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Winged Victory

A North Potomac woman wrests meaning from a devastating loss



Robyn Stoller’s aversion to birds can be traced to the spring of 2009.

She was enjoying a quiet morning, sipping coffee with her husband, Alan, by the bay window in their North Potomac home. Their three kids were still asleep, so the bustle of school and work hadn’t yet taken hold, leaving them an hour to themselves.

Suddenly, the stillness was shattered by a black bird beating against the window, hitting the glass several times, like an insistent harbinger of danger.

Alan went out with a broom to send it on its way, but the bird returned over the course of several months. Finally, Alan plastered the windows with tinfoil to ward it off. Still, the bird persisted, on and off, for weeks. Then inexplicably, it disappeared.

Shortly after, Alan heard from his doctor: A lump that recently had been removed from his bicep was found to be a highly malignant tumor, and the cancer had spread to his lungs. He was dead within the year, shortly before his 47th birthday.

That’s why “I hate birds,” Robyn Stoller says.

Robyn and Alan met at a young adult retreat to Israel in 1994. She was dating someone at the time, so she tried to play matchmaker for a girlfriend who fancied Alan. But he wasn’t interested in her or any of the other girlfriends Robyn sent his way. As it turned out, he was only interested in Robyn.

They began dating after returning home—she grew up in Rockville and lived on her own in an apartment there; he was from New Jersey, but living in D.C—and they were married in Gaithersburg in 1996. She worked in marketing for Microsoft in Chevy Chase; he worked as a financial executive for several companies before rising to senior vice president at Capmark Financial Group in McLean, Va.

In 2000, he successfully battled kidney cancer. Then in 2009 he asked a plastic surgeon to remove a lump he’d always had on his left arm. That’s when they learned he had a tumor called pleomorphic rhabdomyosarcoma, and that it was advanced and deadly.

After Alan’s death, Robyn sat in the side-by-side comfy chairs in their sitting room by the bay window, alone now. She drank her morning coffee by herself, remembering the foreboding black bird. There are no bird feeders in her yard today, and there never will be. And yet her name and her mission both pay tribute to the creatures.

On March 4, 2011, Robyn started a website called CancerHawk to provide others with information about dealing with the disease. “Hawks are symbolic of messengers and protectors,” she explained in her opening blog at CancerHawk.com. “Keen vision is one of their greatest gifts, which is why they can see things that others may miss.’’

Over the past year and a half, more than 10,000 visitors have flocked to her site to learn through the lens of her experience. The process of gathering and sharing information about cancer has given Robyn a meaningful path forward. She wrote her 100th blog on the first anniversary of her husband’s death.

“The blog is not a personal diary for me,” she says. “I tell people what to look for when looking for an oncologist, what to avoid. I write very succinctly, with a little bit of sass.”

Where else can you find frank, up-front anecdotes about such topics as chemo courtship? Her May 2011 post, “In Search of Love and the Big C” (“the Big C unfortunately means cancer not climax”) includes a link to crazysexylife.com. Keeping with the bird theme, she illustrates this blog with a pair of yellow birds and three red hearts.

Robyn clearly states that she is “not a doctor…not a scientist.” But she is a medical matchmaker of sorts. Each blog, which she now posts several times a week, recommends a particular nonprofit, private business, service or experience. “Who knew that there is a service offering free flights to cancer patients? How would you know to Google that?” she asks. She lists the details in one of her blogs.

In another, she discusses a more stylish and comfortable alternative to the typical compression sleeves used to curb swelling, a possible side effect from some cancer treatments. She titles it: “Got Lymphedema? Get LympheDIVAs.” (The sleeves at www.lymphedivas.com start at $90.)

“When you’re going through cancer treatments, you don’t have the bandwidth to read a long thesis,” she says. “You want information and you want it now.”

Earlier this year, Robyn started the Peregrine Cancer Foundation—a nod to the powerful, fast-flying bird that some believe to be a patron saint of cancer patients—to raise money for cancer research.

Photo by Michael VenturaHer children have gotten involved, as well. Marissa, a 13-year-old eighth-grader at Robert Frost Middle School in Rockville, began making no-sew fleece blankets for her bat mitzvah project. She has held “blanket-making parties” and invited neighbors and dozens of friends from school and temple. Together, they’ve made and delivered more than 200 blankets in the past year to children and adults going through chemotherapy treatments. The blankets help the patients deal with the hospitals’ omnipresent chill.

They’ve also started a blanket-sharing, mother-daughter blog, www.getcozyduringchemo.com, which includes photos and anecdotes.

“We were constantly amazed by strangers who offered help to us through our journey,” Robyn says. “This is our way to pass on that kindness by warming the heart and body.”

Robyn buys the fleece fabric in bulk and cuts it into lap-size blankets with inch-long fringes on two sides. Her sons, Benjamin, 11, and Ethan, 8, help by double-knotting the fringes.

Robyn has pledged to donate one blanket to the Palmerton, Pa.-based nonprofit Layers of Love for every new Twitter follower she acquires. She already has amassed more than 1,400 followers of her CancerHawk tweets. She bills herself as a “Kick-ass cancer advocate & champion. Sharing resources and info on all things cancer.”

“I wish cancer had never come into my life. I wish my husband were still here,” Robyn says. “But if I can help someone who is going through this, then he didn’t die for nothing.”

Robyn does all her writing on a laptop in the sitting room by the bay window where she and Alan shared their morning coffee in those side-by-side chairs. A photo of her kissing her husband hangs above his seat.

“I tell my kids: ‘Life isn’t fair, life isn’t always good,’ ” she says. “ ‘You may not think it’s fair that you lost your dad, but let me tell you how lucky we are: We had him in our lives.’ ”

She often feels his presence in the home he designed in Potomac, where they moved 13 years ago, just before Marissa was born.

“This is the house he loved,” Robyn says. “He died here and he is everywhere. That’s what I love.”

Meredith Carlson Daly is a freelance writer who lives in Silver Spring.

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