Just months after Mary Welsh had surgery to remove two brain tumors, her husband, John, was diagnosed with a brain tumor of his own. But with their family, faith and each other, the Welshes say they have learned they can get through anything.
Their voices overlapped and tangled, starting and finishing thoughts and sentences. Two minds sharing one side of a conversation.
Mary and John. John and Mary. The Welshes.
“We’ve always felt you should enjoy your life as you go along,” Mary said. She sat next to her husband on their living room couch, just back from three weeks in Florida. “You never know what’s going to happen down the road, and we honestly can say we’ve enjoyed our life together.”
“Yes, we have,” John said. “Made a lot of memories.”
“And will make a lot more,” she said.
“Absolutely,” he said.
Since their first date 14 years ago in a small airport restaurant, their lives have intertwined. Marriage, grandchildren, motorcycle trips, brain tumors.
You never know what’s going to happen down the road.
Three years and two surgeries ago, doctors diagnosed Mary, 63, with a tumor on the back of her brain. John, 60, learned he had a tumor growing behind his left eye last year. Both are being treated at Cleveland Clinic.
Neither could believe the diagnoses when they heard them.
“I thought it was a mistake ...” Mary said.
“There’s no way, you know,” John added.
“... It just can’t be,” she said.
Mary was nearing retirement after more than 40 years as a hairdresser when, in 2009, her vision started to blur.
She thought it was a thyroid problem and made an appointment with her endocrinologist.
“I think you might have a brain tumor,” the doctor told her.
“What?” I came here for more medicine, she thought.
The doctor suspected a pituitary tumor, but an MRI showed a tumor and a cyst at the back of her brain.
All of the times she complained about bumping her toe or getting a scrape suddenly seemed insignificant.
“This is like the granddaddy,” she said. “Forget all that stuff.”
Mary grew up in Kent. She and John live in the same house his parents owned, just outside of Alliance, near the Sleepy Hollow Country Club.
Mary is upbeat and funny. John is friendly but introverted. He deals in facts and does mechanical maintenance at Republic Steel in Canton.
As the Welshes talked on an unseasonably warm March afternoon, two of their nine grandchildren wandered through the yard.
“We really enjoy our time together, but you just can’t say enough about that grandparent time. It’s wonderful,” Mary said.
“Plus, you get to take them home,” John said, chuckling.
Mary met John in the fall of 1997 at the urging of John’s daughter, Michele, who worked at a spa with her future stepmother. Both were divorced with adult children.
Page 2 of 3 - “I’m not really trying to fix him up, but I just think the two of you would get along really good,” Michele Sanders recalled saying.
Mary’s version of the pitch is more comic: “Just come down and eat. If you don’t like him, no harm done.”
John and Mary had their first date at a restaurant at the Tri-City Airport near Beloit. They were married in 2000.
“I think God brought us together, maybe even for this reason,” John said.
The skull holds the brain without room for much else. More cramped is the area at the back of the head, packed with nerves and blood vessels and parts of the brain that control breathing, heart rate and balance.
That’s where Mary’s tumor was.
“If you have something that’s growing in that area, there’s very little give,” said Dr. Glen Stevens, a Cleveland Clinic brain tumor specialist who began treating Mary after her first surgery.
As a tumor grows, it causes nausea and headaches, compresses brain tissue and obstructs the flow of fluid in the brain. Ultimately, the condition becomes life-threatening.
Mary had her first surgery in June 2009 at Aultman Hospital. The surgeon treated the cyst but was unable to find the tumor. Her recovery was long and painful.
“I felt like I was a hundred years old for quite a few months, and (John) was very patient,” Mary said. “He encouraged me, but he didn’t push me.”
Later that year, she began seeing Stevens at the Cleveland Clinic. Based on MRI scans, Stevens believed Mary had a hemangioblastoma, a very rare tumor more prevalent in men. As with most brain tumors, there was no known cause in Mary’s case, the doctor said.
She would need another surgery, but not right away. It all depended on how fast the tumor grew.
Mary and John did their best to go on with their lives. They rode to Myrtle Beach on their bright orange Honda Gold Wing. They spent time with their grandchildren. But over the next year, Mary’s headaches and nausea worsened as the tumor grew and the cyst returned.
On Jan. 26, 2011, Mary, John and their family assembled at Cleveland Clinic. Their pastor prayed.
“This is my life here; you better take care of her,” Mary’s daughter, Kelly Reich, told brain surgeon Dr. Michael Vogelbaum. The surgeon reassured her.
Using advanced technology that enables MRI scans inside the operating room, Vogelbaum found and removed two tumors.
When it was over, John was at Mary’s bedside, along with their children and other relatives.
“He never left my side,” she said.
Mary’s second surgery passed with fewer complications than the first. The fatigue was overwhelming, but she had been through it before and knew she would get a little better each day, she said.
Page 3 of 3 - A few months later, John started having trouble with his neck and back, then his eyes.
One day, on his morning commute, he noticed the headlights of oncoming cars seemed dim.
He rubbed his neck. The lights brightened.
“Woah, this isn’t right anyway you look at it,” John said.
A battery of tests revealed nothing wrong with his eyes and ruled out a circulation problem, but an MRI revealed a tumor behind his left eye, between the brain and skull.
“I can’t believe we’re going to have to do this again,” John’s daughter, Michele, said.
Curiously, John’s vision resolved and probably wasn’t related to the tumor, which appears to be a meningioma, Stevens said.
That type of tumor is common in the uncommon world of brain tumors, and 95 percent are non-cancerous, but if it starts to grow, John will need to have surgery, Stevens said.
Meanwhile, Mary’s headaches and nausea have gone away and the eye problem was unrelated. The tumors were benign. She didn’t need chemotherapy or radiation and subsequent MRIs have shown no evidence of the tumor recurring.
“If by chance it would grow again, it still is a slow-growing tumor,” Mary said. “Hopefully, it won’t. With God’s help, it won’t.”
Having a tumor plays on your mind, John said. It’s there but you can’t see it. An unsettling mix of knowledge and uncertainty.
He stays philosophical.
“How can I worry about it when I have no symptoms?” he said. “Yeah, I know it’s there. You can’t worry about something that isn’t. When it comes, it comes, and you’ll handle it. That’s just the way it is.”
It helps to know someone who has been down this road before.
Mary confessed to being a little worried about John. He’s never had surgery. Advil is about all the medication he takes, she said.
But if he eventually needs surgery, she will be there for him, as he was for her, she said. She’s learned the meaning of “in sickness and in health.”
There are more memories to be made.
“We’re very lucky, and we both have so much love between us,” Mary said, “that we know we can get through anything.”