Stage 3 anal cancer: Mary's story

Mary Guevara with her family
Pictured: Mary Guevara credits her family as some of her biggest supporters.

The last year has brought many challenges. The COVID-19 pandemic has created uncertainty for people’s health, jobs and many other aspects of life. People have spent more time at home and have ended up feeling thankful for those closest to them.

Mary Guevara is no different. She is 36, a married mother of two, and a teacher. She understands the value of family and cherishes the time she has been fortunate to spend with those around her for the last 12 months.

However, in late 2020, Guevara began to have some health problems. She noticed some rectal bleeding, and she decided to call her doctor.

“They said it was probably hemorrhoids,” she says. “I was told that I’ve had children and that it’s not uncommon for a woman my age. I didn’t think much else of it.”

This wasn’t just a simple case of hemorrhoids, however. During one trip to the bathroom, a tumor prolapsed and required immediate medical attention.

“A surgeon removed the growth on a Wednesday, and it was totally off my radar,” Guevara recalls. “It wasn’t until the following Monday that I got a notice on my smartwatch saying I had a message from my doctor. I was at school teaching and I didn’t think anything of it, so I quickly decided to check it out.”

What Guevara saw caught her by surprise.

“I read the word ‘malignant’ and was in total shock. They had done a biopsy on the tumor to be safe and found that it was cancerous. I can’t even begin to describe the shock I was in. The diagnosis hit me like a ton of bricks.”

After the initial shock wore off, Guevara came to Roswell Park.

“It never crossed my mind to go anywhere else,” she says. “There was no doubt in my mind which place was going to treat me the best.”

At her first appointment, a CT scan revealed the cancer had spread to her lymph nodes. A different scan the following day confirmed it: squamous cell carcinoma. Guevara was diagnosed with stage 3 anal cancer.

Finding support

Watch Mary Guevara drop the puck before Hockey Fights Cancer 2021.

“It was tough. I cried a lot,” Guevara says, but she would not go through her battle alone. “My sister was my rock. She’s a nurse at Roswell, so I talked to her about everything. My husband, my cousin and even my kids helped me deal with this.”

Being a mother led to some difficult decisions.

“I’m 36 years old. My biggest fear was not dying; it was leaving my girls. They are 8 and 10 years old. I wasn’t sure if I should tell them or if the less they knew, the better.”

In the end, Guevara decided to explain to her children what was happening.

“I told them everything,” she explains. “Kids are resilient. It was hard to have that conversation, but I am so glad I did. They ended up playing a big role in supporting me through this.”

Guevara would get a few more allies in her battle with cancer.

“Treatment took a toll on me physically and mentally, but I am so grateful for the staff at Roswell,” she says.

Guevara particularly formed a bond with Leayn Flaherty, PA, a physician assistant in the Radiation Medicine Department, and says “Leayn is an angel walking this Earth.”

The feelings are mutual. “Mary is the kind of patient who inspires me to come to work and be my best self every day,” Flaherty says. “She is not only bravely fighting her battle with courage and determination, but also with her great sense of humor.”

Guevara then reached out to an unlikely place: Hollywood.

“I remembered actress Marcia Cross from ‘Desperate Housewives’ had anal cancer,” Guevara says. “She was very open about her diagnosis and I found that inspirational to someone like me. There’s a stigma about anal cancer and not a lot of people talk about it. I sent her a message and didn’t think much else of it.”

What developed next was a friendship.

“I couldn’t believe she responded to me! We now talk about three or four times a week,” says Guevara. “She’s amazing. I love how open and honest she is about everything, and now I hope to be that person for someone else.”

Inspiring others

In February 2021, four months after her initial diagnosis, she received amazing news. Her six-week regimen of chemotherapy and radiation had worked better than most had expected. Guevara is currently cancer-free.

“I have an anoscopy scheduled in three months to monitor my progress and I will be enrolling in a clinical trial to try and stay cancer-free,” Guevara says.

After her own life-altering battle, Guevara has some words of advice for other young adults battling cancer.

“You’re not invincible. Just because you’re young, serious things can happen to you,” she advises. “If you have changes in your health, you should report them. I joke that I was probably a pain in the butt with all the questions I had surrounding my diagnosis, but you have to remember you’re not annoying your doctor. If you have a concern, bring it up and get checked out.”

Most importantly, Guevara stresses the need for a strong support system.

“I would tell anyone that they should keep faith in their support system, especially when things don’t look good. Find those people you can call at 3 a.m. when you’re panicking and you know they’ll answer the phone. When I am upset or worried, I can go to those who pick me up when I fall and help me push through when I can’t find the strength myself.”

Editor’s Note: Cancer patient outcomes and experiences may vary, even for those with the same type of cancer. An individual patient’s story should not be used as a prediction of how another patient will respond to treatment. Roswell Park is transparent about the survival rates of our patients as compared to national standards, and provides this information, when available, within the cancer type sections of this website.