Eight women sat around the table drinking coffee and laughing, the sadness of a recent loss present but masked by the powerful impact of a friend with an indomitable will.

 

These women are eight out of 11 who formed a support group, affectionately dubbed the “Fearless Females,” after connecting with a Duxbury mom who was suffering from a rare, metastatic cancer.

 

Maura Cesarini was diagnosed with gastrointestinal stromal tumor (GIST) in 2002, when she was eight months pregnant with her second child, Bella Danielle. Maura had felt intense pain in her abdomen during the pregnancy and was told it was a fast growing cyst that would have to be removed. After inducing labor one month early, Maura underwent extensive surgery and was told she had a cancer for which there was no cure.

Maura received a Master’s Degree from Emerson College and worked for a number of years on cable TV. She realized she didn’t enjoy her job as much as she had hoped and decided to attend the police academy, where she met her future husband, Mike. Maura graduated from the academy in 1996 and worked as a detective with the Braintree Police.

The Cesarinis moved to Duxbury shortly after her diagnosis and Maura became involved with the Girl Scouts as a Brownie leader. It was through the Girl Scouts that Maura met Jeannie Horne, whose daughter was a Brownie. Through her kids’ swimming lessons, Jeannie reconnected with Laura Hanlon, who mentioned that Maura had cancer.

“Maura had come over for our kids’ play date and brought brownies,” Laura said. “She just sat down and started telling me about her life and her cancer.”

In September 2010, Jeannie, who had recently been diagnosed with breast cancer, received an email from Maura, asking if she wanted to get coffee and talk.

“It was really nice because having cancer is isolating and scary,” Jeannie said. “My diagnosis was nowhere as severe as many others, but it was comforting to have someone to talk to.”

Maura reached out to Ashley Stehn and Karen Paynotta, who were also undergoing treatment for breast cancer. Maura invited them to get coffee and talk about what they were going through.

Through connections around town, Maura reached out to several other women who were at various stages of treatment for breast cancer. The group began meeting at fairly regular monthly intervals, depending on the health and treatment schedule of the group members. Eventually, they dubbed themselves the “Fearless Females,” with Maura as their fearless leader.

While the other women battled through their rounds of chemotherapy and days of surgeries, Maura explored clinical trial after trial, often discovering her medical treatments were not working to combat the disease.

She never let that stop her, though.

Maura got up every morning to get her daughters, Michaella and Bella, off to school with a smile on her face, regardless of how well she felt.

“She never once said ‘I’m sorry girls, I’m just not feeling well today,’” Mike said. “If you or I had a cold, we’d be down and out for the count. She always took on every day with a smile.”

Maura met Jenn Stanton, Mike’s partner in the Brockton Police Department and became very close. Stanton said Maura’s journey was “up and down,” but she always had a positive attitude.

“She was full of hope and light and giving up never crossed her mind,” Jenn said. “Maura very rarely acted as though she had cancer; even when she was losing her hair.”

Jenn said she and Maura were “instant friends,” attending police functions and family parties together. Jenn would often drive Maura to Dana Farber for treatments and the two would talk about life and their dreams.

“She was such a part of my life and such a wonderful person that every day I remember her,” she said. “She was a wonderful, strong, kind, compassionate, beautiful and loving woman.”

Maura’s fresh perspective was important to the other women, who looked up to her for strength and courage.

Dina Galvin had been reluctant to join the group, saying she wasn’t “the sorority type.” It wasn’t until Laura emailed Dina and reminded her that “none of the women had chosen to be part of this group, but they were all a part of it and now she was, too,” that Dina realized being part of the group was something she needed.

Maura’s fresh perspective was something Dina held on to and tried to utilize in her daily life. Dina had a habit of calling Maura when she was not feeling particularly well and leaving messages, asking her to simply acknowledge the fact that she had called, no need to talk. Often, Maura would pick up the phone just to let Dina know she had heard her.

One day in December 2012, Maura picked up Dina’s phone call and started talking a mile a minute.

“She said ‘I had such a great day,’” Dina said. “ ‘I drove all the way to CVS at five miles an hour. Have you seen all the Christmas decorations?’ ”

Maura had taken her girls to run errands when she noticed the houses in Duxbury were beautifully decorated with candles, wreaths and ornaments.

“She said ‘I know my kids were in the back wondering when we would get there, but I felt like an alien had landed on our planet,’” Dina said. “She said ‘If an alien landed on our planet, they would think we lived in the most beautiful town in the world.’

“After all the places she has traveled to with her family – to Antigua and the Grand Canyon and Canada – the most beautiful place in the world to her was our small town,” Dina said. “It was like in ‘It’s A Wonderful Life’ when the angel saves George Bailey. Maura was our angel and we got to have her every day.”

Dina said that although Maura recognized she was dealt a bad hand of cards she always made of the most of it and reminded the other women to appreciate each day.

“She basically infected us with this great perspective to say, ‘You’ve got to make the most of it and enjoy it to its fullest,’” Dina said. “I am so thankful for the group. I felt so empowered after meeting her.”

Ashley credits the entire Cesarini family for fighting the battle together. Mike rode in the Pan Massachusetts Challenge and raised over $40,000 to fund Dr. Jonathan Fletcher’s cytogenetics lab at Dana Farber/Brigham and Women’s Cancer Center, which researches targeted therapies for GIST and other sarcomas.

“They are a team of true champions,” Ashley said. “She was able to fight this cancer due not only to her strength, courage and spirit but also to theirs. Their love carried her.”

Maura passed away after a ten-year battle with cancer on Jan. 5, 2013, surrounded by family. Members of the Police Honor Guard, Braintree Police Department, Brockton Police Department and the Massachusetts State Police attended the funeral to honor Maura’s years of service.

Karen said she starts her day thinking about Maura because it helps her live her life better.

“She tried to help us all understand that life is about the living, not the leaving,” she said. “I remind myself of her courage and strength and I tell myself to ‘Be A Maura.’”

Although the women only had Maura in their lives for a short period of time, they agree she had an incredibly positive impact on their lives.

“It’s hard to personify Maura in words,” Jenn said. “She was bigger than life.”

The Fearless Females plan on meeting regularly and have considered expanding and becoming more public so that local women fighting cancer know there is a place they can go for support and friendship.  They have created stickers for helmets and cars that read “Be Mauramazing.”