After spending her life helping others, Sonoma County firefighter fights to save her own

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Think Pink

This story is part of The Press Democrat's Think Pink series for the month of October. To read more Think Pink stories, click here.

Four Things Women Should Do, According To Lori
As a firefighter who always answers the call for help, Lori Anello wants to save lives. Her recommendation is straightforward: “Get your mammograms, get your colonoscopies, do your self-exams.”
Anello has a family history of breast cancer and discovered she had the gene for ovarian cancer. In the midst of her breast cancer fight, she also had her ovaries removed. A close relative was gene tested as well and had her ovaries removed. Anello is grateful she possibly saved a life, and credits gene testing.

How To Help With Lori's Retreat
To support Anello’s efforts to elevate the spirits of women fighting cancer, the Bodega Bay Firefighters Association is selling breast cancer awareness T-shirts to help fund her upcoming retreat.
They are $20 at the Bodega Bay fire station, 510 Highway 1, by calling 707-875-3001, and at Coastal Treasures Bodega Bay, 1580 Eastshore Road.

As a longtime firefighter in Sonoma County, Lori Anello has worked tirelessly to battle blazes and save lives. Now, at 51, her most courageous campaign is a personal one: a fierce, unforgiving fight against breast cancer.

Her diagnosis early last year disrupted her family life, paid job as a professional firefighter/ engineer with the U.S. Coast Guard Training Center Petaluma and post as chief of the Two Rock Volunteer Fire Department.

Somehow, through three surgeries, chemotherapy and radiation, she’s managed to keep up with her responsibilities.

As she faces a second mastectomy and reconstructive surgery later this month, Anello is almost apologetic that she’s been on light duty at work.

Her husband, Lou Stoerzinger, said if anyone can put up a steadfast, in-your-face battle with breast cancer, it’s Anello. “She’s amazing. Honestly, I don’t know anybody tougher,” said Stoerzinger, a captain with both the Bodega Bay Fire Protection District and Two Rock Volunteer Fire Department.

“She’s still working, she still drives, she’s still taking care of our kids,” he said. “Cancer has no idea what it just did. If anyone’s going to beat it, it’s Lori.”

The couple, who live in the Two Rock area west of Petaluma, insist they couldn’t have gotten through the past 22 months without an unwavering network of love and support. “Family and coworkers that are like our second family. That’s what keeps me going,” Anello said.

Four days before Christmas 2017, Anello noticed a change in her right breast. Her nipple was inverted. She was diagnosed with stage 3 invasive ductal carcinoma a few days into 2018, confirming her suspicions. “I knew it was cancer,” she said, “but to hear it.”

Of the 15 lymph nodes removed, five were cancerous. She went through eight rounds of chemotherapy over 17 weeks that were “long and debilitating,” leaving her depressed and “just wiped out.” She underwent a mastectomy and endured 25 sessions of radiation, the final few leaving her with second-degree bubble burns so painful “they were worse than childbirth.”

Her two daughters have been constant champions. Ashley, 20, stayed with her during each chemotherapy session, some lasting four to six hours. Ayla, 6, has been a trooper, even providing welcome comic relief. She once told her mother she had “chemo ears” when she didn’t hear Ayla thank grocery shoppers who’d complimented her pretty dress.

Anello credits her parents, Tony and Carol Anello (owners of Spud Point Crab Co. in Bodega Bay), with providing steady support. Tony Anello also worked in fire services and inspired his daughter’s career path. Siblings, friends, colleagues, fellow volunteers and even strangers have been warriors right alongside her, she said.

“I had an amazing fire chief who put up with me, and amazing guys who put up with me. These guys lived it,” she said of her Coast Guard chief, Charles Funkhouser, and crew members. “They’ve been my rock.”

Anello’s colleagues donated leave time to cover the six weeks she took off for recovery, and were there during the trauma of losing her thick, curly hair. The brunette wore her hair flowing to mid-back, but cut it shoulder length during her battle. Once it began falling out, her husband and two fellow Coast Guard firefighters — Kyle Kortie and James Miller — visited the base barbershop with Anello to get their heads shaved.

Think Pink

This story is part of The Press Democrat's Think Pink series for the month of October. To read more Think Pink stories, click here.

Four Things Women Should Do, According To Lori
As a firefighter who always answers the call for help, Lori Anello wants to save lives. Her recommendation is straightforward: “Get your mammograms, get your colonoscopies, do your self-exams.”
Anello has a family history of breast cancer and discovered she had the gene for ovarian cancer. In the midst of her breast cancer fight, she also had her ovaries removed. A close relative was gene tested as well and had her ovaries removed. Anello is grateful she possibly saved a life, and credits gene testing.

How To Help With Lori's Retreat
To support Anello’s efforts to elevate the spirits of women fighting cancer, the Bodega Bay Firefighters Association is selling breast cancer awareness T-shirts to help fund her upcoming retreat.
They are $20 at the Bodega Bay fire station, 510 Highway 1, by calling 707-875-3001, and at Coastal Treasures Bodega Bay, 1580 Eastshore Road.

“They went first, so I got to laugh at them,” she said. When it was her turn, “We all cried.” She “was OK” when it was complete, but doesn’t downplay the experience. “To me, losing my hair was worse than losing my breast. That was absolutely horrible. It was so emotional. When the eyebrows would go, that was even worse. You look like a shell of yourself.”

Mid-treatment, feeling physically and emotionally defeated, she ran an errand at the Valley Ford Post Office. A man approached her, saying both he and his wife had battled cancer. “It gets better,” he assured her. They spoke for nearly 45 minutes, hugging as they left. “He brought my spirits up, a complete stranger,” Anello said.

About six weeks after her diagnosis, she reluctantly attended a class addressing ways cancer patients could use hats, scarves, makeup, wigs and clothing to boost self-esteem during treatments and recovery. She avoided others, sitting off to the side, before realizing “I was being an asshole.” It was a defining moment.

“Up until that point I was in denial,” she said. “I hadn’t come into acceptance yet. For the longest time it was hard for me to say I’m one of them.”

She also was coaxed into attending a retreat for women battling cancer. She had no interest in going until someone suggested she might be able to help others. “Not one person in this world gets it as much as a cancer patient,” Anello said. She was inspired by those attending. “Two women are close friends now. I literally love them so much. They’ve become some of my best friends.”

Anello was so moved by the experience that she’s spent the past few months — on top of everything else — securing donations and planning a similar retreat in Bodega Bay for nine women fighting cancer (a 17-year breast cancer survivor among them), and hopes to organize future retreats. She planned the upcoming three-day retreat for the week before her surgery, knowing the support will help ease her fears and anxiety.

As harrowing as her breast cancer battle has been, Anello said the support she and her husband have found provides much comfort and hope. From meals, donations, flowers, “you name it,” the support has been constant.

While being sized for a wig, eyeing an affordable $100 option, she got a call that the Bodega Bay Firefighters Association was donating $500 for a better-quality wig. A hot pink breast cancer awareness T-shirt they are selling to benefit Anello’s retreat declares, “No One Fights Alone.” Stoerzinger said his chief, Sean Grinnell, and the Bodega Bay crew provide immeasurable support.

Anello’s volunteer department also has rallied around their chief of 14 years. (Last month her title changed to battalion chief when Two Rock and a few other volunteer departments went under the administration of the Gold Ridge Fire Protection District.) Shortly after her diagnosis, a Two Rock group posed in “F--- Cancer” T-shirts for a Facebook post asking for well wishes for Anello. More than 700 people responded, and Anello still reads through the many comments. “It inspires me and gets me strong again.”

People in the medical community have been supportive as well. “Everybody complains about the health care industry, but Sutter was amazing,” Anello said. Her registered nurse navigator, Elizabeth Wheless, was particularly helpful guiding Anello and Stoerzinger through an overwhelming maze of information.

“Just to have that advocate there. You’re already stressed out enough,” Anello said. Emotional support was equally important. “She sat and cried with us.” Anello also praises her physical therapist, Teri Burk of Body of Knowledge in Petaluma, for her skills and compassion. “I don’t think I could have gotten through what I did without her.”

Extending kindness goes a long way as well. When Anello gave her own hat to a fellow chemotherapy patient who’d admired its lavender hue and oversized flower, “It was like I gave her a million dollars.”

Once she recovers, Anello hopes to help out fellow breast cancer patients. She wants to make baskets of products she’s found helpful; hopes to fundraise for retreats; and would like to set up a buddy system so no one goes through chemotherapy sessions alone. She jokes that she wants to write a book about what to say — and not say — to people battling cancer.

“I’ve heard the worse f---ing things you can imagine,” she said. The last thing a cancer patient wants to hear is about people who’ve died. They need to hear positive stuff. They already know the bad stuff.”

Through the experience, “You realize what’s important. I don’t sweat the small s--t anymore.”

She allows herself to cry, keeps her sense of humor, and stays focused on all the love and support surrounding her. Anello has many joys to distract her from her diagnosis. Among them, her 1-year-old granddaughter, Lylah, and the long-anticipated construction of a new Two Rock firehouse.

“I look at that building being built, and I’m alive to see my granddaughter,” she said. “That’s a celebration.”

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