Gail King, of Dix Hills, was diagnosed with breast cancer at age 25. Now a retired teacher, she travels the country in a crown and gown spreading messages of hope as Ms. Senior America.
It was the mid-1970s. King was a pretty, young teacher in the Sachem school district. She was taking graduate courses at Stony Brook University and about to embark on a successful career in education when her life took a dramatic turn.
Sitting in her English course one day, her professor began to draw a strange shape on the blackboard. It was a breast. Her professor went on to explain what breast cancer was and told the class about self examinations.
“Here I was in English class and my professor is drawing a breast on the board,” King said. Slightly embarrassed, but intrigued, King listened to her professor, went home and did her first self examination. She found a lump.
After her finding, she went to several doctors to confirm what she had felt, but was told again and again, that it could not be breast cancer because her age didn’t fit the profile. “These were the days of no cell phones or computers. They didn't have MRIs or mammographies.”
King was rapidly losing weight and was adamant that she knew her body better than any one else. She had to be her own advocate. Eventually, she convinced a doctor to examine her. That doctor found not one lump, but two. The second was cancerous. She was told she had less than a 30 percent chance of survival and her breast would have to be removed. “I have my badge of courage scar,” she said.
Despite the odds, King was determined to beat the disease. With a golden glove boxer as a father, King’s fighting spirit was in her nature. “He said I was about to enter the fight of my life and he was right.” She wouldn’t let cancer defeat her. “At 25 years old, I couldn’t think about death,” she said.
Taking a page out of a course she took on alpha mind control, she began to look at everything in her life as positive. “I would go in with everything positive and any negative thought I had, I would think ‘cancel, cancel.’ I visualized the good around me and surrounded myself with a lot of humor,” she said. “I didn’t want any tears. I cried the first day. After that, I went with hope.”
In the hospital, while hooked up to machines, King spent her days in the children’s section, giving flowers to the kids. "They used to think I was a princess in a white gown,” she said laughing. Those memories were later recorded in the book, “Cancer with Joy.”
She went through chemotherapy and won her fight against cancer. She even became pregnant a year after her diagnosis and despite doctors’ worries, she became her own best advocate once again. “I just had to have my baby,” she said.
A breast cancer survivor, King went back to teaching with a new attitude that she would pass on to every one of her students; “Never give up,” she says.
King retired from teaching five years ago. Afterward, she continued to pay back what she felt life had given her by volunteering and promoting charity work for breast cancer organizations. It was then that she came across an ad about the Miss New York Senior America pageant. She went for it.
In 2009, King took home the New York title and went on to the national competition. She won that too. Her platform is about inspiring hope, the same concept that helped her through her battle with cancer.
Today, King travels the country in her crown and gown, modeling in runway shows, meeting celebrities and speaking on behalf of women with breast cancer. “Here I am in a size two, looking pretty hot,” she said.
To date, she has made more than 450 appearences, been pictured on the cover of magazines and spent time with A-listers such as LL Cool J and Alec Baldwin.
While she is grateful for the lights and fame, King said her biggest joy comes from being able to give hope to other women.
“I never in a million years thought I’d be where I am today," she said, "and I just hope to give what I have back to others."