March 13, 2014

Music school 'family' pulls together for Foley

Gretchen Foley with 'Team Gretchen' supporters.
Courtesy photo

Courtesy photo
Gretchen Foley (first row, fifth from left) with 'Team Gretchen' supporters.

The Westbrook Music Building in the Glenn Korff School of Music is known for its closeness. The practice rooms are filled to the brim throughout the day – morning and night. Students sit, study and converse on the floor or benches all times of the day too. It’s like a tight-knit family.

And when one of them within the building/school/family is going through something everyone pulls together.

On the last day of classes last fall, Associate Professor of Music Theory Gretchen Foley found out some difficult news, on a Friday the 13th. She was diagnosed with breast cancer.

“It wasn’t that I felt a lump; my breast just looked odd – misshapen,” she said. “I went in for the mammogram – which you should do every year. I mentioned the suspicion I had, and they decided right then and there in the late afternoon to do an ultrasound; the ultrasound revealed something so they decided to do a biopsy. They did one right then and there. It was bang, bang, bang one procedure right after the other. The staff all stayed late. There was this buzz that this was the real thing. When the radiologist came in later I couldn’t even say the word I just said, ‘Do you think it could be…’ and she looked at me straight in the eye and nodded.”

Before Foley left the clinic, the radiologist gave her names of other doctors who worked with cancer patients.

“We first met with the surgeon and we all agreed that a double mastectomy would be my best course of action,” she said. “But then we met with the oncologist, who arranged for a wide variety of tests. Once the interminable wait for results was over our plan of action was 180 degrees different. Although at first we thought surgery right away, my oncologist advised chemotherapy first. My tumor is moderate in size, so they want to shrink it first before surgery, as well as ‘zap’ any loose cancer cells before they move out of the breast.”

Foley has finished the last of four bi-weekly rounds of chemotherapy treatment. Next week she starts the first of 12 rounds of a different chemotherapy drug administered weekly. After a doctor-ordered month of recuperation, she will undergo surgery, but probably not until late July or early August.

“Our best friends and family knew right away,” she said. “I even had my own entourage go with me to my doctor appointments. I decided I didn’t want to keep it a secret or have anyone else keep it a secret. But you also don’t go and knock on someone’s door and say, ‘Hey, guess what? I’ve got some news.’ I told (Glenn Korff School of Music Director) John Richmond first. Then, bit-by-bit I shared my news with more of the faculty. When I met with my classes for their first class this term, I gave them the news at the end of class. At that time I had fully intended on working full-time for the whole semester. Around the fourth week of treatment, ‘chemo brain’ kicked in with a vengeance and thus my plans had to change again.”

Her son, Mike, is a senior music education major in the school of music.

“The context I was told in, I have a very structured Sunday morning routine – I eat an obscene amount of cinnamon rolls then I fall asleep on the couch,” Mike Foley said. “Mom and dad woke me up from the cinnamon roll induced stupor, like I was being nagged about something. Then halfway through I realized we were talking about breast cancer and that things are going to be moving quickly now. It’s a shock and I was wondering if I was still asleep? My reaction was similar to the way my dad reacted, trying to proceed calmly right now and emotionally process it all (after our talk). It was less to have my moment with it than to be more supportive and to think of opportunities to create a support system. What can we do about it? It is what it is. It took a couple of days for me to fully process it.”

After living outside the home since coming to UNL, Mike Foley moved back in during fall 2013. Gretchen Foley said it’s funny how things like this always happen for a reason, although we may not now why until much later. It’s ended up being very convenient because it’s made it easier for Mike to help out whenever he can.

“Positive attitude has been shown to make a big difference,” she said. “As weird as our days are, we’ve been trying to keep them as normal possible (except on the days I don’t feel well).”

Mike Foley told most of his friends about the same time Gretchen Foley told her classes and many people around the Glenn Korff School of Music came to him for updates. Then he had an idea – a t-shirt as a show of support.

“Everyone loves t-shirts,” he said. “It’s a nice sense of community. One of the things I love about living in Nebraska is that sense of community, like how we all rally behind the Huskers. Out of the blue I thought, Westbrook itself has that sense of community in it. It just made so much sense.

“I went off to a coffee shop and had fun designing the t-shirt. I wanted it to show support. It fell together in an organic way. (The t-shirt idea and words) came from Mean Girls. It is a very, very cult movie. Almost everyone from my generation has seen it. Every other line is a famous quote. One of the girls (in the movie) is named Gretchen. The characters have all of these rules for their behavior and one of them is, ‘On Wednesdays, we wear pink.’”

And then the idea grew into action.

“I wanted to show Mom that there was a base of support around her and then I thought, ‘On Wednesdays we wear pink’ and breast cancer and perfect idea,” Mike Foley said. “The shirt made itself from the references. It came together really easy and made sense to do. We’ve raised lots of money for medical bills because the web site (Booster) also accepts donations. It just took off! Now she is getting messages from people on Facebook from all over the world offering support.”

Gretchen Foley said: “It’s even branching out to my professional colleagues. So many people have seen these t-shirts and they tell me, ‘I didn’t know anything about it and I would have gotten one. Where do I get one?’ My mother was outraged! So was my best friend.”

So the decision was made to open up a second round for the t-shirts. They can be purchased until March 22 at

“The school of music has been so great and so helpful,” she said. “I saw people I didn’t even know wearing the pink. That was really shocking to me and lovely. I owe so much to my son, students and colleagues for building this wonderful show of support. It means the world to me.”

Gretchen Foley