Survivor: Sister Mary Ryan
April is Head and Neck Cancer Awareness Month, and the month has special meaning to Sister Mary Ryan.
In 1998, her life changed forever.
She had just graduated from Dominican University in Illinois with a master’s degree in library and information sciences and was heading back to her home state of Massachusetts to minister as a librarian.
Before she left, however, she made a trip to the doctor after discovering what she believed to be a canker sore under her tongue. But it wasn’t a canker sore. It was a diagnosis no one wants to hear.
Sister Mary learned she had oral cancer.
Despite the diagnosis, Sister Mary traveled to Massachusetts for her ministry and received treatment. During surgery, 40 percent of her tongue was removed. In addition, 13 of her lymph nodes were removed as well.
At the time, she did not need chemotherapy or radiation treatments.
But only two months later, the cancer came back and she needed more surgery, this time, with surgeons removing three more lymph nodes.
Following the second surgery, she underwent radiation treatments for seven weeks. As a result of the treatments, she had trouble eating and lost a lot of weight.
Still, Sister Mary believed in Providence and continued with her ministry.
“I had a few scares along the way,” she said. “But I came to the realization that this is how it’s going to be.”
While she was in Massachusetts, she joined the local Support for People with Oral, Head and Neck Cancer group (SPOHNC).
In 2005, Sister Mary was asked to come to Saint Mary-of-the-Woods, Indiana, to serve as the Congregation archivist. She accepted the position and moved to Indiana.
After coming to Saint Mary-of-the-Woods, Sister Mary searched for a SPOHNC group. The closest one was in Indianapolis.
With that in mind, Sister Mary started her own support group in Terre Haute in 2009, which still meets to this day. The group meets on the third Thursday of every month at the Hux Cancer Center at Union Hospital.
“It is part of my ministry,” Sister Mary said.
Sister Mary still gets checked by doctors once a year and is considered a 17-year survivor of the disease. But in 2013, she was diagnosed with aspirated pneumonia and had to have a feeding tube inserted. The pneumonia was a direct result of her cancer, as Sister Mary had difficulty swallowing and suffered from dry mouth.
The support group she started has helped her with her new diagnosis.
“They have been very supportive,” Sister Mary said. “The people in the group have been wonderful. I feel very fortunate that I have the support that I have.”
Now, she can only consume liquid nutrition.
While her battle has changed her life, Sister Mary’s belief in Providence has prevailed.
“It’s been a challenging experience for me,” she said. “I learn from the people in the group. It’s been quite a journey and it’s not over yet. I thought that I would be helping them. But we are helping one another.”