×

Mary Wholley of South Hadley tells what will be motivating her at the American Cancer Society’s Relay for Life in Northampton this weekend

  • Mary Wholley, 52, of South Hadley, a uterine cancer survivor, arranges letters to create cutouts on a luminary Thursday at First Congregational Church of Hadley, that will be displayed at Saturday's Relay For Life in Northampton. Gazette Staff/Andy Castillo

  • Mary Wholley, 52, of South Hadley, a uterine cancer survivor, traces letters on a luminary at First Congregational Church of Hadley. The luminary will be displayed at Saturday's Relay For Life in Northampton. Gazette Staff/Andy Castillo

  • Mary Wholley, 52, of South Hadley, a uterine cancer survivor, arranges letters to create cutouts on a luminary Thursday at First Congregational Church of Hadley, that will be displayed at Saturday's Relay For Life in Northampton. Gazette Staff/Andy Castillo

  • Mary Wholley, 52, of South Hadley, a uterine cancer survivor, arranges letters to create cutouts on a luminary at First Congregational Church of Hadley, that will be displayed at Saturday's Relay For Life at Look Memorial Park in Florence. Gazette Staff/Andy Castillo

  • Wholley, shown at right the year she received her diagnosis at agg 22, will lead a fundraising team from the First Congregational Church of Hadley. She stands in the church, far right.

  • Mary Wholley, in a photo taken about six months before she was diagnosed with cancer. SUBMITTED photo

  • Mary Wholley, 52, presents an informational slideshow to volunteers in preparation for Saturday's Hampshire County Relay for Life, at Cooley Dickinson Hospital, Wednesday, June 6, 2018. Gazette Staff/Andy Castillo

  • Mary Wholley presents an informational slide show at Cooley Dickinson Hospital in Northampton to volunteers getting ready for Saturday's Hampshire County Relay for Life. Gazette Staff/Andy Castillo

  • The first lap of the Relay For Life at Look Memorial Park in 2016. Volunteers usually raise between $200,000 and $250,000 through the event. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

  • Darlene Matyoka of Southampton, left, and Karen Bardwell of Hatfield, walk in the cancer survivor lap in 2016 during the American Cancer Society’s Relay For Life of Hampshire County at Look Memorial Park in Florence. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO



@AndyCCastillo
Monday, June 11, 2018

‘This is not a good thing,” said Dr. Robert J. Olney, an obstetrics and gynecologist doctor at Chicopee Medical Center, leaning across his desk. Mary Wholley, 22, of South Hadley, blinked back at him, stone-faced.

He had just given Wholley a diagnosis: uterine cancer.

“What are we going to do about it?” she replied, steeling herself for the treatment plan that would come next.

Thirty cancer-free years later, Wholley is still asking that question. To help find an answer, now for others, she volunteers on the Relay For Life of Hampshire County’s regional planning committee, and leads a fundraising team from the First Congregational Church of Hadley. This year’s local relay — a 24 hour walk to raise money for cancer research — will be held Friday and Saturday at Look Memorial Park in Florence.

She volunteers “so people don’t have to hear what I heard, ‘you have cancer.’ Those three words are horrendous,” Wholley said, sitting in an airy room in the white church on Middle Street in Hadley.

When Wholley learned her diagnosis in 1988, she pretended to take things in stride, she says. But mentally and emotionally, she recalls struggling to absorb the news.

“My meltdown came when I went in my car,” Wholley said. She remembers beating her fists against the steering wheel of her Chevrolet Citation in the medical center’s parking lot, while music by Amy Grant blared from a cassette player.

“Often, the first word people equate with cancer is ‘death.’ So, at 22 years old, I’m going ‘holy crap, I could die.’ ” She says her doctor researched other patients with uterine cancer and found that she was the sixth youngest person ever to receive the diagnosis.​​​​​​

In the following weeks, Wholley, who is one of five children and still lives in the South Hadley home where she grew up, “latched onto my faith. I said ‘I don’t want to (die), but dear Lord be with me if this is what’s going to happen.’”

Soon after, she underwent a total abdominal hysterectomy at Baystate Medical Center in Springfield — surgery to remove her uterus — that eliminated all of the cancer cells and any need for subsequent radiation or chemotherapy.

At Saturday’s Relay walk in Northampton, she’ll celebrate 30 years without cancer, which is a “disease that has no gender bias,” she said. “There’s no racism in cancer, it affects everyone, no matter what culture you come from, no matter where you live there is someone who has been affected by cancer.”

The goal: save lives

To combat cancer, the American Cancer Society takes a broad approach, says Andrew Paterno, senior community development manager in western Massachusetts for the organization and a staff partner for the Relay For Life of Hampshire County.

“The goal is to save as many lives as possible, as quickly as possible,” he said. After the federal government, the American Cancer Society is the largest funder of cancer research in America, having contributed $4 billion since its inception in the 1940s, Paterno says. A large part of fundraising comes through Relay For Life walking events like the one planned at Look Park Saturday, where participants make pledges and collect donations for the miles they walk.

For the Relay For Life of Hampshire County, Paterno estimates local volunteers raise between $200,000 and $250,000 a year, collected by between 400 and 500 people. Including about 200 cancer survivors, he says, there are about 1,000 people who come to the Northampton relay each year.

24 hours

This year, festivities on the field at Look Park will kick off at 3 p.m. Friday, followed by a ceremony recognizing cancer survivors at 6 p.m., followed at 9 p.m. by another for those who died from cancer. On Saturday, the event will continue straight through to 2:30 p.m., and will feature working dogs from Belchertown Police Department, magician Omer Black, and an attempt to break the Guinness World Record for the largest game of ‘red light, green light.’ It stands at 1,203 participants, set in 2015 by Willamette University in Salem, Oregon.

Wholley first became involved in the American Cancer Society in the mid-1990s, raising money for the Relay For Life, and began volunteering locally about four years ago. This year, she is overseeing outreach for the event, and helping her church’s team to raise money. So far, the team has raised more than $600. As of Friday evening, all of the teams combined had raised $77,000.

Strength through support

In the days following the medical appointment in 1988 when she received her cancer diagnosis, Wholley says she felt distant from her siblings and friends. No one could relate to what she was going through. Once, while babysitting, she says, she drew a picture that, in retrospect, she says subconsciously depicted how she felt.

“I had four trees over here, and one tree on the other side of the paper, then a pond, a road, a fence and all of these images that said ‘I am separate from them,’ ” Wholley said. Before and after surgery, Wholley received strength from “the right people at the right time,” who stepped in to support her, she recalls. “I also had a golden retriever at the time, Shane, and he just kind of knew. He leaned against me more often than was typical.”

She says she felt the presence of God and remembers noticing “when the clouds would break at just the right time. I’d just feel arms wrapped around me, like, it’s going to be OK.”

These days, Wholley, who is single and works in childcare at the Hadley church, helps with the Relay For Life to support others struggling with cancer — passing along the compassion and care that others showed in her time of need.

And while there’s a lot more research that needs to be done, Wholley says she’s optimistic that progress is being made toward finding a cure for cancer.

Hopeful signs

According to Paterno, the biggest advancements in past decades have come in the area of immunotherapy by strengthening the body’s defenses to fight the disease.

“The organization has been part of every advancing treatment and cancer research over the decades,” Paterno said. In past years, the American Cancer Society has funded 47 scientists who later won Nobel Prizes for their work, he noted.

All of this, Wholley says, has encouraged her to maintain her efforts.

“In the 30 years since I was diagnosed, there are more survivors. We are winning the battle. We are decreasing the numbers of people who, when they get their diagnosis, (hear) ‘we’re sorry. This is the best we can do,’ ” she said.

Through modern medical advancements, recovering from cancer is possible. These days, “It’s almost like what I said to my doctor: ‘what are we going to do about it?’”

Andy Castillo can be reached at acastillo@gazettenet.com.

How to connect

To donate to Mary Wholley’s Relay For Life Team, the “Rambling Roosters,” visit https://bit.ly/2kWt7Fx. For more information on the Relay For Life of Hampshire County, a 24-hour event which begins at 3 p.m. Friday, and to find a team to join, visit https://bit.ly/2kZ5FHn. Andrew Paterno of the American Cancer Society can be reached by emailing HampshireCountyMArelay@cancer.org, or calling 413-493-2110.