By Sasha Reddy
“Are you a survivor?” Mary Rycik was working out on the fitness floor when a woman approached her and asked this question. The chemo cap on her head – her cancer calling card – had apparently drawn the stranger over. “I had never had anybody ask me that before,” she says. After a moment of thought, she responded to the stranger’s query with the only sure answer she could give: “I don’t know yet.”
In 2018, Mary was on the hunt for a new primary care physician after moving from Ohio to Delaware with her husband. As part of one of her first doctors appointments, she received a routine mammogram, and the results came back negative. Just three weeks after the mammogram, her new gynecologist found a lump in Mary’s right breast. Though Mary insisted that she had just been checked, the doctor was persistent. Mary was sent for a particular diagnostic ultrasound where her gynecologist’s fears were confirmed: stage 3 breast cancer.
Once diagnosed, Mary met with an oncologist to strategize their plan of attack. One of the first decisions an oncologist must make with newly diagnosed patients is whether to cure the cancer or simply manage it – in Mary’s case, they were shooting to cure her. She received her own copy of the oncologist’s game plan and stuck it to her fridge as a daily source of hope. Her prospect of survival was looking good, but there was still a long road ahead.
Mary began chemotherapy on December 19th, 2018. “Seeing everyone dressed up in Christmas costumes and Christmas decorations in the chemo ward was really bizarre,” she jokes. Still, it provided a bit of normalcy during the most challenging time in her life.
Over the next several months, Mary underwent 16 rounds of treatment. “That’s terrifying, of course,” she recalls. “The worst part is that you lose all your hair. That really transforms the way you see yourself. You look in the mirror – you don’t even recognize yourself.” In addition to hair loss, Mary endured constant exhaustion, frequent dizziness, and nausea, among other symptoms. Still, the side effects never deterred her from going to the gym. “I was determined that I was going to keep working out, you know. Keep coming here, keep up my schedule, even though it really exhausts you.”
One day, Mary was taking it easy during her workout on HAC’s fitness floor. “All of a sudden, I started getting really dizzy. The whole world was spinning around me.” The dizziness got so bad that it prevented her from standing up, let alone finishing her workout. After spending a few minutes recouping on the machine, Mary managed to sit up and drag herself across the fitness floor to the membership office. “They were just so nice to me,” she says, full of gratitude. She was welcomed to use the couch and was even brought a bottle of water while she recovered.
“You look in the mirror – you don’t even recognize yourself.”
Mary’s chemotherapy was intended to shrink the tumor in her right breast – after that, she had a mastectomy to extract what was left. At the same time as her mastectomy, Mary underwent reconstruction of her right breast plus a reduction of her left breast so the two would match. Over 20 lymph nodes were removed, and after her surgery, she had drainage tubes put into her sides. These drains typically stay attached to a patient’s sides and drain fluids into a mobile receptacle for several weeks post-op. “I had to drain them three times a day,” Mary remembers. “It was just awful.” Though she had hoped to have the tubes removed before her daughter’s wedding in June, that didn’t turn out to be the case. “I had two drains under my dress, I was bald, and I wore a wig,” Mary retrospectively laughs.
Even after having her tumor removed, Mary still had to have radiation therapy and plastic surgery. “People don’t know how difficult it is to get an implant done,” Mary says. She endured weekly visits to the plastic surgeon for months straight, having to get painful fluid injections and a chest expander put in just to prepare for the surgery.
In October 2019, after finishing her radiation treatment, the incision from Mary’s implant started to rip; a few days later, it completely opened up. “And I was stupid.” Mary reflects. It was later in the evening, and she figured that making an appointment with the plastic surgeon to address the issue could wait until morning. By 2:00 am, however, she woke up trembling in shock. Her husband immediately called for an ambulance to take Mary to the ER.
Some of the details of that night are a blur to Mary. She remembers having her temperature taken at the hospital and learning that she had a fever and, therefore, an infection. “They put me into a room, called the plastic surgeon, and he took out the infected implant and put in a smaller one. Meanwhile, the test came back that I had MRSA.” Mary was admitted to Christiana, put in a private room, and kept there for six days while the infection was treated. Even after being sent home, Mary had to self-administer her antibiotics and fluid injections for eight weeks straight.
Two days before Thanksgiving, her implant stitches ruptured yet again. She was brought to the hospital for emergency surgery for the second time, at which point she had had enough. “I said ‘that’s it. Take everything out!'” She eventually learned that the radiation she had received to kill any lingering cancer cells had made her skin extremely brittle, causing her stitches to rip and expose the tissue underneath. It wasn’t until December 2019 – almost a year to the day after beginning her chemotherapy – that life finally felt normal once again. Her treatments were complete, and her implants gone for good – overall, things were on the up and up. But that sense of calm and comfort only lasted about three months before COVID-19 took the whole world by storm.
Though her cancer ordeal was essentially over by the time the pandemic hit, for Mary, the months of COVID-induced fear and isolation were similarly taxing. During her chemotherapy, the two things that helped ground her and soothe her anxiety were walking around Tweed’s Trail and listening to Fight Song by Rachel Platten. Keeping up some semblance of a workout routine was extremely important to Mary, too. She’s always loved to swim, and while swimming laps became much more difficult after her mastectomy, her regular Aqua Fitness classes became a fantastic alternative. “I can do things in water aerobics that I could never do on land,” she says. “That’s really been a saving grace for me. It just keeps me active…I just feel better afterward.” Unfortunately, when the pandemic hit, Mary was forced to limit her trips to the gym severely. She stopped using the fitness floor and booking massages to protect herself from the virus. Still, she continued taking aqua fitness classes, always wearing a face shield and keeping an appropriate distance from the other participants. “Having something to do that’s worthwhile” and “having a place to go” became extremely important for Mary both during her cancer treatment and through COVID. The pool and water aerobics provided that much-needed normalcy and stability.
The physical and emotional toll of battling cancer can only truly be understood by cancer patients and their loved ones. “It takes over your life,” Mary admits. “All you’re doing is going to doctor’s appointments and having tests. It seems like every time, there’s more bad news.” During this time in her life, having a network of family, friends, and familiar faces at the club really helped her get through it. She joined a Facebook group of cancer survivors that she regularly turned to for support and advice. “That was one of the most helpful things.” Though it was difficult at times for her to see the light at the end of the tunnel, her family and the other survivors she met through that group reassured and uplifted her. Though “normal” looks a lot different for Mary now than it once did, she is grateful to have finally gotten back into a comfortable groove, and she hopes to serve as an encouraging reminder for future cancer patients and their families. “There is life after this.”