Edmonds City Council President Adrienne Fraley-Monillas had a good reason to be absent from Tuesday night’s City Council meeting. Five years after she lost nearly all of her right lung to cancer, she is in Hawaii, celebrating her official status as “cancer-free.”
Since undergoing surgery to remove the tumor in her lung in mid-September 2010, the two-term Edmonds City councilmember has undergone an array of regular CT scans, blood work and breathing tests — all with negative results. Her latest CT scan last month “is what qualified me for remission,” Fraley-Monillas said. “That means I have the same chance as anyone else of getting it [cancer] again.”
When she was diagnosed with stage 1b lung cancer, after coughing up blood during a July 2010 trip to Boston, she recalls being told she had “a 58 percent survivability rate beyond a year or two. Nationwide, on average, only 18 percent of people who have lung cancer live beyond five years,” she said.
According to the federal Centers for Disease Control, lung cancer is the leading cause of cancer death in the U.S. Smokers or former smokers are at higher risk, as are those who have been exposed to second-hand smoke. Fraley-Monillas said she had smoked for 20 years, but had quit 10 years prior to her diagnosis.
Her only worry at the time was the future of her then-teenage son, Dominick Monillas, who has Down syndrome, and ensuring that he would be cared for if something happened to her. She underwent five months of chemotherapy that left her “feeling sicker than a dog,” but still managed to make it to most council meetings, with her husband Domie often giving her a ride to the downtown Edmonds council chambers from their Lake Ballinger neighborhood home.
“I felt like I owed it to the citizens who elected me,” she said. “They expected me to do my job.”
Since her recovery, personal travel with family and friends is something that the 56-year-old Fraley-Monillas has made a priority, and she has taken several trips to Hawaii, Mexico and the Caribbean. But her absence from council during this most recent milestone celebration is the exception; she said she schedules her trips so they don’t conflict with council meetings.
Having cancer “taught me to live for today and don’t put off until tomorrow because tomorrow may never come,” she said. “I know it sounds like a line of bahooey, but it’s true. I took a long hard look at stuff and said, ‘Why am I saving all my money up, why am I waiting for this, why am I waiting for that? Live it.'”
That sense of urgency has carried over into the rest of Fraley-Monillas’ life. She said she is on a mission “to hurry up and make the world a better place.”
“I’m feeling like I need to help out here and I stretch myself really thin,” she said. “It’s not for experiences so much as what can I give others. It really is a much better way to live.”
Fraley-Monillas, who retired in 2010 from her job as an adult training program supervisor at Fircrest School, now works part-time as an organizer for the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. She’s been involved with AFSCME since her early years of employment with the State of Washington, proudly noting that she was “the longest-serving executive board member in the history of our state…for 22 years.” That role was no small feat considering that women in union leadership was a rarity, she added.
She said that her union leadership experience also helped her prepare for city council work, including this year’s role as council president. “Coming from a labor board molded me to run for office because I know what it takes to work for change,” she said.
Her 2015 city council committee appointments include the city’s Disability Board and Highway 99 Task Force, and she also serves as Edmonds’ representative on the Snohomish Health District Board. In addition, she sits on a variety of outside boards and commissions, including the Snohomish County Transportation Coalition Choices Executive Committee, the Edmonds Senior Center Board, and the Down Syndrome Community of Puget Sound Board.
“I do get myself positioned on some boards and commission that have more value and make change in the world,” she said.
Her work was recognized in September by the National Foundation for Women Legislators, which flew her to their Oklahoma City Conference as a 2015 Elected Women of Excellence Award Winner. The award was created “to identify women who have worked tirelessly, often breaking down barriers and overcoming obstacles that once seemed insurmountable, to serve their communities. These pacesetters have engendered an environment where women can now serve in public office and fight for the issues they are passionate about.”
Five years later, she continues to feel side effects from her chemotherapy treatment, including peripheral neuropathy. “I have no feeling in fingertips or on the soles of my feet,” she said. ” I stepped on a piece of glass last year and didn’t know it until I saw a blood trail.” She also has ongoing bone pain, mostly occurring in her right leg from her hip to her foot.
Because she is missing most of her right lung, climbing stairs or a steep incline leaves her out of breath. Since her lung capacity limits her ability to work out, she has been working with a nutritionist to drop some extra pounds.
Yet, she is philosophical about her cancer fight and how it has affected her life. “I have a lot of faith and that has helped me through this,” said Fraley-Monillas, a lifelong member of St. Luke’s Catholic Church in Shoreline where she was baptized and married. She also talked about “the better side” of her diagnosis and treatment: “I got to meet a lot of people, friends. You should see the people who were circled around me when I was sick — high school girlfriends, other parents of kids with disabilities, long-time friends. Everybody just came and started taking me to appointments, bringing food and feeding us.
“That was something that was really, really good. It showed the best in people, I guess. My faith just told me that it was out of hands and I’ve got to do the best I can do. If I was to have died, I would have died. We don’t have a lot of control over that.”
Halfway through her second term on the city council, Fraley-Monillas said it’s too early to say whether she will seek on a third city council term in 2018. “That’s so far off right now,” she said. “If I can continue to try to do good things…if I can still be of service and help”
Her passion remains pushing for improvements along the Edmonds stretch of Highway 99, located near her Lake Ballinger neighborhood home. “Highway 99 is my big thing,” she said. “It isn’t for me personally as it is for all of us – we have to think more global.”
“Even if I’m not on council, I’m going to fight for development on Highway 99,” she said.