By Savanah Bandy
Mary Van Galen’s life has always been about helping others.
That’s why when, faced with her own battle with breast cancer, the reserves of strength she drew upon were: “not about me.”
Mary is a nurse and educator specializing in high-risk OB/GYN, pediatrics, and women’s health. Prior to her diagnosis, she spent 12 years personally caring for immediate and extended family members and friends in hospice. In 2018, she helped care for her 35-year-old niece and four small boys as she went through a double mastectomy.
Mary has always been the one staying strong for others, so when she learned of her diagnosis with breast cancer in July 2018, she couldn’t face it on a personal level.
“I had taken all the precautions,” she said. “I did the monthly self-breast exams, yearly mammograms, I breastfed, decreased caffeine intake, was a nonsmoker and had an overall healthy lifestyle. In fact, I actually argued with my interventional radiologist. ‘I have dense breast tissue, they always think they see something!’ When confronted with a close-up ultrasound image, I finally agreed to have a biopsy to ‘satisfy’ the radiologist. Nurses can make very challenging clients.”
Once the diagnosis was confirmed, Mary moved directly into nurse mode — but this time, her patient was herself.
“I would be this client’s – my – advocate,” she said. “I would be forward-thinking, strong and question everything.”
At first, things seemed to be moving along smoothly, and Mary said she was blessed with a very compassionate healthcare team through two biopsies, two surgeries, genetic testing and treatment plan creation.
But like any great journey, difficult challenges and hurdles lay ahead of her.
“The eight weeks of daily radiation treatments were the darkest and loneliest as I felt stalled on the journey and angry that I had not been a better advocate for myself,” she said. “As I went through the motion of the daily assembly line radiation treatments, I was no longer able to deny that I was the client on the journey.”
To get through the dark times, Mary drew on memories of strong and inspiring patients from her past and the memory of her brother, who lost his battle with cancer in 2011.
“My brother chose to dedicate his journey to glorify God,” Mary said. “For months, I observed my brother’s choices and actions to bear fruit to our God. I was stunned. While I knew he was a believer, he had not attended church for many years due to earthly obstacles. Yet, when it mattered most, he picked up his cross with courage and grace because he was determined he was going to leave a legacy that was truly about God and about how you treat people, how you live out your faith and how you handle life’s challenges. It was just so inspiring. You have to draw on something bigger than yourself.”
Mary recently joined the HOPE 4 You Breast Cancer Foundation, a local nonprofit organization that helps provide free mammograms to women in our Four-State Region.
“Without having had the opportunity to have an early-detection mammogram screening, I may not be here today to share my story,” Mary said.
“I also have to give credit to my husband for getting me through it. I am blessed to have a husband who has been an active supporter throughout my journey. His patience and witty sense of humor are true gifts.”
See more cancer survivor stories online or in our October 2021 print edition.