By Alice E. Gerard
Twenty-five years ago, Mark and Maureen Tyson of Grand Island built a relationship while working in the laboratory of Kenmore Mercy Hospital.
Mark, a medical technologist, worked in the lab, and Maureen, a medical assistant, worked off-site at a blood draw station.
"He was very shy," Maureen said. "He turned beet red when he asked me. I said, 'Let's go out as friends.' And here we are. We met 25 years ago, and we've been married for 20."
Mark, 50, and Maureen, 55, have experienced both the good and bad of life, from the adoption of a son, Daniel, to Maureen's breast cancer diagnosis, and the death of Maureen's mother, Nancy, from breast cancer.
Maureen, the 2018 Relay For Life honorary survivor, talked about her experience with Relay For Life, as well as her own cancer journey, which started with her mother Nancy's cancer recurrence that turned out to be fatal. "She made it for 17 years from the original diagnosis and then, you could notice some changes in her. Danny was 2. She used to watch him for me while I was at work. My brother would come and say, 'He's in the playpen screaming. Mom's doing nothing. She didn't want us to know that the cancer had spread. She did have spots on her lung, and that was in July. She moved here to the Island. She fell and broke her ankle, and everything just exploded. The cancer was in her liver and her lung, and it was going into her brain."
Three years later, in 2010, when Danny was a kindergartener, he brought home a flyer from school about Relay For Life. "Our friend Rosemary Hajnos was involved with Relay at the time. She was my sister-in-law's neighbor. I always heard her talking about Relay. When I saw the flier, I said 'OK, Dan, let's go. We got there in time for the survivor walk. And I saw my neighbor from across the street walking. She was just diagnosed a month or so before. I gave all of those people credit for being there. After they do the survivor walk, they do the caregiver walk. And I said, come on, Dan, we took care of Nonna. Let's go! And we walked. I was so moved by the number of people who are supportive and by the survivors."
Two years later, in 2012, Maureen walked with the survivors. "I went for a routine mammogram, and they found it. I had an evening appointment, and I was the last person of the day. They couldn't do any biopsies or anything right away. They said, 'Come back tomorrow.' First, they call you into a room and they say, 'I'm very sorry but you have breast cancer. I'm thinking, how can this happen. Danny's in third grade. Life is done. Right away, you go that extreme of your life."
The first person that Maureen told was Mark. He said, "I felt awful. It's hard not to think of yourself. I didn't plan on raising a child by myself. You go to the worst of it. Breast cancer. It's not an inoperable brain tumor. There were a lot of feelings that were all over the place. So there is some guilt."
The diagnosis was very difficult for Danny. Mark said, "Our son was very upset. He had no idea. He associated cancer with dying. He's very sensitive. We tried to convince him that this was not going to happen."
Maureen and Mark were told that she was diagnosed with stage one breast cancer. She said that she didn't want to have a mastectomy, as her mother had. Her mother also went through chemotherapy, but not radiation. "I was scared because we had to wait for the lab report to come back before they could tell me if I was going through chemo or not."
Maureen said that the lab reports indicated that the lymph nodes were clean and cancer free. "I did go through radiation. It was the balloon radiation, where they insert the balloon. I had to go twice a day, and they would feed radiation through me, just in that area and through the balloon. After five days, they pulled it out. Then they said that I was fine."
A year after Maureen was diagnosed with cancer, she was diagnosed with a heart condition. She said that she had taken her son to the University at Buffalo to attend the summer baseball league. "By the time I got to work in our office, I guess that I was pretty gray-looking. I had trouble breathing, but I said, just let me have my inhaler and I will be fine." She was taken to Mercy Hospital in South Buffalo, where Mark worked, and was diagnosed with a thickened wall of her heart that prevented her mitral valve from opening. "It was a couple of years later that they performed an alcohol ablation. "Basically," Mark said, "they killed some of the cells to thin the wall so it would shrink and the blood would flow through the mitral valve. It seemed to be very successful."
Maureen said that she also had the support of her employer, Health Works WNY. "We all support each other. There are about 50 employees. When I had to start going for biopsies and more scans and MRIs, they were so accommodating. They didn't hold me down to 'Well, you've got to make up the time. They were just like, 'Go and get it done.'"
Maureen said that she had "a lot of support" from friends and family, especially from her sister, Kate; her brother, Patrick; and her brother, Tim. "They come to Relay every year and cheer me on and help me."
They provided support for her when she decided to start her own Relay For Life team after she received her cancer diagnosis. She went to the kickoff meeting and signed up to participate in Relay For Life, where she was asked for her team's name. "I asked my sister-in-law to think of a name for a team, and she came up with Moe's Miracles."
Her friend Kris made notecards, which were sold at Relay For Life. Maureen made cancer ribbon cutout cookies. "The first year, I didn't realize that you had to go with a theme, and it was 'Going for the Gold.' So I did my own theme, which was a Victorian-themed tent. The next year, the theme was 'Rock Out Cancer.' Kris painted a chair in the whimsical style of Mackenzie Childs theme, and we raffled that off. That was a big hit that year." Other things that the team has sold included buckets of penny candy, cookies on a stick, chocolate-covered pretzels, and chocolate-covered popcorn. "I've had other fundraisers. I did a Cinco de Mayo at the Knights of Columbus this month. Next month, we're going to do Texas Roadhouse. Fifteen percent of your dinner goes to Relay. We're going to do that June 25. I hope that we raise money. My whole idea of Relay is that I want to give back."
"I had cancer," Maureen said. "I want to give back to the people who are suffering and to help research."
She said that support came from other sources, too, including her son's third-grade teacher at Huth Road Elementary School, Jeanne Percival. Maureen, a seamstress who does alterations at her home, said, "The year that I was diagnosed with cancer, Danny was in a play. Mrs. Percival asked for volunteers for sewing. I said, 'Yes, I can sew.' Then I was diagnosed with cancer and she said, 'You don't have to do it.' I said that I need to do it to keep me busy. And I did it. They were big flowers. It was for one of the scenes. There was a hood that they tied around their head. I enjoy doing stuff to create, fun stuff."
Maureen said that she was asked via email in February to be the honorary survivor. She said, "I just cried. Why me? There's nothing special about me having cancer. Having cancer was a bump in the road of life. There are other people out there fighting. I felt that I didn't deserve it. I want more research done. I want to find a cure. That's the ultimate goal. So many people are suffering. It's a horrible disease."
Maureen said that she would tell someone who is newly diagnosed with breast cancer, "Have faith. You're going to get through this. I'm there for you. Everybody's experience is different. What I went through is not what you're going to go through. There is a whole world out there to support you."
Having cancer had an effect on her perspective on life. "I want to live life. I want to take chances. I'm going for the gusto. I would jump out of an airplane in a heartbeat. I want to do zip-lining. I want to do things. I want to travel. We've gone to Jamaica. We went to the Grand Canyon in April. It was beautiful. Sedona was gorgeous. Just being in Arizona was great. I am out there to live life."
Relay For Life is scheduled to be held from 4 p.m. to midnight, June 8, at Veterans Park.
Relay For Life:
•Friday, June 8 - The 16th annual Relay For Life will take place in Veterans Park from 4 p.m. to midnight.
- 6 p.m. - Opening ceremony
- 10 p.m. - Luminaria ceremony
- Midnight - Closing ceremony