Dale Cooper can still remember the first day coming home from his work as a government contractor to his family’s home in Oak Hill three years ago to the door slightly ajar and loud noises coming from inside his home.
When he opened the door slowly, he couldn’t believe what he saw: more than a dozen neighborhood children laughing and playing. He immediately looked to Monica Cooper, his wife and mother of his two sons, for an explanation.
"They were all over the place. They were in the kitchen, in the basement, in the cookie bin," he said. "I remember [Monica Cooper] looked at me and said, ‘Isn’t this great?’ I was like, ‘Are you insane?’"
From then on his home was known by the neighborhood children as "Camp Cooper," a place where they could always come to play with the two Cooper children, 14-year-old Joey, and 11-year-old Jaime, and their mother.
"Normally children aren’t drawn to adults, they want to be around other children, but not with Monica," said Tracy Pilato, a neighbor and family friend of the Coopers for six years. "She was kind of like the pied piper for the neighborhood kids."
MONICA COOPER, the loving wife, mother and "hockey mom" known to those around her as an intensely generous and caring person, died after a six-year fight against breast cancer on June 26 in the presence of family and friends at her Oak Hill home. The Northern Virginia native and sales representative was 42.
She was diagnosed with breast cancer on Feb. 9, 2001, after tests on a lump found about a year earlier in her breast came back as advanced stage-two cancer that had spread to her lymph nodes. She had a 50 percent chance of living for another few years, doctors said. The fact that no one in Monica Cooper’s family had ever been diagnosed with breast cancer before that time made the news that much more shocking, Dale Cooper said.
"We were devastated, but she handled it much better than I did, I think as a guy, you go into fix mode, like, ‘what can I do to make this better,’" he said.
The case of Monica Cooper isn’t singular.
From 2000 to 2004, 3,496 Fairfax County women have been diagnosed with breast cancer, according to information from the American Cancer Society. There have been 594 deaths directly attributable to the disease during that same time, according to the data.
BUT NEWS THAT she had the advanced form of breast cancer didn’t cause Monica Cooper to sink into depression, according to her family and friends.
"From that point forward, she was like a laser beam," said Dale Cooper, describing her dedication to both her family and to the cause of raising cancer awareness and funds to fight the disease. "She never quit, she never quit till the day she died."
Dale Cooper remembers her devotion to her family, even in the face of pain as a result of the chemotherapy treatments that Monica Cooper would endure. After one particularly tough session, Monica Cooper had been feeling sick but still managed to make it to her sons’ elementary school to volunteer in an art program.
"Monica was a huge energy powerhouse … she was the kind of person who would go to chemo [treatments] and come home and paint her children’s bedrooms," said long-time friend and former co-worker Michelle Henry. "I can say that cancer changed her life. It really brought out who she was … her kindness and her intense spirituality."
And she never let the disease control her life, Pilato added.
"Most people would meet her would never know she was sick," Pilato said. "That’s the way she was, but at the same time she was very active in spreading awareness."
AN EARLY PARTICIPANT in cancer fund-raisers, her own diagnosis led her to devote even more of her life to organizing teams for local and national fund-raising walks, raising cancer awareness and supporting those dealing with the effects of the disease, according to friends and family.
Her fund-raising efforts were met almost immediately with success, Dale Cooper said.
"People would just bend over backwards for her, they knew of her activity in the community, so when she started to look for help in fighting cancer, it was a no-brainer," he said.
It was her fight to find a cure and the way in which she lived her life faced with the realities of the disease that have left the largest impact on Henry and her family.
"Now, because of her, I do anything I can" to help in the fight against cancer, Henry said. "She was truly an inspiration for everyone around her … because she really believed that a cure was out there and that one day we would find it."
And now that his wife is gone, Dale Cooper has taken up her struggle as he continues to work part-time as a certified personal trainer for cancer survivors and participate in several cancer walks every year. The 45-year-old father cuts his hair into a Mohawk before every event to show solidarity with cancer patients who have lost their hair after undergoing chemotherapy.
THE GREATEST EXAMPLE that Monica Cooper showed in her life since being diagnosed with cancer was in her vitality, according to Floris United Methodist Church pastor Tom Berlin. An active parishioner of the church for several years, Monica regularly attended women’s Bible study groups and spoke to church and community members.
"Monica had been dealing with cancer for six and a half years and I think in that time she really lived her life to the fullest," said Berlin. "She faced life not with despair for her condition but with absolute appreciation for every day she had."
"Her example, I think, brought peace for a lot of folks as they face their own mortality."
The final years of Monica Cooper defined for Pilato not only the meaning of strength in confronting death, but also in coping with cancer.
"Most people when they hear the word cancer, they immediately think it’s a death sentence," Pilato said. "But it wasn’t for her. I have never met another person with more life than Monica Cooper."