Grasping the gift of the moment that is offered those with a terminal diagnosis, Janice McGrath opened the world for all she met and made life seem limitless.
For 19 years she lived with cancer, long enough to see illness as a part of her path, rather than its end.
“Janice really lived day to day and she really smiled about the day,’’ said Annie de Veer of Jamaica Plain, a friend who served with Ms. McGrath on the board of the New England Coalition for Cancer Survivorship. “She was always hopeful, but she accepted. She taught me a lot because there are days when you think you want to hang everything up, and she said no, maybe there’s more.’’
Ms. McGrath, the coalition’s executive director, who advocated for health care that addresses the needs of those with cancer that lingers for years, died Jan. 6 in the McCarthy Care Center in Sandwich. She was 54 and had bought land and built a house in Sandwich with her husband, Jerry Noones, nearly a dozen years ago.
Last year, the Massachusetts General Hospital Cancer Center honored Ms. McGrath as one of the One Hundred, “individuals and groups whose diligence and discoveries, philanthropy, and passion have helped advance the fight against cancer,’’ according to a hospital website.
“Through her I came to really believe in this notion of surviving cancer,’’ said Lesa Lessard Pearson, who succeeded Ms. McGrath as executive director of the coalition. “It’s not a death knell, it doesn’t necessarily have to be one, and that’s why working with Janice was such a joy. She lived that philosophy. It wasn’t just a motto that she would say, it was something she lived.’’
Ms. McGrath helped guide others through lessons she learned during the nearly two decades after she was diagnosed with breast cancer, years that included clinical trials for new treatments and an occasional reprieve of comparatively good health.
‘Through her I came to really believe in this notion of surviving cancer.’
“She went through a bone marrow transplant, chemo, radiation, several trials,’’ said her sister, Donna Traut of Eastham. “Some of them helped, some of them didn’t. It’s been a lot for her, it really has been. She went through it all, always with grace.’’
For Ms. McGrath, there was no sense of being singled out.
“She was in the moment and didn’t waste time, and I think she was always like this,’’ said Betsy Tyrol of Pelham, N.H., a longtime friend and former colleague in the human services field.
“I think that became much more focused for her after she was diagnosed,’’ Tyrol said. “She didn’t hesitate. She just said, ‘OK, this is what I’m going to get and I’m going to make the best of it.’ There was no bemoaning fate.’’
After spending some of her early career managing group homes for people with chronic mental illness, Ms. McGrath found a new calling when she was diagnosed with cancer. Treatments meant going to hospitals and clinics where she encountered others with the disease. She became their advocate.
Through the coalition, which she led for about a decade, she became involved with legislation and public policy. Among its other initiatives, the coalition provides tip sheet information to those with cancer, and to those providing care.
Ms. McGrath became so involved with so many who were so ill that eventually she had to pull back, albeit reluctantly.
“There were so many times she lost people she loved dearly. It was brutal, really, but she seemed to draw strength from other people and provide it back as well,’’ Tyrol said.
“I remember at one point she said she couldn’t go to any more wakes and funerals unless she knew the person well. That’s what she was trying to do, to go for everyone. But it became overwhelming.’’
Born in Boston, Ms. McGrath grew up in Roslindale, the younger of two sisters. She graduated with a bachelor’s degree from Lesley College, and from Simmons College with a master’s in business administration.
During years when governments moved the chronically mentally ill out of institutions, she worked in human service agencies in Brockton and Norwood.
“She was tall and when she drew herself up in righteous indignation, she was amazing,’’ said Tyrol, who hired Ms. McGrath to work at a Norwood agency in the mid-1980s. “She was always for the underdog. She was such an advocate.’’
Ms. McGrath met Jerry Noones while they were both working in human services. They were a couple for several years before marrying in 1999.
“Anybody who ever met her or got to know her ended up loving her,’’ he said. “She was incredibly strong. She was always there for a lot of people, if they had any kind of a crisis or a problem. She spent her lifetime helping other people. She was their rock.’’
For respite from such emotionally draining work, the couple traveled to places such as Alaska, Hawaii, and Europe, often to go hiking.
“She was absolutely in tune with nature,’’ her husband said. “That’s what made her feel grounded. I think it gave her peace, it gave her strength, and it helped her deal with all the things she was dealing with. Even though she would get caught up in the day, she would always say she would take it with her, the view of the mountains or the glaciers of Alaska.’’
Ms. McGrath, who deftly made quilts for nieces, nephews, and friends, also was known for her ability to laugh when times seemed dire, and for the laughter itself.
“She could be in the middle of something really serious and if I said something to lighten the mood, or she found something funny, she would throw her head back,’’ Pearson said. “Her eyes would light up and she would shake her head. It was genuine and it would change the whole mood.’’
A service was held in Sandwich yesterday for Ms. McGrath. In addition to her husband and sister, she leaves her mother, Violet of Roslindale, and her stepdaughter, Jessica Noones of Bridgewater.
“I think her being a survivor as long as she was gave us all a long time to appreciate what we had,’’ her sister said. “We all appreciated each moment, each event. We never really took it for granted, but I think when someone survives that long, you get lulled into a false sense of security.’’
Now, with Ms. McGrath gone, de Veer said, “I try to be really positive about the lessons I’ve learned from her and her spirit.’’
“She was like a star, she was always there shining,’’ she added. “We both lost a very dear friend of ours years ago. For Janice, as much as it was a sad loss, I think she internalized our friend as a spirit who was always with her. And I know that’s how I’m feeling about Janice.’’