Ann Crowley Murray Paige fought cancer with everything she had, including her skills as a journalist, her ferocious commitment to being present for her family and a determination to stay positive. Her tenacity convinced a wide network of friends and admirers from Maine to California that if anyone could survive metastatic breast cancer in the lungs, brain and liver, it would be Ann.
The former WCSH-TV news reporter and anchor died Sunday in Davis, Calif., where she had been living with her husband, Sandy, and their children, Christopher, 14, and Ellie, 11, since 2009. She was 48.
It had been exactly 10 years and one day since she was first diagnosed with breast cancer, a day she jokingly called her “cancer-versary.” In those years, she became a filmmaker, an author and a co-founder of Project Pink, a nonprofit advocacy group for cancer patients.
On March 9, she posted for the last time on Facebook – Paige was a social media natural and a deft and unfailingly honest blogger – that her doctors had done all they could.
“You know what I say,” she wrote, over the top of a photo of her slim wrist, encircled with a wristband emblazoned with the words “stupid cancer” and a hand giving the middle finger.
“There was just not even an inkling of concession on Ann’s part to this thing, all the way to the last minute,” said her brother-in-law, Stephen Paige of Tucson, Ariz., who drove through the night to Davis with his wife, Susann, to try to see Ann one last time.
Her salty language and searing, no-nonsense wit preceded her illness, and she frequently deployed them during her treatment. She sang on the way to chemotherapy, a trip she endured all too often in her last years. Other things that helped, or seemed to help: yoga, eating vegan (unless there was a whoopie pie around), wearing silly shoes to chemotherapy, a certain brand of spring water that she drank during treatments, and anticipating “island time” with her family during annual summer visits to Harpswell.
Because Paige was so blunt about what she loathed (cancer) and what she loved (family, friends, shoes, her poodle Liza), she engendered an equally passionate response, in her new hometown and in Maine, where she left so many friends. In her writing and her life, she practiced what longtime family friend Katie Pulsifer Martin called a kind of “authentic intimacy.”
“Even though she lived on the other side of the country, it felt like she was next door all the time,” Martin said. “There was this intimacy about the way she exposed herself to the world that made you feel she was sitting right next to you all the time, whether she was getting a chemotherapy treatment or sitting on the rocks in Casco Bay.”
What she asked in return was that her friends believe in her. In October 2013, she wrote on her blog at www.projectpinkdiary.com, “Even if you go the worst case scenario and I don’t make it, what’s the harm in believing in me now?” And so her friends believed.
The odds, after all, were not that much against her. About 233,000 women are diagnosed with breast cancer every year. Nearly 40,000 die annually, according to the American Cancer Society. Risk factors vary widely, but 8 in 10 people who have any stage of breast cancer live a decade or more beyond diagnosis.
Odds are better for those who make it five years past their original diagnosis without the cancer coming back – and Paige had made it there, plus a few months, before getting her second, bleak prognosis.
“Is it all about the statistics?” she wondered on her blog. “Are the journals of Scientific blah-blah the end point in deciding Ann Murray Paige’s fate?”
Friends countered fearsome news and daunting treatments by sending cases of Wicked Whoopie pies, dozens of them. They sent prayer flags. Former WMTW-TV news reporter Christine Young Pertel, an old rival from her Maine television news days, once sent her water from the Sanctuary of Our Lady of Lourdes in France.
And they tried to help her fulfill her goals. Stephen Paige rode 110 miles on his bike in January to raise money to distribute copies of her book, “Pink Tips: Breast Cancer Advice From Someone Who’s Been There,” to cancer centers. She’d written it because she was appalled at the lack of resources for people in her situation. And like the true newswoman she was, she wanted those facts fast.
“Her description was, ‘It’s the CliffsNotes of breast cancer,’ ” Stephen Paige said. “She wanted to make it easier for those coming behind her.”
FIERCELY JOYFUL, FUNNY, POSITIVE
Here in Maine, her former colleagues remembered her Monday as someone whose courage inspired them to find joy and laughter, even during hard times.
“She was a model of squeezing every bit of joy from every moment of life,” said WCSH anchor Kathleen Shannon, who had been fast friends with Paige since 1995, when Paige was the station’s Lewiston-Auburn reporter and occasional anchor. “She was like that long before she was diagnosed with cancer the first time.
“I think the difficulty that we are all having is that we got used to her beating it,” Shannon said. “When I saw her last, in August, we spent a good couple of hours. And when I was leaving, she said to me, with these fierce eyes – she was a fierce person, fierce with her love and with her frustration – she looked right at me and said, ‘I got this.’ ”
It was the same tenacity that Shannon had witnessed in Paige as a reporter, particularly in reporting on migrant-worker issues at the DeCoster egg farms in the late 1990s.
“She was fluent in Spanish and so she was able to speak with them,” Shannon said. “But she also really listened. I think her reporting brought about justice and was the basis for changes at the farm and well beyond for migrant workers around the state.”
“I was utterly humbled,” Pertel said, recalling the time she arrived to cover a story at DeCoster and found her competition – Paige – conducting an interview in impeccable Spanish. “She was so beautiful and so nice and so perfect in every way. And that was the thing; it was hard to compete with her when she was so nice.”
But nice with a wicked sense of humor, the kind that meant friends knew it was OK – no, crucial – to joke even in the darkest times. Ted Varipatis, WCSH’s assignment editor and Paige’s producer when she was the Lewiston-Auburn reporter, posted on her Facebook page during last week’s snowstorm, asking her to report for Storm Center duty in Lewiston, where she worked until leaving to give birth to Christopher in 1999.
“She would stare cancer in the face and laugh at it and mock it and taunt it almost,” Varipatis said. “And she would do it with a smile and great dignity. When you saw how she handled something like that, it inspired you. You said to yourself, ‘If Ann could do this, then I certainly ought to be able to step up and deal with any challenge in my life.’ She inspired you to do better.”
She even inspired her own doctor, Melissa William.
“Her primary oncologist came over yesterday and said that she could remember the day and the time slot and what she was wearing the first time she met Ann,” said Stephen Paige. “She said she went home and told her husband, ‘This lady is a movie star, there is nobody like her in terms of how she was going to be dealing with cancer.’ ”
The doctor had never seen a patient, she told the family, who took positivity as far as Paige did.
STORY PUBLICIZED TO HELP OTHERS
A native of Shrewsbury, Mass., Paige earned an undergraduate degree from Boston College and a television degree from Emerson College. After leaving WCSH, she made documentary films for the Maine Public Broadcasting Network and documented her cancer experience in “The Breast Cancer Diaries,” directed by a sister-in-law, Linda Pattillo.
Paige produced and co-wrote the documentary, which has been televised in 30 countries, screened at 20 film festivals, streamed on AOL’s home page and translated into two languages. (Watch an extended trailer at vimeo.com/6857635) Pattillo got the idea for the film when Paige visited after her diagnosis, clutching her reporter’s notebook and trying to make sense of her experience. Pattillo told her to start recording her thoughts on video.
“When I saw the first tape of her diaries, I said, ‘Oh, this is a movie,’ ” Pattillo said. “She made it that way; it was raw and true.” And again, laced with humor, like the scene in which Paige flashes her breasts at a man in the hospital before going in for a double mastectomy.
Paige also shared her story on MaineToday Media’s RaisingMaine.com and in Raising Maine magazine.
She learned in October 2010 that the cancer had spread to her lungs, nearly six years after her original diagnosis, but she refused to slow down. She performed her one-woman show, “Pink Out,” to sold-out crowds and published “Pink Tips” in 2011.
By February 2013, the cancer was in her liver and brain, but she continued to blog and scheduled book speaking engagements. She was among Massachusetts General Hospital Cancer Center’s “100” honorees in 2013, showing up in $20 shoes from T.J. Maxx and a $600 blonde wig, which she pulled off at the end of a powerful speech to show off a perfect skull, left bald by repeated chemotherapy. The crowd went wild, which is what tended to happen with Ann Murray Paige.
“I learned so much about how to live life and to be my own person from Ann,” said Shannon, the WCSH anchor. “Her gift was to help us realize our own wisdom as well as to share hers.”
Services will be held Saturday in Davis, Calif. In lieu of flowers, the family asks that donations be made to Project Pink or The Jackson Laboratory in Paige’s name.
Mary Pols can be contacted at 791-6456 or at: