After 11 years of dating, a fierce battle with Hodgkin’s lymphoma, and multiple rounds of chemotherapy, including stem cell transplant, Mary Stanton tied the knot with high school sweetheart, Matthew Mills, in August 2019. Learn how their love conquered all and why Mary Stanton credits her care team at Levine Cancer Institute for enabling her to live the life she has today.

News | 6 days ago

High School Sweethearts Tie the Knot After Bride Beats Cancer Twice

After 11 years of dating, a fierce battle with Hodgkin's lymphoma, and multiple rounds of chemotherapy, including a stem cell transplant, Mary Stanton tied the knot with high school sweetheart, Matthew Mills. Learn how their love conquered all and why Mary Stanton credits her care team at Levine Cancer Institute for enabling her to live the life she has today. 

Before March 2017, high school sweethearts, Mary Stanton Coltrane and Matthew Mills, had what most would consider a normal dating life.

When it came time for college, the couple faced the challenges of a long-distance relationship with Mary Stanton attending school at the University of North Carolina and Matthew attending school at the University of Virginia. But, like every other obstacle thrown their way, they handled the adjustment head-on and made it work.

Once they graduated, they finally had the opportunity to live in the same city. And after years of long-distance communication and traveling to be with one another, it finally seemed as if the couple could move forward in their relationship as they settled down together in Charlotte.

That was until a devastating cancer diagnosis stopped Mary Stanton in her tracks.

Cancer at the age of 23

In early 2017, Mary Stanton began experiencing persistent, low-grade fevers. She visited doctors on several occasions, never finding answers or relief. By February 2017, she was still feeling sick.

Finally, an urgent care doctor X-rayed her chest to rule out pneumonia. That’s when they saw a glimpse of Mary Stanton’s enlarged lymph nodes, which indicated a more serious underlying condition.

One test lead to another, and she received her diagnosis—Hodgkin’s lymphoma, a cancer that begins in white blood cells called lymphocytes, which reside in the immune system. More than 8,000 new diagnoses are made each year, and it’s most common to develop in early adulthood, according to the American Cancer Society.

“The diagnosis was shocking,” says Mary Stanton. “Cancer wasn’t on my radar. I was in my 20s, and I was active and healthy.”

As the news began to sink in, she focused on the steps ahead of her. She soon learned that, with treatment, most cases of Hodgkin’s lymphoma are curable. It was this knowledge, she says, that helped her get through her first round of chemotherapy.

“We learned that Hodgkin’s lymphoma is ‘the good cancer,’ the one with a high cure rate,” says Mary Stanton. “Most people are fine after a few rounds of treatment, so we just considered it a blip on the radar.”

Fighting made easier with a team of support

Soon after her diagnosis, Mary Stanton underwent 12 rounds of chemotherapy over the course of six months. Scans during chemotherapy revealed her cancer was entering remission, and the couple remained hopeful for a quick recovery.

“I thought ‘if I can just get through this treatment and focus on the end,’ I’ll be okay,” she says.

According to Mary Stanton, her care team is what made “getting through it” possible. Around every turn, people like Lisa Pye, RN, Mary Stanton’s nurse navigator, were there to help her navigate the difficult journey.

“Everything is harder when you’re going through cancer, but they made it easier,” said Mary Stanton. “Lisa would hear any request I had, whether I needed to know how to deal with nausea or where I could go for a wig. She was my friend and all the support that I needed during that time.”

After the six months of chemo had passed, she had one final scan to check her progress. The news was nothing they had hoped for.

“The cancer rebelled against the chemo—it was back,” said Mary Stanton. “It’s rare for this type of cancer to not respond to initial treatment, so I was unlucky… and we were absolutely devastated.”

Nilanjan Ghosh, PhD, MD, Mary Stanton’s primary oncologist at Levine Cancer Institute, says the news hit her care team hard as well.

“We were so looking forward to good results and letting this wonderful, pleasant and strong individual move on with her life,” said Dr. Ghosh. “It was such a big shock for everyone, and it meant she would need to lean on her tremendous amount of strength and support to deal with the bad news.”

Lisa says she shared Dr. Ghosh’s sentiment when she got the call.

“I was standing in the grocery store line about to check out and it brought tears to my eyes,” said Pye. There was no reason to believe her scan after the sixth and final cycle would show new growth in her cancer—it was devastating news to say the least.”

To continue fighting the cancer, Mary Stanton faced a second line of chemotherapy.

She describes the second round of chemotherapy as harsher, stronger and more difficult to cope with. Not only did it make her feel sicker, but her mental wellbeing was in a much more fragile state.

“My second round of chemotherapy was tough, mainly because of the psychological effect I was experiencing,” says Mary Stanton. “With the first round, I had tunnel vision. But when the cancer came back, it made it more difficult to go through it all again.”

Silver linings through the darkness

As he watched his girlfriend cope with re-diagnosis, Matthew decided to create a light at the end of the tunnel. Midway through Mary Stanton’s second line of chemotherapy, he asked her to be his wife.

“I had known for a while that I wanted to marry her,” said Matthew. “But the timing felt right, and it was nice to have something to look forward to after having gone through some pretty tough times.”

Despite a trying second round of chemotherapy, Mary Stanton said ‘yes’ to her high school sweetheart and scans began showing positive results. Finally, things were looking up.

Stem cell transplant: the final step to remission

Achieving positive results with second line chemotherapy, according to Dr. Ghosh, is what made Mary Stanton an ideal candidate for a stem cell transplant—one of the final steps in her journey to remission.

“Mary Stanton’s strength, supportive family and otherwise healthy lifestyle also made her a good candidate for the transplant,” says Dr. Ghosh.

For the procedure, she endured eight days of high dose chemo to prepare her body for the transplant, followed by infusion of the harvested stem cells into her bloodstream to allow for the creation of new, healthy blood cells.

“With a stem cell transplant, they’re essentially killing off your entire immune system,” says Mary Stanton. “They basically harvested my stem cells and replanted them into my body.”

More than just a care team—they’re family

After a successful stem cell transplant, Mary Stanton has been in remission for over a year.

She was able to focus on being a bride and walking down the aisle with the support of loved ones by her side. And her guest list wouldn’t have been complete, she says, without the members of her care team at Levine Cancer Institute.

“Dr. Ghosh and Lisa are two of the most important people to me at this point, and I couldn’t imagine not inviting them,” says Mary Stanton. “There wouldn’t be a wedding without them. They got me through the hardest time in my life.”

Looking back, she says meeting Dr. Ghosh and Lisa was one of the many blessings she experienced during her battle with Hodgkin’s lymphoma.

And while cancer took her to mental places that she never thought she’d go, she says it also highlighted the blessings she wouldn’t have seen had she not gotten sick.

“As traumatic as it was, my care team made it tolerable,” says Mary Stanton. “When I was re-diagnosed, Dr. Ghosh looked at me and said ‘we’re gonna figure this out, and you’re going to be okay”—and he was right. I’m in remission today, and slowly, but surely, I am finding my new normal.”

Lisa says Mary Stanton is more than a patient—she’s like a family member. And she is happy knowing the newlyweds can look toward their future together, cancer-free, as they enter their marriage.

“Mary Stanton showed a great deal of fortitude and courage,” said Pye. “She was one of the bravest and calmest patients I’ve ever had. I wish them a long life of good health, love, and happiness.”

 

Learn more about world-class cancer care at Levine Cancer Institute.