kicking back at cancer
In January 2009, 42-year-old Mary Beth Beggy had just buried the father she idolized after watching him suffer from Alzheimer’s disease for three excruciating years. “I had a dream that I had to go to Molly Brannigan’s and tell my three brothers I had breast cancer. And I’m like, that is the strangest dream. I thought, what the heck? I’d better have a mammogram. I’d never had a mammogram. Sure enough, I had breast cancer.”
Believe it or not, that is the easy part of her story.
Beggy, who grew up on Main Entrance Drive with her parents, Jack and Peggy, and brothers, Mike, Tim and Pat, faced the illness with the positive attitude that characterizes her family: “We’re Irish. … We just find humor in everything. We try to outdo each other with the one-liners.”
So when she learned she needed a lumpectomy and radiation, she told her mom to “garner the strength you had with dad” and asked her boss—she is general sales manager for KISS and 3WS radio—to move the end-of-the-day manager’s meeting to 4 p.m. so she could make her 5:15 p.m. radiation treatments: “I didn’t want anyone to feel sorry for me. I didn’t want anything to change. I wanted to be as normal as possible.”
During treatments at St. Clair Hospital, she met lots of women going through the same thing. “[The staff] called us ‘the happy hour girls,’” she said. “I called it ‘karate class’ because I wanted to kick cancer’s ass.” She nicknamed the radiation machine Mike Wazowski, since it resembled the one-eyed monster from Disney’s Monsters Inc. And when her treatments ran into Steelers season, “I put Steelers pasties on my boobs. Just stickers. I’ll do anything to make [the nurses] laugh.”
She continued on the board of the Cancer Caring Center, a post she held before her diagnosis. “She is indefatigable,” says center executive director Rebecca Whitlinger. “She has the biggest heart and is just so genuine.”
Beggy finished radiation in October 2009, dumping her right into the first holiday season without her father. “All that emotion came back. All I want to do is get through to my second mammogram, in June,” she said. At the Caring Center, she learned patients often crash after treatments. During care, they are in survival mode, but when it’s over, raw feelings break through.
Her June mammogram was clear. Still, the post-cancer medication left her feeling odd. She started eating better and seeking holistic therapies like ionic foot cleanses and decided she needed a colonoscopy to cleanse her of anything bad still left inside: “We just don’t order colonoscopies like that,” her doctor said, so she lied, saying she had symptoms she knew would get her the test.
“I’ll never forget waking up from that,” she says. “The guy was as white as a ghost. And he goes, ‘I can’t believe you’re here. I can’t believe you’re here.’ And I was like, ‘What do you mean?’ And he goes, ‘You just saved your own life.’ And I’m like, ‘What are you talking about?’ And he goes, ‘You have an obstruction.’ ”
What? She hadn’t really thought anything was wrong. But the nurse told her they were pretty sure it was cancer. “I’m like, cancer? I just got done with cancer. Is this related? What the hell is going on?” It was colon cancer; she was one of the rare people who have a second primary form of the disease. But unlike the easy-to-treat breast tumor that has never returned, the colon cancer tests came back worse than doctors expected. She had a baseball-sized tumor in her colon and two golf ball-sized tumors in her liver.
“The first thing that came to mind is, from January to June, I just held my breath waiting for the [follow-up] mammogram. I lost six months of my life, when I could have been out having fun. What did you do? You just wasted that time. I vowed I won’t do that again, because now I really didn’t know how much time I had with Stage IV cancer.”
So, faced with two surgeries, one for the colon and one for the liver, and chemo, she threw a huge party at the Smart House on Mount Washington. The signature drink? Arnold Palmers. “Who else better to get the golf balls out of my liver?”
At first, her mother thought a party was inappropriate, but she later realized it was exactly what everyone facing the hard road ahead needed. “It was so fun,” Beggy said. “It was a beautiful night.”
Party planners included Lisa and Bob Sill, who met Beggy more than a decade ago when she walked into the grand opening party Bob’s advertising agency threw for Rod Woodson’s bar and said, “I’m Mary Beth. How can I help?” “Everybody considers Mary Beth their best friend,” Bob said, “and she’s got 290 of them.” He and Lisa started Beggy’s Battalion to help cover her expenses and offer moral support. She only agreed to it, Bob says, because it also brought cancer awareness and help to others.
The party gave everyone a chance to reach out. Some traveled far to visit. Hundreds sent cards. “It’s kind of like [being] a guest at your own funeral,” Beggy said. “Everyone is saying what they wanted to say but never said. They’re crying, and I’m like, ‘What the [expletive] are you doing crying? I’m the one that’s gotta go through this! Suck it up!’ ”
Truth crept in at unexpected times, like in a grocery line behind a person moving too slowly: “I was so angry. They have no idea what I’m going through. And [then] I thought, well, I have no idea what they’re going through. How do I know they didn’t just get bad news too? Everyone has something. You just don’t know it.” To prepare for the grueling treatment, she sought counsel from the Rev. Dave Bonnar at St. Bernard’s. His message—attitude determines altitude—strengthened her resolve to stay positive.
“People are like, why are you still working? I’m like, what am I going to do? Stay home and watch Springer? I figure, I get up. I go to work. I won that day.”
“She never sees the downside of it,” Sill said. “She always sees the possibility in good.” The colon surgery at St. Clair in August 2010 was a success. Assigned to wear a chemo port on her chest, she called it her “box of wine, cuz it’s one hell of a hangover” and decorated it with TGI Fridays-style buttons.
That September, she met Jim Fischerkeller through a friend, and the pair began dating. Fischerkeller works in corporate development for the Christian humanitarian group World Vision. “Neither of us were looking for a relationship,” Beggy says.
By November, the chemo had shrunk the liver tumors to marble size, and she had them removed. In the recovery room, her brother Mike told her the surgeon got it all. “So let me get this straight,” she asked. “I just lost my marbles? Mike was like, ‘Are you frickin’ kidding me?’ ”
In December, a staph infection nearly killed her, but a month later, she and Fischerkeller were in Dallas watching the Steelers in the Super Bowl: “Those months of feeling sorry for myself, I will never do that again. Heck yeah, I’m going. I think I travel more now than I ever did in my life, being as sick as I am.”
She continued volunteering. In April 2011, she received the Outstanding Achievement in Media award from the Media Association of Pittsburgh, which puts her in an elite group with the likes of Fred Rogers and Myron Cope.
After the next round of chemo, she surprised Fischerkeller with a trip to Disney World and by August 2011, she was in remission. But “I was never at ease with it” she says. By October, the colon cancer was back in lymph nodes again, near her lungs. “I was really only cancer-free for September,” she says with a hearty laugh. Her Halloween costume that year was an Indian with an oxygen tank and a chemo port—Chemo-Sabi. It won best costume at work.
Another round of surgeries and chemo provided another chance to crack jokes when she erupted in massive hives from one of the treatments. “Hive a nice day,” she told the nurses. “When they’re delivering news to me, I’ve never gotten upset in the office because I think, ‘Wow, how hard was it for them to tell me that?’” she said.
2013 brought her a Jefferson Award for selfless volunteerism. She does many cancer walks in the area and is the force behind the Galleria’s annual Knockout Cancer fundraiser. But 2013 also brought four more abdominal tumors and more surgery followed by a good surprise: a Valentine’s Day marriage proposal. She thought Fischerkeller was nuts, but he was determined to start a life together. Married in a small ceremony in May followed by a 300-person picnic bash, they honeymooned in Italy for two weeks with his daughter, Chelsea, 20, and son, Eric, 16. “It was perfect: small, simple, everything that I wanted. I wore my mom’s wedding dress.” After living on Sleepy Hollow for years, she moved in with her new husband in Glenshaw: “It was a ton of changes but it just felt right.”
The road actually looked like this: In 36 months, she had 12 surgeries, 14 months of chemo, 48 days of radiation and six weeks of near fatal infection. In the meantime, she went to the Super Bowl, Disney World, Las Vegas, Myrtle Beach and Italy. “I set goals for myself,” she said. “I might not be able to stay long, but I’m showing up.”
When she returned from her honeymoon, the cancer had spread to her arm. Out of 206 bones in the body, she laughed to think the “humerus” was the next to fall. A large dose of radiation put that at bay. Now, with surgery and radiation no longer an option, she will need to have lower doses of chemo for the rest of her life “until the next thing comes around.”
“I’ve come to terms with the fact that the worst thing that’s going to happen to me is I’m going to die. Well, everybody is going to die. But I kind of know that I am. Like you know how you walk around and you don’t think you’re ever going to die? But I know that I am.” That knowledge motivates her to seize the day. “I make sure I always have dessert, say ‘yes’ to a lot of things if I can do it,” she says. “I want to just spend time with people, as long as it’s happy.”
She hopes her legacy will be less about what she said or did and more about how she made people feel. “If anyone asks how I’m doing, I’m great. I’m breathing. I’m living. I’m here, you know?”
Her brother, however, had a pretty awful bunion awhile back. “I said, ‘Seriously? Seriously?’ ”
PRESCRIPTION FOR POSITIVE THINKING
“When it comes to patients, you really can’t control a lot of things. The cancer is going to do what it wants,” said oncologist Dr. Vincent Reyes, who also is a clinical instructor at UPMC Cancer Center at St. Clair Hospital. “But you can control optimism and hope.”
As he has observed in his practice, sedentary, depressed and melancholy patients run the risk of infection, blood clots and other complications. “They tend to have less reserve to handle cancer and chemotherapy.” Patients who are truly pessimistic never even make it in to see him for treatment. “It’s a big deal when someone gives up like that,” he said. “That’s their life.”
On the other hand, the patients who are trying to live the fullest life they can do better, he said, noting there is no official study—“It passes the eye test.” He sees that bodies of upbeat patients release more endorphins and serotonins; chemicals that can help the body fight. Those patients deal better with treatment’s side effects “so it doesn’t bring you down.”
He hasn’t treated Beggy but was energized by her story. “If this person can have this diagnosis—and look at how she’s sucking the marrow out of life. It’s very inspirational.”
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Mary Beth Beggy died on Friday, June 6, 2014.