A year ago, Mara Fulk was running a school, caring for her husband and children, and was relatively healthy but understandably a little tired.
That’s all changed, and she’s now in a fight for her life.
It’s been a whirlwind few months for Fulk and her family since her cancer diagnosis in September — all leading up to a surgery that she hopes will remove the tumor that is encroaching organs and wrapped around a major vein.
Since the diagnosis, the 49-year-old Bradenton resident has gone through intense rounds of chemotherapy, countless doctor appointments and has been to Texas four times to see specialists, all with the support of her family, friends and colleagues.
“One of the major things I’ve learned so crystal clear through this whole experience is no matter who you are, healthy or sick, we only have today,” Fulk said.
Fulk had been feeling lethargic and “off” for a while, but tests and blood work all came back normal. By August, she felt as though she couldn’t catch her breath and went to the emergency room on Sept. 1.
Doctors found a large mass, and a biopsy revealed she has a rare, aggressive form of cancer. Fulk was officially diagnosed with Leiomyosarcoma, which the Mayo Clinic says affects soft muscle tissue, on Sept. 11.
She started chemotherapy, and doctors prescribed infusions four days a week, eight hours a day. Fighting cancer became a full-time job. She lost her nails, hair and 40 pounds, but the tumor did not shrink.
Fulk took medical leave from her work as administrator at Center Montessori School in Bradenton.
Throughout the last few months, Fulk has held a positive outlook and her motto has remained “Every day is a great day.”
A mother, wife, teacher, administrator, daughter and mentor to other cancer patients, she holds several important titles and does not plan to give them up.
Since her diagnosis, some of her biggest supporters have been her parents, her 17-year-old daughter Kiara, 12-year-old son Alessandro (Ale) and her husband, Keith, who beat cancer 15 years ago.
Fulk said she and Keith will be spending their 22nd wedding anniversary together in the hospital, but his support has been unwavering.
“’You were here for me, now I’m here for you,’” Fulk said her husband told her.
The community at Center Montessori School has also stepped up to help where and when they can. Students and parents have held fundraisers, 5K races, car washes and cooked meals that were delivered to the Fulk family.
Fulk called it an unbelievable outpouring of support. It’s helped her worry less about several things, from what to do for dinner at night to paying for flights to Houston for treatment at M.D. Anderson Cancer Center.
“She’s a very beloved primary teacher,” said Kara Bettle, managing director for the Center Motessori School. “She knows the name of every child at school. She’s gotten to know a lot of the families and is just an individual who is fun to be around.”
Whether it’s providing food or gifts or sending videos of messages from students, the school continually finds ways to encourage and support Fulk.
“She’s a big personality here and is very missed,” Bettle said.
There’s also a blog, where Fulk writes updates for followers, friends and family around the world to read.
It is therapeutic, she said.
“If I can give hope to one person that’s going through, maybe not even cancer, but anything that’s challenging. ... If I can show somebody that if we live with positivity and gratefulness, it’s a lot easier,” Fulk said.
That positive outlook does not go unnoticed by others.
“Her attitude her view of this hoping that, of course she wants to be well, but has those same wishes for everyone else in situations like this,” Susan Barrett, a friend of Fulk’s through the school, said.
After her final chemotherapy treatment in January, Fulk worked to regain her strength to tackle the next step toward beating the cancer. On Wednesday, she and her husband flew to Houston to prepare for surgeries she is scheduled to undergo next week.
“It’s sort of a fascinating, miraculous outcome that she even can have this surgery,” Barrett said.
Preparing for the surgery has allowed Fulk to be grateful for the time she’s had and what comes next. Especially after local doctors previously told her that the cancer had spread and they could keep her alive with chemotherapy but she should start a bucket list.
Fulk refused to give up so easily and started going to M.D. Anderson Cancer Center. There, doctors told her the cancer had not spread and they were interested in doing surgery to try to remove the tumor that she had previously been told was not possible.
“You go from darkest day of your life to ‘Hallelujah, I can do this,’ ” Fulk said.
The surgery is no small procedure. It rolls four procedures into one, but Fulk has been preparing mentally and physically.
The tumor, she said, is about the size of the center of a football with “arms” that extend out and wrap around her organs. To remove it, doctors will try to remove her spleen, remove her pancreas either partially or completely, remove more than half her stomach and reconstruct her portal vein.
“I don’t feel nervous, I don’t feel scared,” Fulk said. “Of course I have a little bit of jitters every once in a while but I have a real sense of peace about it.”
She is just ready to have the procedure over with and move forward with her “new normal.”
A doctor’s decision on whether the surgery will happen should come Friday and will be based on the tumor’s size. Until then, there will be several tests and more information about what could happen.
“Information overload is something we’re dealing with but the reality of my situation is that all of this is information we can use potentially. It’s a little overwhelming at times but it’s all information I feel is important,” Fulk said.
Her friends back in Bradenton are keeping their hopes high.
“I hope she comes home and has a long life and grows old with her husband and watch her kids grow up,” Barrett said.
For ways to support Mara Fulk and her family, visit WeLoveMara.com.