Mary Louise Ashford, “Mary Lou” as her family and close friends knew her, was a remarkable woman who spent the majority of her life working to help other people. Beginning as a nurse’s aide—at the very hospital where her mother worked as a nurse and her father as a physician—she knew she wanted to devote her life to caring for others and impacting lives. That career of service to the vulnerable would take her from her hometown of Chicago to Florida, California, Colorado, and finally to Arizona. In the later part of her career Mary worked as an administrator, educator, and trainer to RNs at United Health Care in Phoenix, in a division caring for some of the company’s most vulnerable patients.
Mary Lou was a loving wife of 45 years to her husband Joe, a devoted mother to her daughter Lisa and son Ryan, and a proud and doting grandmother to three grandsons, Alex, Charlie, and Oliver. The second oldest of 10 children, Mary Lou became a contributing caretaker to many siblings and loved ones in her childhood. Her generous spirit, derived from the close-knit Irish Catholic community she grew up in on Chicago’s Southside, was evidenced by her strong desire to contribute to many charitable organizations and individuals enduring hardships as they crossed her life path.
Mary Lou fought a courageous seven-month battle with endometrial cancer. After her diagnosis, she and her family were shocked and dismayed to discover that endometrial cancer research is significantly underfunded compared to other women’s cancers—on the basis of disease incidence. According to the American Cancer Society, over 60,000 new cases of endometrial cancer are diagnosed each year, with over 10,000 cases resulting in death. Through the heartbreaking loss of Mary Lou, it is the sincere hope of her family and friends that with greater funding and education, endometrial cancer detection, treatment, and survival can be significantly improved.
Laura Mack was making ends meet by bartending after losing her banking job but she was eating all the wrong things at all the wrong times. She put 30 pounds on her athletic frame and realized after a couple of years that it was time to get back to her normal weight. By the middle of 2014, she lost about 25 of those pounds in two months. But her stomach still protruded. In fact, she nearly matched her sister's six-month pregnant abdomen and knew something was wrong. Despite her aversion to doctors and medical intervention - she believed in natural healing whenever possible - she made an appointment for a checkup. Immediately, the physicians she saw at a local clinic felt something solid in her abdomen and contacted Dr. Sharyn Lewin, Medical Director of Gynecologic Oncology at Holy Name Medical Center.
"One of the doctors said he was sending me to the best of the best," Laura said. "And Dr. Lewin was great - she did a bunch of tests and said it looked like I had one ovarian tumor that was 12 centimeters and I might have more than one. She was very honest and gave me the best and worst case scenarios." Laura was stunned and needed some time to process the news. She was looking at a full hysterectomy, plus having any tissue removed that showed signs of cancer. She was 32 years old and until this point, her most serious illnesses had been sinus infections and sore throats. She didn't have a lot of faith in modern medicine and couldn't "wrap my head around having organs removed from my body. "I'm embarrassed to say I never believed in organ donation - I felt like whatever you came into this world with, you should take with you. I know it doesn't make any sense now but it seemed to at the time," she said.
Laura comes from a robust, healthy family. Her mother is one of 10 children and no one has battled a life-threatening illness. Laura had been a field hockey powerhouse, named an All American from playing for her Connecticut high school and making it into the Connecticut Hall of Fame before joining the team at Northeastern. "I was just thinking that things like this don't happen to me," Laura said. "I was this athlete who was never sick. My whole family is extremely healthy." In addition to fighting the disease, Laura realized her hysterectomy meant she wouldn't be able to have her own biological children. Though she wasn't ready to start a family any time soon and wasn't even sure she wanted children, knowing she never could give birth affected her deeply. But she quickly came to grips with her prognosis and wanted the surgery scheduled as soon as possible. Laura said she briefly considered alternatives but realized, "There was no other option. If I didn't get treatment the condition would worsen and the outcome would have been devastating." Dr. Lewin and her nurse practitioner, Phyllis Tarallo, performed the nearly six-hour surgery. Dr. Lewin found Laura did indeed have two tumors, totaling 37 centimeters - about the size of volleyball. She also found the cancer had spread beyond the ovaries, though not to any vital organs. So in addition to removing Laura's ovaries and fallopian tubes, Dr. Lewin also took out all visible signs of cancer in Laura's abdomen and pelvis.
"Dr. Lewin and Phyllis are phenomenal," said Laura, who was diagnosed with stage 3 ovarian cancer and has a very good prognosis. "They have been there for me, answering questions, and comforting me the whole way." Laura's chemotherapy triggered a few bad days during her six treatment cycles, making her tired and clumsy, causing some bone pain and throwing off her balance. She moved in with her sister's family in Midland Park while she recuperated and as she improved, was able to help care for her newborn niece. The experience has been life-changing for Laura. "When I get upset about not being able to have a baby, I look at my niece and don't think about what I've lost but rather what I have," Laura said. "I'm thinking I may become an occupational therapist after this - I think I want to work with kids. Dr. Lewin told me I just have to get through this and I'm going to be okay."