Mary McCusker | Breast Cancer Survivor Series

Breast cancer survivor Mary McCusker (left) sits with her daughter and Conemaugh Valley volleyball player, Samantha Wilson, prior to a match against Windber at Conemaugh Valley High School on Tuesday, Oct. 10, 2017.  

Samantha “Sam” Wilson was a sophomore at Conemaugh Valley High School when her mother, Mary McCusker, was diagnosed with breast cancer in April 2015.

Now a senior on the Blue Jays volleyball team, Wilson said her mother became a hero to her and brothers R.J., now 19, and Ashtin, 11.

“Even when she was going through everything that she was, it never stopped her from doing anything with us,” Wilson said prior to her team’s volleyball match with Windber on Tuesday. “She never stopped being our perfect mom, going to the games and doing stuff for us.

“That wasn’t easy at all. She never let that get in the way.”

The Blue Jays’ outside hitter and back row player said that despite being young when her mother received the diagnosis, she understood what was going on – that it was common and many women experienced breast cancer.

“I knew all of that in my head, but when it came to it happening to her, it just really hit home for me,” Wilson said. 

“I know in school I did a lot of different presentations and I learned about it and wanted to know more about it.”

Wilson said that she never felt as though she was a alone.

“I definitely had teachers that asked me how I was doing and that was great,” Wilson said. “It’s one of the great things about a small school – everyone knows us personally and I love that.

“To have someone to talk to was really important. I did a presentation on breast cancer right after she had been diagnosed so I started getting a little teary-eyed during the presentation and my teacher told me that I had done a wonderful job, especially for the topic that I was talking about. I felt that by getting to know about the disease that I was able to cope with it better.”

‘That positive attitude’

McCusker, of Bon-Air, found the lump in her breast during a self-evaluation. 

When she had it checked, the results came back that the cancer was benign. 

But her doctor encouraged her to get a second opinion.

“When I went for the second opinion at a different facility, it came back within three days,” McCusker said. “It was actually on Good Friday of the Easter weekend in 2015 when I got the news. It was very emotional. 

“It was Stage 2-A, but they said it was very aggressive and that it had to be taken care of right away.

“The first thought was that I had to get better so that I could take care of the kids.”

During one of the most difficult periods of her life, McCusker said focusing on her children and maintaining a positive attitude were the keys to her recovery, along with plenty of support and encouragement from other family members and those in the community. She praised her children for their encouragement throughout the process.

“When I pulled them all together and told them that it was positive, I broke down and was crying and thought that I was going to die,” McCusker said. 

“If it wasn’t for the kids, I’m not sure I would have made it. They kept telling me that I was strong and a fighter. Their strength really helped me to become the fighter that I became. I had to do it for them.”

McCusker had surgery to remove the tumor, then six weeks of strong chemotherapy. After that, there were 11 doses of the cancer drug herceptin and 34 treatments of radiation.

“It was hard, but I ate the right diet, did the right things and did what they told me to and tried to maintain that positive attitude,” McCusker said. “If you don’t have have that positive attitude, I truly believe that you are going down. I truly believe that the positivity gave me strength to get through the entire process.”

McCusker’s last treatment was in May.

“I thought ‘Yahoo, I did it’ – but you always have it in the back of your mind that there is that possibility that it could return,” McCusker said. 

“It is one in every eight women that is diagnosed with breast cancer and that’s a lot. But I felt very empowered to be able to get up every morning and go and watch my daughter or sons play. My children kept themselves busy playing sports.” 

‘Need to stay strong’

 Wilson, who plans to major in nursing when she attends Indiana University of Pennsylvania next year, said that the yearly pink-out volleyball game for breast cancer awareness is something that means more to her now than it did before.

“Until she was diagnosed, it didn’t hit home, and now it’s a day that really means something to me,” Wilson said. “It’s not just a day when we wear pink. It means more than that. It makes me feel stronger, but I can’t imagine how strong it must make my mother feel, to come out on the other end of this. We are definitely lucky.”

Wilson has a suggestion for other children whose mothers may receive such a diagnosis.

“Definitely don’t hold it in,” Wilson said. “Always express yourself and get it out there. If you are feeling sad, it doesn’t matter who you tell. There are so many people out there that will listen and give you the support that you need.

“When I felt that I needed someone to talk to, it helped me to know that I not only had my brothers, but my teachers and other family members.”

McCusker said that she wants to bring awareness to other women and tell them to pay more attention to their bodies.

“Go for routine checkups and do your own self exams, because if you don’t take care of yourself, nobody else will,” McCusker said. “The first thing is to take care of you so that you can take care of your children and everything else. Women need to stay strong and encourage each other and love life.”

Cory Isenberg is a sports reporter and columnist for The Tribune-Democrat. She can be reached at (814) 532-5080.​ Follow her on Twitter @CoryIsenbergTD.

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