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In March 2016, Mary Nameth was teaching middle school language arts when, for an instant, she felt intense pressure on her heart. She brushed it off as insignificant and continued to teach. Halfway through the next class, it happened again, and Mary took notice. After the third time, she was struggling to breathe and knew she had to get help.
The Dearborn native drove herself to the emergency room at Henry Ford Medical Center – Fairlane in Dearborn. Upon arrival, she was put on oxygen and an EKG was performed. The EKG showed nothing, and the emergency room doctor ordered an x-ray of her chest, immediately followed by a CAT scan. The tests revealed a mass wrapped around her pulmonary artery, another in the left lung and a paralyzed left diaphragm – possibly lung cancer.
To confirm her diagnosis, Mary was transported to Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit where pulmonologist Michael Simoff, M.D., performed a biopsy of Mary’s tumor. Results revealed that the mass wasn’t lung cancer; it was HER2-positive stage 4 breast cancer.
“The tumor looked like a squid with tentacles wrapped around and penetrating the artery as well as damaging the phrenic nerve,” Mary says. Although she had battled breast cancer in 2005, this diagnosis was much different.
Mary and her caregiver, daughter Cathi, consulted with medical oncologist Randa Loutfi, M.D., to determine the best course of action. Since the tumor had pierced her artery, Dr. Loutfi recommended radiation therapy before chemo and added radiation oncologist, Munther Ajlouni, M.D., to her team.
To help her visualize defeating her tumor – and better her chances of “squashing it” – Mary decided to name it Squidward, after the “pessimistic and irritating” character from the children’s cartoon Spongebob Squarepants.
Mary’s sister Donna had a T-shirt made for her with the words “Death to Squidward” on it; Mary wore it throughout her treatments. Her students drew a poster-size picture of Squidward being choked and each signed it with well wishes for her recovery. The picture is proudly displayed in her home.
And, her sister Peggy bought her a rubber squid and stick pins. “Every time someone came to visit me they were given a pin to stick it into Squidward to help eliminate him,” she says. “It gave them a sense of control.”
Mary underwent a total of 35 radiation treatments, followed by chemotherapy.When her heart began to show signs of trauma from the treatments, Dr. Loutfi added Cardiologist Madhulata Reddy, M.D., to the team.
Mary’s daughter, Cathi, took Mary to all of her appointments, and both Cathi and Mary’s husband, Allen,stayed with her while she underwent treatment. Mary’s other daughter, Mary Beth, prepared and sold her lake house while her daughter, Mandy, looked after Allen. Her son Alex and sister Peggy picked up the slack when the others needed help with their commitments.
Mary kept an upbeat attitude during her treatment, often teasing the doctors with unexpected responses. “I handle the stress with humor.” she says. “They kept asking me ‘if it would be okay if…’ And, when I said ‘No!’ it startled my doctor. It was really funny to see the look on her face!”
Since completing her radiation therapy, Mary went on a cruise to the Bahamas, went on a road trip to Canada to visit one of her daughters, took the train to Chicago with her granddaughter, took her twin granddaughters to Frankenmuth and spent three days with her daughter, Cathi, Up North. She also plays pinochle weekly with a close-knit group of friends.
Mary even took up swimming, an activity she had always loved, because the exercise was gentle on her recovering body. She fell in love water aerobics, but missed being able to dive under the water because she could no longer hold her breath due to her paralyzed diaphragm. “I went online and bought this special mask called the Easy Breathe Snorkel —now I can swim underwater all I want!”
Mary’s spirit and perseverance embody a phrase she adopted during her first bout with cancer in 2005: “Press on Regardless.” The phrase is from her time as an official during the 1972 Michigan Road Rally (a car race through both peninsulas of Michigan in the winter).
“People would encounter obstacles seemingly impossible to overcome (during the race), but they would always ‘press on regardless.’”
True to form, Mary continued to “press on regardless” during her cancer treatment. Like many cancer patients, Mary’s story isn’t just about her triumph over her disease. She faced many personal obstacles during her recent cancer battle.
“I had to retire, chemo gave me an arrhythmia in my heart so my trip to Italy was cancelled, I had to sell my lake house, I broke my foot and my 46-year-old daughter, Cathi, died,” she shares. “But I saw Cathi the night before she passed and when we parted, we kissed on the lips, hugged and each said I love you. I'll always have that.”
Now celebrating one year of stable remission, Mary offers this advice to other cancer patients: “Ask for help. And, put together a top-notch medical team and don’t be afraid to ask them questions, no matter how minor it may seem. My team is fantastic; I couldn’t have asked more of them.”
Mary would like to dedicate her cancer journey and this story to the loving memory of her daughter Cathi Anderson (1971-2017). “You are my hardest goodbye.”