How dying Tucson woman bent cancer to her will

She became advocate for others and gained Midler's admiration
2013-05-29T00:01:00Z 2014-07-30T17:16:41Z How dying Tucson woman bent cancer to her willStephanie Innes Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star
May 29, 2013 12:01 am  • 

As she lay in her Tucson hospital bed three days before her death, Anna Greenberg, 28, received an unexpected and emotional phone call from a Hollywood icon she'd long idolized.

Bette Midler phoned Anna and sang "Wind Beneath My Wings."

In a video recording of the phone call, Anna speaks to Midler on her cellphone with labored breathing. When Midler asks how she is feeling, Anna says she is "just pushing through," and that the staff at Carondelet St. Joseph's Hospital is ensuring she's not in any pain from the rare, aggressive form of cancer overtaking her body.

"You are an angel, such a wonderful soul," Midler tells Anna. "I am so glad I had the chance to look you in the eye and tell you how much your support means to me and what a great spirit you have."

Anna had long been a fan of Midler's. Anna's family played "Wind Beneath My Wings" for her in December, when the local Jewish community held a prayer circle to pray for Anna's health. When Midler learned about Anna's grave illness that same month, she invited Anna to Los Angeles. Anna attended the movie premiere of "Parental Guidance" with Midler, who has a starring role in the film.

Anna, a 2003 Sahuaro High School graduate, discovered she had cancer after completing the two healthiest things she'd ever done in her life - losing 90 pounds, and finishing a half-marathon in October 2011.

Though she had no inkling she had cancer at the time, Anna was employed by the American Cancer Society as a community relationship manager in charge of Cochise County.

The day after the half-marathon, Anna and her fitness trainer noticed her right leg was about 2 inches bigger than her left.

Doctors diagnosed her with rhabdomyosarcoma, a cancerous tumor that occurs in the muscles attached to the bones.

Her transition from Cancer Society employee to someone using its services was practically seamless. Anna became an advocate for 20-somethings with cancer, said Denis Cournoyer, executive director of the organization in Tucson.

"She became a major spokesperson for what it's like to be diagnosed. She really used her cancer as a platform to help younger people understand that it can impact anyone at any age," Cournoyer said. "She's been continually out there, even though she was on a medical leave. She's always been promoting all that we do, talking about the services and attending our relay for life events."

A few weeks ago, Anna attended the society's Divas in the Desert gala and had a chance to meet Jennifer Hudson, who performed at the event.

"Anna has touched a lot of lives. She has a phenomenal personality, even when she hasn't felt the best," Cournoyer said.

A month after she was diagnosed, Anna had surgery to remove the lump in her leg and was scheduled for chemotherapy to make sure the cancer was gone. But a routine scan before the chemotherapy revealed cancer in her lungs. She had part of a lung removed and went through chemotherapy and radiation.

Yet even with those lifesaving treatments, her health declined. She's had at least 18 surgeries since her diagnosis, her brother, Ben Greenberg, said Tuesday, hours before Anna died.

Ben said his sister remained true to herself throughout her illness, sharing both bad and good news on Facebook and always having time for a joke.

"She's Anna," Ben said. "She's a peacemaker and a comedian."

Anna's family includes parents Bruce and Alayne Greenberg, five older brothers, four sisters-in-law, three nephews and three nieces. Anna recently named her new niece, who is Ben's daughter. They called her Emilie Rose, a name that Anna said she dreamed about. Emilie Rose also has the same Hebrew name as her aunt - Hinda Tzerel.

Anna told the Star in December that she did not have any room for "why me" since her cancer diagnosis. Instead, she was invoking what she called "Anna-tude" - looking ahead, weighing on the side of optimism and being thankful.

When Anna met Midler, she was thrilled and posted a picture of the two of them on her Facebook page.

Back then she was filled with hope of a recovery. But she did not get better.

"Since January it's been a spiral of bad events for her," Ben Greenberg said. "It is very sad to see someone with such a big heart fighting so hard."

Midler called after learning of Anna's deteriorating health.

"It's a mean world, a really mean world, and I think the idea that people are kind and that they enhance the world, they are life-enhancing, that is so important," Midler told Anna during the call. "I am just so touched that I was able to see the shining light that is around you."

Anna told Midler that meeting her in December was a dream come true.

"I am so grateful," Anna said. "You have always brought me up when I was down, with many of your different songs."

Toward the end of the eight-minute call, Midler posed a question to Anna.

"Is there anything you want from me? Is there anything I can do for you?" she says.

Anna struggles to sit up and then slowly asks her a question, pausing between words to take heavy breaths.

"Could you fulfill one of my dreams and sing, 'Wind Beneath My Wings' to me?" Anna asks.

And then Midler sings into the phone, her rich, familiar voice filling the hospital room with the song that was part of the film "Beaches."

Anna sits back in the bed and closes her eyes.

"Fly, fly, so high against the sky," Midler sings, but is unable to finish the song's last lines.

Midler and Anna cry together.

"All right my angel, big kiss," Midler says.

"Received," Anna replies.

And then she smiles.

Anna died at 5:04 p.m. Tuesday as her family surrounded her reciting the Shema, a Jewish prayer that proclaims God's unity.

"She became a major spokesperson for what it's like to be diagnosed. She really used her cancer as a platform to help younger people understand that it can impact anyone at any age."

Denis Cournoyer,

American Cancer Society executive director in Tucson

Contact reporter Stephanie Innes at sinnes@azstarnet.com or 573-4134.

Copyright 2014 Arizona Daily Star. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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