss her a lot.”
Bigmore and Fran joined the relay the same year—Bigmore’s motivation was her mother, Rita Cook, going through cancer treatments.
“This year really is going to be hard because we all have a motivation for relaying. But now to have lost a committee member…it’s super personal for everybody. We are dedicating this year’s relay to Fran. There will be special little things in Fran’s memory throughout the event,” Bigmore added.
For some, like Fran’s good friend Cathy Kemps, the pain of loss is too fresh. Kemps—who worked with Fran since Buy-Low first opened in 1997—has decided not to join the relay team this year.
“It’s tough,” she said. She volunteered on the Buy-Low Bags and Accessories with Fran, and plans to be at the relay to support the Nicholson family.
“She was so passionate about it,” Kemps said, adding that Fran pushed her colleagues to all get regular mammograms.
“It really did consume her.”