Remembering Mary Ann Harvard

I am trying to put up a Christmas tree, and thinking about her. My heart is not into decorating like it usually is, and I stand in front of the Frasier Fir staring instead at the bookshelf. I'm looking for something. "Everything Changes: The Insider's Guide To Cancer In Your 20s and 30s" by Kairol Rosenthal. That's it. 

I grab the book and look for her name: Mary Ann Harvard, pages 152-161. I sit down with the book and re-read her story. The mis-diagnosis, the lymphoma, the damage to her body, and the hope that she still possessed despite it all.

On Thanksgiving Eve, I wept when I read her husband's update: After 10 years of treatment after treatment, remissions, recurrences, Mary Ann had passed away. 


When I met Mary Ann, I  was working at the UAB Cancer Center, producing their magazine. She had been on The Today Show, having had a makeover during her treatment. She sat in my office and told me her story. She was young, and beautiful and funny. We instantly connected. 

We hit it off and kept up. I knew I could always call on Mary Ann. She spoke to support groups and helped launch a Young Supporters group, raising money to benefit cancer research at UAB. They support younger scientists, who have a harder time competing for grants to fund their work.

In a video about the Young Supporters, she spoke about why she shared her story. "What happened to me shouldn't happen to anyone else."

In the five years since I left the Cancer Center, Mary Ann and I didn't see each other as much, though I kept up with her through her husband Mark, and social media. I knew that when ground was broken on the state-of-the-art new Cancer Center in August that Mary Ann had been there, cutting the ribbon. 

This fall, as Mary Ann fought through sickness again,  I followed Mark's Caring Bridge updates on her condition and I prayed. And then today, I opened Everything Changes and read Kairol's words about her initial impression of Mary Ann. Spot on: 

"Mary Ann's honesty, gutsiness, and questioning of authority were void of the badass, f**k cancer leftover teen angst that gripped most of the young adult cancer community and which I, too, often possessed."

To be an honest, gutsy questioner of authority without all the other stuff? That's a warrior. In this piece, Mary Ann shared the full range of emotions of her experience, including anger, particularly  when her disease came back eight months after being married. "I try to accept what has been given to me, but it not easy," she shared.

That would be an understatement.

It's what she did with her anger that's remarkable. She listened to other people who were struggling. She shared her story, with personal details, in books and magazine stories. She raised money. She had what Hemingway calls strength at the broken places. 

It's what she did with her life despite of this disease that is remarkable. She was a devoted wife, a daughter, an aunt. She worked as a bank teller, greeting customers with a smile. She was a beautiful person and a good person. 

What can we learn from Mary Ann? Everything. The same can be said by Mark, who stood by her side for a decade, the kindest husband and the most protective advocate. 

In Everything Changes, Mary Ann is quoted as saying:

"I wonder if heaven is different things to different people, instead of one big place that everyone goes to. Mark thinks heaven is the most wonderful place you can imagine and hell is the worst place you can imagine ... I would think of heaven as Dr. Pepper and Reese's cups, M&M cookies and going to the spa to get my hair and nails done every day. I wonder if you can float around invisible on the earth after you die? Could I go visit Mark? Would I have that ability to be an angel?" 

I've no doubt. She already was.