‘These people are all fighting with me,’ says cancer survivor
A scar reaching from her sternum to below her belly button is just one layer — underneath are seven more of internal sutures — but for Mara Fulk, it means life without a tumor and learning what comes next.
On Sept. 11, the administrator at Center Montessori School in Bradenton was diagnosed with Leiomyosarcoma, an aggressive form of cancer that the Mayo Clinic says affects soft muscle tissue.
She took medical leave from her job to focus on her cancer treatment.
A major surgery was her next step in fighting the cancer.
Fulk’s surgery last month successfully removed the tumor that once engulfed her pancreas, spleen, about one-third of her stomach, 25 centimeters of her intestines and part of her portal vein, some of which was reconstructed.
“I felt wonderful, very optimistic. I was excited and I was little impatient. I really just wanted to get in and get it done,” Fulk said.
Doctors at MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, where she became “Miracle Mara,” spent between 10 and 12 hours in surgery working to remove the tumor.
They only had to repair about a quarter-inch of her portal vein. But doctors were forced to entirely remove her pancreas as well as reroute her intestines directly to her stomach.
Fulk now has to relearn her entire body as a Type I diabetic. Her doctors, she said, were pleased with the outcome of her procedure.
During the surgery, she was on full life support and her blood was routed outside her body through a bypass machine.
But the tumor, Fulk said, is gone.
“All that said and done, I’m here,” Fulk said. “I was amazed.”
Nearly five weeks after the surgery, Fulk says her energy levels are low and she doesn’t have much of an appetite. But through it all, her enthusiasm for surviving and living life is still clear in her voice.
“I’ll take the second illness (diabetes) over the first (cancer), no doubt, because I can live,” Fulk said.
Now, Fulk will need to track her sugar levels, give herself insulin and because of the way her digestive system was rerouted, she will forever need to take pills before she takes a bite of food.
“You really just look at everything in your world a little differently. The second you wake up to the second you close your eyes. I don’t think that will ever change for me,” Fulk said.
From the day of her diagnosis, she has seen unending support from her family.
Her husband was in Texas with her through the week before surgery and the procedure itself. Her children came to visit, too. Fulk’s parents came to Bradenton after her diagnosis and have been here for months.
“When you’ve got your family next to you, there’s nothing stronger,” Fulk said.
After the surgery, when her children came to visit, Fulk’s daughter had a message for the doctors: “Can you tell them thank you for saving my mommy?”
It’s a long road to recovery, with a lot to learn about her new body, but one she’s taking on full-force.
“At Montessori, we created life-long learners, so my goal is to learn something every day,” Fulk said.
Fulk said support has been pouring in from the community, including from former students and their families.
After a month at the hospital in Houston, she returned to her Bradenton home May 8. Since then, she’s taken joy in waking up each morning to kiss her children before they leave for school and letting her feet sink in the sand at the beach with her best friend.
“It’s incredibly important to celebrate your life and the days you have and the people you have in it because at no point in time do we know if that will change,” Fulk said.
Through her own recovery, Fulk hopes to continue her work mentoring other cancer patients.
“I pray everyone lives a long and healthy life,” Fulk said. “Our job is to do the best we can for all people every day.”
Fulk continues to document her experiences on her website, WeLoveMara.com.