By Susan Tebben
Mary Pappas just wanted a house and kids.
“Nothing big, nothing out of the ordinary, just the American Dream,” Pappas said.
What Pappas got was a life of struggle that started at age 23 with a tumor in her chest.
For more than three decades since the first diagnosis, Pappas has been fighting through six occurrences of the cancer that affects the thymus gland, and in the process trying to lead a relatively normal life.
Those 30 years have now led to a new memoir, “Courage, Hope and Healing,” the story of Pappas’ fight through cancer and family tragedy.
Pappas’ book talks about her struggle to keep faith while going through cancer. Some of the biggest struggles were her attempts to have children.
Pappas asked God to allow her to have a child. It was the sight of two rainbows in June 1987 that gave her the hope to get through her bouts of cancer and have faith that the promise would be kept. She carried a photo of the two rainbows with her to keep herself positive as the years went on.
When Pappas had surgery to remove the tumor, she miscarried.
“I was starting to think, ‘God, you really screwed up,’” she said.
But she carried on through her cancer treatment at hospitals from Cleveland to Pittsburgh. She and her husband, Steve, remained hopeful they would have children.
Pappas worked for a cardiologist and in 1989, she asked a co-worker to do a scan.
“In the scans, you know you’re looking for that little heartbeat,” Pappas said. “Well, when she went over me, we saw one heartbeat, but then we saw another one. And that’s when I knew.” Her twins, Stephen and Michael, were born that year, and it drove Pappas to start seeing the bigger picture, she said. “I was starting to believe there was a plan.”
In 1995, Pappas started having pain again and got it checked. “The doctor called and said he wanted me to come in because he saw some nodules on the scans,” Pappas said. She saw what looked like lumps of play-dough under her lungs, stretching around to her diaphragm and back.
“The doctor’s eyes were welling up, so I knew something was up,” she said.
An oncologist told her the mass was too big for surgery. Ever the optimist, Pappas entered a case study in Indiana for thymomas. Her twin boys were in kindergarten. She was in a hospital receiving four rounds of chemo every 21 days.
“When you’re a mom, your kids are everything, and I wanted to be there doing things with them,” Pappas said. “I wanted to be like the other moms.”
After the first round of treatment didn’t change the tumor’s size and it began to grow again, Pappas found a doctor who was willing to remove it. The doctor removed the tumor, along with part of Pappas’ lungs and some ribs. He replaced her diaphragm with wire mesh.
She was in pain but seemed to be cancer free. She tried again to go back to the life of her kids and family.
It was in 1997 that her young niece and nephew were drowned in a bathtub by their mother, Annette Giancola. Giancola was found innocent by reason of insanity and sent to a psychiatric hospital in March 1997.
“I had as much of an emotional collapse as anyone could,” Pappas said.
She started to wonder where her God was in these situations of great loss. But she still tried to keep hope alive.
It wasn’t until 2003 that she had another tumor on her liver. “You start thinking ... am I cursed?” Pappas said.
She had more surgery and developed pneumonia. Doctors decided to leave her sedated for two weeks until the pneumonia cleared up. Her children were in eighth grade. “They understood what was going on at this point, and it was so hard to know that,” Pappas said.
In 2007, two more tumors were found and a new treatment was used to remove them.
A year later, another tumor was found on her liver. But after a new form of radiation, the tumor had disappeared, and as of a yearly checkup last week, Pappas is cancer free.
She now sees her struggles as a calling, treating her struggles as ways to relate to those facing life-threatening illness.
“I’m still here because of this; this is what I’m supposed to do,” Pappas said.
She credits her doctors, family, friends and her pastor for support she received both during treatment and during the writing of her memoir.
“With gentle humor, Mary takes us with her on a candid reflection of the crossroads we all face when life doesn’t make any sense,” said Pastor David L. Thomas, of Victory Christian Center, in the foreword to Pappas’ book.
For Pappas, the book is about comforting those who don’t have an advocate in their lives. It is also a reflection that life is full of tragedies, and that, as Pappas said, sometimes it “just stinks.”
“We’re not going to live forever,” Pappas said. “Tragedies are going to happen, and no one is going to understand on this side. When we get to the other side, maybe we’ll finally understand.”