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Pasco's Marsha Starkey fights cancer with faith and an uplifting blog

Mac meets me at the door and gently licks my hand.

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It's true what they say: You can tell a lot about people by their dogs. And Mac is a sweetheart. The 12-year-old Westie has the run of the large house in Odessa and his choice of several well-chewed toys. He hops onto the couch so Jay B. and Marsha Starkey can scratch behind his ears.

It's such a comfortable moment. The Starkeys are arguably the best known couple in Pasco County, successful ranchers, philanthropists and environmental stewards. He's a gifted musician and chairman of the Florida Orchestra's board of directors. They had a front row seat to the transformation of Pasco's boondocks and did much more than their fair share to preserve them.

But on this glorious afternoon, as we sit by giant windows and watch hawks circling the trees that line Lake Parker, Marsha wants me to see something else.

She pulls off her wig.

"Bald as a baby,'' she says, flashing her trademark broad smile.

She says tomorrow she may wear the red one when she goes for another session of chemotherapy. It makes her feel daring. Her humor makes her friends and family feel better. Her courage inspires.

Marsha Starkey has invasive lobular breast cancer. Word spread quickly, in part because she signed up on www.CarePages.com, a Web site that allows patients to post journals and receive messages. Her daughter, Laura, set it up on March 10, the day before Marsha had a mastectomy at Morton Plant Hospital in Clearwater.

Laura, who is director of conservation at the Starkey Ranch, knew there would be a flood of well-wishers. CarePages would protect Marsha — from herself.

"Being the social butterfly that my mom is,'' Laura wrote on the site, "she could spend 27 hours per day talking on the phone or visiting with friends about this, and loving it, but it is also exhausting and overwhelming at the same time, as I know you understand. So the print word is greatly appreciated.''

She described the tenderness of her dad, a tall, rugged cattleman who at age 73 remains strong and active. He "slept'' on a too-small cot beside his wife in the hospital. He kept her safe.

On March 22, Laura posted an update. Dr. Peter Blumencranz reported 9 of 35 lymph nodes removed during surgery contained cancer. She would need six rounds of chemo through July 30, followed by radiation five days a week for six weeks.

Marsha showed up with her laptop for her first chemo session at Florida Cancer Institute-New Hope and while sitting in a recliner, she filed this blog:

"Well, optimist that I am and not wanting to be bored or waste time, I brought enough 'projects,' laptop, DVD, quilt, pillow, snack and water to stay a month and so far all is okay. It was misleading when we were told this would take 3 to 3 1/2 hours — they neglected to say that was after blood test, doctor exam, and some waiting room time. But this is a very pleasant facility, everyone is friendly, smiley, and I am a happy camper with my campsite set up around me. So here I sit in a comfortable recliner, a bright room with a lot of windows, my lovely quilt around my legs, poison dripping into my body, and messages on my computer reminding me that I am loved by so many and my Lord Jesus Christ is way stronger than the dreadful C of Cancer. So thank you all for your love and care. You are each very precious to me. Love, love, love — Marsha.''

In later blogs, Marsha shared only brief mentions of side effects and the horror of watching her hair fall out in handfuls. "After crying for a couple of hours,'' she went to Stylemakers in Longleaf, got the rest of her head shaved and picked out some wigs. "You just may not recognize the new Marsha!'' She spent more time in the blog raving about Jay B, who had just flown to Fredonia, N.Y., to be guest solo saxophonist at the State University of New York.

For 47 years (their anniversary was Friday), Marsha has been Jay B's cheerleader. The Starkey men have always been in the forefront, starting with the legendary patriarch who in 1937 traded 665 acres in Largo for 16,000 acres of western Pasco pasture. His son studied animal husbandry at the University of Florida and went on to run the cattle operation at the ranch.

On weekends, young Jay B. would head back to the city where he grew up (Largo High, Class of 1953). He met Marsha (St. Petersburg High, Class of 1955) at a party. She was a home economics grad from the University of Alabama, a sorority sister, a debutante, extrovert. They still joke about her famous opening line to the quiet rancher, soft-spoken, introvert.

"Oh, so you're the great Jay B. Starkey.''

Love had to be strong for the city girl to move to the sticks. By coincidence, the girl who had lived across the street from Marsha in St. Pete had done the same a few years earlier. Dorothy Mitchell, who went on to a long career in public service, lives about five miles west of the Starkey ranch. "I remember when she came and told my parents she was going to marry a cowboy,'' Marsha said.

When she did the same, Marsha had no idea what she was getting into. "I knew nothing about cattle,'' she said. "I asked the dumbest questions.''

They lived in a 1,200-square-foot house, which was fine until the babies started coming. They had four in six years: Trey, Sarah, Laura and then Frank. When Frank came along, his folks placed his crib in a hallway and the other three children shared a room. The Starkeys added onto the ranch house several times over the years. Twenty years ago, Marsha and Jay B. moved to their current home a few miles away. The ranch remains their business center. They donated much of their land for public conservation, including what is now the 13,000-acre Starkey Wilderness Park. In time, the original ranch will likely be a planned community guided by the Starkey family. The projects have been slowed by the dismal economy.

Though Marsha says she has never felt overshadowed, her family was thrilled last year when the Girl Scouts of West Central Florida recognized her as a Woman of Distinction. The group honored her community service over 45 years, including as a board member at Morton Plant North Bay Hospital. Recently the Starkeys pledged $1 million for the hospital's expansion. In 2005, the Starkeys contributed $1 million to the Florida Orchestra's endowment.

But now the focus is on the future. Marsha's cancer has been contained, and she expects to be cured in time to attend her annual quilting retreat in January in North Carolina with 21 other women, including some breast cancer survivors.

Marsha has found so many others in the same situation since her diagnosis, and they share their stories of hope. "They describe themselves by the number of years they've been clean,'' Marsha says. "I'm 13 years. I'm 7 years. I'm 10.''

Marsha's favorite room in her house is where she makes quilts. Her friends gave her a special one, and each knot represents a prayer for her. Baskets hold hundreds of cards from well-wishers. And on the CarePages Web site, 99 visitors have signed on and left 264 messages.

"The outpouring of concern has been overwhelming,'' says Jay B.

No doubt. But from this point of view, hardly surprising.

Pasco's Marsha Starkey fights cancer with faith and an uplifting blog 06/20/09 [Last modified: Saturday, June 20, 2009 12:42pm]

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