Syracuse woman’s special connection to Mother Marianne helps her battle cancer
By Jennika Baines
Sun Associate Editor
Amy Pole had just begun her happily-ever-after.
Young and beautiful with a happy marriage to her high school sweetheart, a fulfilling job helping children and a healthy new baby boy, she was set for a life well-lived.
But while she was home on maternity leave, she started feeling unusually exhausted. Then the headaches came — headaches so bad she couldn’t even open her eyes in the morning, much less get out of bed.
She went for tests to see what could be wrong. This is when Amy’s story became one of survival and faith.
Amy was told there was a mass the size of a tennis ball in her brain. Within a week, she had her first surgery to remove what doctors initially thought might be a cyst. Instead, the diagnosis was much more serious.
“Amy has what’s called a glioblastoma,” said Sandra Ruland, a nurse at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston where Amy travels for treatment. “It is the most common adult malignant brain tumor. There are 17,000 new cases diagnosed each year.”
Since Amy received the diagnosis in February 2009, there have been three operations, three different trial drugs, six weeks of whole-brain radiation, three different chemotherapies, and two focused radiations targeting the brain tumor.
Throughout all of the treatment and turmoil in her life, Amy has found solace at the Mother Marianne Cope shrine in the Franciscan Motherhouse in Syracuse. She is convinced that Mother Marianne is interceding on her behalf, helping her both physically and spiritually to deal with the cancer that has affected her body but not her spirit.
Amy first came to the Mother Marianne shrine at her friend Lori DeForest’s urging. The two worked at Wellwood Middle School together before Lori took another job and Amy began her maternity leave. Lori had heard that someone else who prayed to Mother Marianne had survived cancer. “I told Amy, ‘I’m taking you on a field trip — non-negotiable,’” Lori said, laughing.
The trip to the shrine has become a weekly event for the two. They pray to Mother Marianne, they sit quietly, they reflect, they hope. “It just gives me such peace to come here,” Amy said. “I do feel like she’s there listening to me.”
And Amy and Lori both feel certain that there have been very clear instances in which Mother Marianne has helped Amy in her battle. “At first it was very overwhelming. Every time we came we had these experiences or signs sent to us,” Amy said.
Lori smiled. “We call it Hope with Cope,” she said.
After two surgeries and multiple treatments, Amy was told that the tumor was growing and nothing could be done. Surgery simply wasn’t an option. But Amy and Lori kept going to the Mother Marianne shrine. Lori said she prayed that Amy’s doctors would be given guidance. A week later, Amy received news that her doctor had presented her case to a board which approved her for surgery. They would try to get at the small bit of tumor that the first surgery couldn’t reach.
Lori went to the shrine on her own to pray while Amy was being operated on in Boston. “As soon as I was pulling out of the parking lot, I got the call that Amy was going to be okay,” Lori said. “I truly do believe that Mother Marianne’s telling us that she wants to help and she wants to be here for Amy.”
On the day of her third operation, Amy brought a little baggy of soil from Mother Marianne’s grave with her. It was given to her by a Franciscan sister from the Motherhouse. Amy asked that it be kept on her at all times. She touched some of the soil to her forehead before the operation, and then a nurse pinned a small baggy of it to her sock.
“I believe that Mother Marianne has interceded,” Amy said. “I truly believe that she helped me.” And they said that there are many other signs, big and small, that Mother Marianne is listening to their prayers.
This faith is something her pastor, Msgr. Robert Yeazel, has seen first-hand. “She’s a very faith-filled person who has one of the most optimistic and confident attitudes toward life and illness that I’ve ever met,” he said. “She really creates a community around her, not for her, but around herself to really celebrate the journey of life.”
So often, friends and family told Amy they knew how strong she is, and how hard she’ll fight against the cancer. Their messages of caring helped Amy call on her reserves of strength, but sometimes they also make her feel overwhelmed. Sure she’s strong, but sometimes she’s tired, too. Sometimes she’s scared.
Now with her faith that Mother Marianne is fighting for her, too, Amy said she has felt a great deal of relief. “I kind of feel like it took a little bit of pressure off me,” she said. “I feel like maybe someone else had something to do with it.”
But there’s still a battle to be waged.
Just before this past Christmas, Amy returned to the doctors in Boston for a follow-up. “Basically they said the tumor was growing out of control and there was nothing they could do,” Amy said.
For the first time, she asked for a prognosis. The doctor said that within six months she would lose the movement on her left side. She was given a year, maybe two, to live.
“So it was the worst Christmas ever,” Amy said.
Her son Jack was motivation for her to get up out of bed each morning. He knows that she goes to Boston for check-ups with her doctor. “He would come up to me and say, ‘Mommy, you have a boo-boo on your head but I’ll kiss it and make it better,’” she said.
Amy found herself trying to find ways to cope with the idea that she might miss Jack’s childhood. “I was trying to think of everything I could do to make sure he’d remember me,” she said. She bought him children’s books that record voices so Jack could hear her read him bedtime stories. She wrote him letters and notes.
And she continued to visit the Mother Marianne shrine.
Then, two weeks after she received the news that the tumor was growing, doctors told her they wanted to study the tissue taken from her third and most recent operation for some idea of where to go in terms of treatment. When they did, they found that 90 percent of the mass they thought was a malignant tumor is actually scar tissue from the radiation. Because of this, she was approved for a trial drug which attacks the few tumor stem cells which are left.
The news was, for Amy and many of her friends, more proof that Mother Marianne is there for her. Amy’s MRIs are stable now, and she’s taking every day as it comes. She especially enjoys simple pleasures like watching Jack dance to music, going to the grocery store and going out with her girlfriends.
She’s also coping with some sensory issues on her left side and sometimes has mild seizures that briefly affect her speech and her left arm. Amy is asking for prayers to help bring her to a full recovery so there can be even more play times with Jack and trips to the grocery store.
The prayers from friends and family give her strength, Amy said. But for friends and family, Amy has given them much more. When Amy’s friend Cathy Pierce first heard about Amy’s cancer, she couldn’t help but think of her own family’s battle with the disease. Pierce lost two sisters to cancer, one of whom died when she was just a teenager.
“I think sometimes when things like that happen you kind of just give up on God,” Pierce said. But Amy’s energy, courage and faith have had a profound effect on her friend.
“She’s brought me back to my faith,” Pierce said. “It’s made me pray again. It’s reminded me how fragile life is. And it’s really given me hope.”