‘Why not me?’

Top-10 Stories of 2016

No. 8

Breast cancer survivor refused to let cancer define her life story

Mary Wheeling just about wore out her running shoes after competing in a marathon and a dozen half-marathons over the years. Now she’s thinking about taking up biking.


To say the 60-year-old Wheeling likes to be active is a massive understatement.

Last week, she scurried around with final details for her son’s wedding, a milestone that was a source of inspiration to her.

She has a bubbly personality with a quick smile and sparkle in her eye. Wheeling, as many of her friends say, is the picture of life.

But there was a time not too long ago that the “picture of life” was facing death squarely in the eye. Wheeling was diagnosed with breast cancer Nov. 17, 2000 – on her mother’s birthday – and doctors gave her a less-than-50-percent chance that she would survive.

“I was like, ‘oh-oh,’” said Wheeler, a retired teacher at Killdeer Public School. “I’m not going to lie. It’s scary. My main concern was for my husband, Bob, and the kids. I wanted to be around for graduations and weddings.”

It was a topsy-turvy time for Wheeler and her family. She went from “Everything’s OK” to “You have cancer” in a matter of weeks. She had a biopsy to remove a tumor in her left breast and doctors thought it was either a cyst or a fibro adenoma, which is a benign tumor and were pretty confident it was nothing.

But then, after test came back on the tumor, doctors said they found cancer. The pathology report said high grade infiltrating (invasive) duct carcinoma. The report said there was evidence of capillary/lymphatic space invasion.

Those were technical terms, but Wheeling knew it was not good.

In her journal, Wheeling wrote: “What am I supposed to do with this? I had two choices … I could go completely wacko over this and make life miserable for everyone including myself or I could surrender, do everything possible to get better and leave the results to God.”

Questions flooded Wheeling’s mind.

What else could I do? I had absolutely no control over this situation. It was all so unbelievable and then I thought … why not me?

Others have suffered so much, why should I be exempt from adversity?

With that, Wheeling placed her life with her Lord. It was faith that was cultivated and grew from watching her parents, who were married for 65 years.

In all, she had two surgeries, the second surgery was needed because doctors didn’t get around the tumor area, and they wanted to check her lymph nodes.

After the second surgery, the doctor told her husband things didn’t look good. He said the breast tissue appeared as if there was cancer and the lymph nodes looked swollen and thought cancer was there as well.

He said there was a 40-to50 percent chance of survival but that was questionable.

“He said he was preparing us for the worst,” Bob Wheeling said.

The doctor said further tests would be conducted and they would know in two days. That was the longest two days. The results came back negative on the lymph nodes and breast tissue.

In her journal, Wheeling wrote about that day: “We were elated, ecstatic, we celebrated! Was it a miracle? I first thought, oh that couldn’t be … then the words ‘evidence of lymphatic space invasion’ … 40-50 percent chance of survival” … came back to me and I thought … I could have a miracle! Why not me?’”

She had eight chemo treatments and six weeks of radiation treatments in Bismarck.

And during this time, her friends and family, whom Wheeling calls her “guardian angels,” provided love and support. They were the helping where ever they could, cooking, cleaning and even painting the house. They also set up a schedule to drive Wheeling to Bismarck for treatments.

They comforted her. They prayed for her. They loved her.

“I have great guardian angels,” she said with that warm smile.

She has a nice collection of angel figurines friends and family gave her. They are displayed at her home. Some are tall, others tiny. Some are made of glass, others wood. Some are simple, others have inspirational words.

The dozen-or-so angels represent her community – a community of love and caring that carried her through some of the darkest days of her life.

When she lost her hair because of the radiation treatment, Wheeling had to wear a wig when she returned to school. The next day, teachers at Killdeer school also wore wigs as a show of support.

“It meant a lot,” she said of the teachers’ wig-wearing gesture. “It was hard, but I got used to wearing that wig. We laughed about it. We had a lot of bald jokes. You have to.”

She met the disease with faith and positive energy, something that will always impress her husband.

“She was the strong one. Right away, her faith and strength took over,” Bob Wheeling said. “Nobody knows how they’re going to react if they get cancer. But if I ever get something like that, I want to be like her.”

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