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News | Oct. 3, 2016

Mary Mahey: A DLA employee's journey with breast cancer

By Brianne M. Bender DLA Distribution Public Affairs

When Mary Mahey, contracting officer with DLA Land and Maritime at Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania, first received the news, she was in total shock and disbelief. She had never had any serious illnesses.

“Cancer? Cancer is one of the most feared diseases. We’ve always been told cancer kills,” Mahey explained her feelings. “I was facing my mortality.”

Last spring, at the age of 53, Mahey went in for what she believed to be a routine mammogram. Two weeks later, she was officially diagnosed with stage one breast cancer. The doctors believed the blueberry-sized tumor had grown earlier in the year.

“I did have the typical questions running through my head,” said Mahey. “Why me? I try to eat healthy and exercise. Did I do anything to cause me to get cancer?”

Usually, when anyone goes to the doctor for a check-up, or physical, they are asked about their family history of diseases, such as cancer. Mahey, interestingly enough, was adopted. She met her birth-mother’s side of the family in 1992. With that meeting, she learned that her birth-mother had arthritis, and one of her aunts had cancer later in life. Her older half-brother had been diagnosed with colon-rectal cancer in 2014. Mahey assumed since it was not breast cancer that was not a concern.

Mahey decided to have genetic testing done. Through that testing, she learned that family cancers run a higher risk, and she needed to take all family cancers into consideration. However, having never met her birth-father, or his family, half of her genetic equation was unknown.

After receiving her diagnosis, Mahey’s summer started with the month of June filled with testing including complete blood counts, chest x-rays, a breast MRI, echo-cardiograms, bone scans and two CT scans. Additionally, she had two more biopsies, both of which came back negative. After the completion of the tests, she met with her surgeon and oncologist to determine her course of treatment.

Finally, with a surgery date set in July, Mahey had another round of testing. She also had outpatient surgery to have a port placed in her chest for use during the surgeries and chemotherapy.

“I had two breast surgeries in July, the first time we conserved the nipple,” explained Mahey. “After pathology reports came back with more calcifications, the second surgery removed the nipple.”

It was then decided Mahey would have six rounds of chemotherapy followed by two months of radiation. Currently, she is halfway through the process and hopes to have the chemo completed by November 2016.

“That is the target, unless my white cell count would drop, or I would have any other complications,” Mahey said.

Chemotherapy has brought challenges along with side effects for Mahey. Additionally, she has been prescribed other medications that have their own side effects. Neulasta has caused her to have excruciating bone pain.

With these added trials, Mahey has found ways to be resilient through her treatments. Her oncologist has remained available to her 24 hours, seven days a week, and provides her with any additional medications to combat any of her side effects.

Mahey has always been a believer in meditation. However, since her diagnosis, she has started to meditate daily, usually twice a day. She is a devout Byzantine Catholic, and prayer has always been a part of her life.

“I strive to keep a positive attitude during my journey. I will not say ‘my’ cancer; it is ‘the’ cancer,” Mahey said. “I will not own this disease. I have no need for it in my life.”

A strong support system is extremely important for anyone, especially when one is dealing with the stress of living with cancer. Mahey’s family and friends have been crucial through this process of appointments, surgeries, treatments and recovery. Her husband has attended all of her appointments with her. Their son, although living out of state, keeps in touch through phone calls, texts and visits when time allows.

In addition to her immediate family, Mahey’s brothers and sisters have been able to attend appointments, as well as provide meals and emotional support.

Her supervisors and coworkers have been tremendously supportive, sending cards and supportive messages. Upper management has been immensely understanding of her situation, allowing her to telework through the process.

“It is important to me that I am able to continue to support our fleet,” Mahey said.

Mahey has received additional support through care packages provided by national organizations such as Phil’s Friends and Wally’s Smiles, as well as a free wig and clothing from Pink Hands of Hope, a local non-profit organization located in Mechanicsburg, Pa.

Mahey will be participating in the Pink Hands of Hope Annual Breast Cancer fashion show on Oct. 1, to support their cause of helping women in the community.

She has also found emotional support by joining local support groups as well as online support groups.

“My surgeon, oncologist, the countless nurses and staff have helped me through every step of my journey,” explained Mahey. “I have also met another cancer patient at chemotherapy and we have become friends.”

Mahey has learned a lot from her journey she wishes to pass on to other women: “learn to eat nutritiously, exercise and take care of yourself, know the health history of your family.’

“If there were any occurrences of breast cancer in your family, consider genetic testing. There are two main genes; however, there is an entire list they can test for. Even if there isn’t a genetic link, cancer does run in families,” Mahey explains.

The American Cancer Society recommends mammograms starting at age 40. Countless your women are dying of this disease because they do not get checked. “Do a self-breast exam. Know the other signs. Report any concerns to your doctor, and be assertive with your health care.”

“Was the discomfort of a mammogram worth it,” said Mahey. “You bet, I’m alive!”

DLA Distribution Susquehanna is the lead for the Voluntary Protection Program and provides support to the 11 DLA agencies located at the New Cumberland and Mechanicsburg sites, whose commanders do not have designated safety specialists. Mahey submitted a breast-cancer-awareness article to the Susquehanna VPP newspaper, the Papermoon, to spread awareness for and the prevention of breast cancer.