Arlene Eisner lived for 33 years after her first cancer diagnosis, spending more than half her life either healthy for extended stretches or a patient again, when cancer twice paid return visits.
People knew what she faced, but often were the beneficiaries of her kindness, as Mrs. Eisner let boundless compassion be her guide. If friends were ill or their relationships were rocky, or if they simply could not cope with each day’s burdens, she was there to offer solace or encouraging words.
“She helped people in a very quiet way,” said her daughter, Morgan Eisner Doucette of North Andover. “As long as she was caring about somebody else, she was OK. She was the most unselfish person you ever met. You would ask her how she was doing, and she would say, ‘I’m OK, but more importantly, how are you?’ Everybody came before her. That was my mom.”
Mrs. Eisner died in her Sharon home Jan. 16 of pancreatic cancer, her third major bout with the illness. She was 62, and previously lived in Randolph.
“She survived by helping others,” said her husband, Alan. “She wasn’t an overly religious person, but she would always say to me, ‘God owes me nothing. I feel blessed that I’m alive. Every day is a good day.’ ”
Mrs. Eisner “had heart and soul and passion and poetry,” said George Regan, chairman of Regan Communications Group, where Alan is president.
“More than a friend, she was like an older sister,” he said, adding that as a trusted friend, Mrs. Eisner often offered a calm voice of reason when emotions ran high at certain business junctures.
“She would tell me, ‘You know, George, maybe you should rethink this,’ ” he recalled. “She was always thoughtful.”
Mrs. Eisner was no less resilient in her own darkest times. When Madeline Forsythe of North Attleborough, a friend and former neighbor, drove her to chemotherapy, Mrs. Eisner was the one who reminded them to relish the brilliance of fall foliage or the beauty of fresh snow on branches.
“I think she helped me more than I helped her on our rides to Boston,” Forsythe said. “She just found something to be happy about every day that she woke up.”
Paula Larkin of Sandwich, a longtime friend who was a classmate in college and a roommate after graduation, said Mrs. Eisner traveled to Cape Cod to be with her when Larkin was diagnosed with cancer.
“What made her so special was that everyone was special to her,” Larkin said. “She taught me to be a better person because of the way she was such a positive, selfless person with a big heart.”
Born Arlene Etta Fox, Mrs. Eisner was the younger of two daughters and grew up in Chelsea.
She was studying for a bachelor’s degree in social work at the University of Massachusetts Boston when she noticed Alan Eisner. Or rather, she noticed him noticing her.
“She called me the boy who stares,” he said. “She said she’d go home at night and say, ‘Who’s that boy who stares at me and never says a word?’ ”
They met at a party the year after she graduated.
“I remember we stayed up talking until 5 in the morning and we got breakfast at one of the old greasy spoon places,” he said. “And we’ve been together ever since.”
They married in 1975 and about four years later, he was a young reporter when she went to the hospital for what they thought would be minor surgery.
“I remember getting a call saying you should come to the hospital,” he said. “They told me over the phone it wasn’t a benign cyst; it was cancer. I remember just breaking out in a cold sweat. I said, ‘Doctor, what are we talking about here?’ He said, ‘She has a 40 percent chance of living five years.’ ”
As five years turned into 33, Mrs. Eisner endured chemotherapy, radiation, and surgeries to remove tumors. Years of good health gave way to cancer recurrences, first in the lymph nodes, then in her pancreas.
“In the 33 years, she never complained once and she devoted her whole life, really, to helping others,” Alan said.
She worked part-time in her field and lent support to her husband as he rose to be editor of the Boston Herald, then parted ways with the newspaper after an ownership change.
And she raised their daughter, whom they adopted when cancer treatments made it impossible for her to have children.
“She always told me I was the greatest gift she ever received,” Morgan said. “And she was definitely my best friend. I’d tell her everything.”
Morgan added that in part because of how illness drew her parents closer, they “represented to me a marriage that everyone strives to have.”
A service has been held for Mrs. Eisner, who in addition to her husband and daughter leaves a sister, Anita Spector of Peabody, and two grandchildren.
“While nobody wants to deal with a disease like cancer, everything has its silver lining,” Alan Eisner said.
“In a lot of marriages, people take their spouses for granted,” he said. “With her having had this illness at such a young age, we treated every day as a very important one. As a result, while our time together could have been longer, the relationship grew much stronger.”
Once when Mrs. Eisner was spending time with her daughter and grandchildren, Morgan told her: “You know, Mom, I think you were dealt an unfair hand.”
“And she said, ‘Actually, I consider myself pretty blessed because I’m here today and can see my two grandchildren,’ and that’s how she lived her life. Every day was a blessing.”
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