Woman swims for breast cancer awareness

Retired teacher highlights forgotten cancer group
Woman swims for breast cancer awareness

In middle school, many of us want to be invisible. Not in an altruistic, superhero way, but that distinct preteen sense of don’t look at me, don’t pay attention to me and definitely don’t point out any way I’m different from my classmates.

I was fortunate to have a teacher who wouldn’t let me disappear. Mrs. Gooze had a knack for noticing the students, first sixth graders and then fourth graders, she taught for thirteen years in the Oregon School District before retiring in 2006. She saw our strengths and potential and refused to let us forget about them.

And now, Mary Gooze is making sure another group isn’t overlooked.

In June 2014, Gooze learned the breast cancer she’d been diagnosed with two and a half years earlier had returned and metastasized. This placed her squarely in the stage-four camp, leaving her with no hope for a cure–and not much attention.

“We’re a forgotten group,” Gooze says of the 155,000 women and men in the United States who have stage-four breast cancer. “It’s not a happy story. The pretty picture of ‘we’re survivors’ doesn’t apply.”

Metastatic breast cancer kills forty thousand Americans a year, roughly 110 each day, according to the Metastatic Breast Cancer Network. And although this number accounts for fifteen percent of cancer deaths, stage-four breast cancer receives only two percent of breast cancer research dollars.

“Recurrence is the early-stage survivor’s worst fear, and metastatic breast cancer is a terminal illness,” says Kelly Lange, secretary and treasurer of METAvivor, a Maryland-based metastatic breast cancer awareness, research and support group. “People don’t like to think about death, and they often don’t want to acknowledge people with stage-four disease.”

“That’s why I decided to swim,” Gooze says. “To see if people will pay attention.”

Gooze, sixty-four and a swimmer and triathlete, was preparing for a half marathon in the summer of 2014 when hip pain led her to see her doctor. Thinking she was dealing with a training injury, she was shocked to hear that cancer had returned and spread to her hip, arms and neck.

It was devastating news, yet Gooze found a sliver of the positive: While she could no longer run, her doctor gave her the go-ahead to swim.

Later that summer she did just that. While visiting her son Aaron in Seattle (daughter Margaret lives in Madison and youngest son David is in Washington, D.C.), Gooze embarked on a two-and-a-half-mile swim across Lake Washington, with her husband Rob paddling beside her in a kayak. It was just two weeks after a radiation session, and strong wind made for choppy water and a challenging swim. But completing it sparked inspiration. “I thought, ‘Wow, I can do this,'” Gooze says.

Gooze started researching metastatic breast cancer and tossing around ideas with Rob, exploring ways she could help combat the disease and raise the profile of those it’s reached. She and Rob quickly centered on the concept of swimming.

“I thought, what a great idea to use her love of swimming and my love of kayaking as a vehicle to raise awareness and funds,” he says. “It was also a great way to give us a purpose and focus in life.”

A few months later while in Arizona, Gooze found a lake and swam more than two miles in fifty-eight-degree water. When she emerged, a man on the beach who’d been watching her asked what the heck she’d been doing. She told him about her plan of swimming to raise money and awareness to fight metastatic breast cancer, and he wrote her a check on the spot.

“I thought, ‘Okay, that’s one,'” she says.

Back home in Oregon, Gooze formed One Woman Many Lakes and set out to swim as many lakes as possible.

She’s now swum more than thirty-five miles total in twenty-two different bodies of water. She swam the five Madison lakes this June and has also swum lakes in northern Wisconsin, Washington, Arizona, Kansas, North Carolina, Michigan, Minnesota and Belize. And she’ll go elsewhere. “If people want me to swim, I will swim,” she says.

Barbara Zuhlke, a friend of Gooze’s for nearly twenty years and a fellow Oregon resident, hosted a swim this past July at her cottage on Two Sisters Lake in Oneida County. She also served as Gooze’s support paddler on a different northern Wisconsin swim.

“In the peaceful surroundings of the northwoods, with the rhythmic sound of her swim strokes being broken only by the calls of the loons, it was a great time to reflect on her determination and resolve,” Zuhlke says.

To support Gooze is particularly meaningful for Zuhlke, as she was diagnosed with breast cancer the year Gooze retired from teaching.

“Mary decided to take me on as her first of many retirement community service projects,” Zuhlke recalls. “She organized the people who wanted to help out, from coordinating meals to cleaning my house and raking the leaves in our yard. She took me to all my chemo treatments. It seemed she had some little surprise for me each time to make me smile and laugh, from customized magazines to jigsaw puzzles. She was amazing and made my journey much easier.”

Now a breast cancer survivor, Zuhlke is once again moved by her friend’s commitment to helping others fight the disease.

“To watch Mary swim is an inspiration to many to not give up when they are up against tough odds, to fight for what they know is right and to strive to make a differ-ence,” Zuhlke says. “It is heartwarming. I believe she swims for all women–those currently with metastatic disease, those who currently are disease-free and those who have never had the disease–to help put an end to this terrible disease.”

And she’s making tangible progress. So far, Gooze has raised close to $120,000 toward her goal of $1 million. That’s a significant accomplishment, says Lange of METAvivor, whom Gooze has been in touch with on her efforts.

“She has raised an incredible amount of money with her campaign–she has funded nearly an entire year of cancer research, and she isn’t done yet!” Lange says. “She is truly inspirational.”

And One Woman Many Lakes has connected others to the cause, including family and friends who show up to offer support at Gooze’s swims.

“When you have been married as long as I have, I’m never amazed by what Mary is capable of,” Rob says. “What has been so rewarding on the journey is how friends and family have jumped in and supported us through the swims or other fundraisers.”

“My supporters have been close friends and other people I have not seen in years,” Gooze says. “It has been incredibly heart-warming to get out of the water and see familiar faces either from my past or present in my life today.”

Some supporters have even joined Gooze in the water. Her oncologist, Yamil M. Arbaje of Dean Clinic, accompanied her in swimming Lake Mendota in June.

“I had never done such a long swim so I was nervous about it,” Arbaje recalls. “On the other hand, I felt that I could not let Mary down, so I went ahead and swam across the lake with her. At the end of the swim, there were many people waiting for her and it was a very emotional and special moment that I will always remember as one of the highlights of my career.”

Arbaje says Gooze’s One Woman Many Lakes “is a very positive way to deal with her own personal illness and to raise awareness at the same time. It is a very unique way, especially for somebody with metastatic breast cancer.”

Starting One Woman Many Lakes has also allowed Gooze to meet other women who share her diagnosis. “It’s a quick connection when you meet other women with metastatic breast cancer,” she says.

She’s formed strong bonds with Maggie Youngren, also of Oregon, and Heather McManamy from McFarland, who received international attention for writing dozens of greeting cards her four-year-old daughter will be able to read during milestones in her life long after her mother is gone.

“They are both young mothers who are struggling with this disease but are amazing women in how they are handling life right now,” Gooze says. “They inspire me to keep swimming to find a cure.”

While the average survival rate of the disease is three years, Gooze will keep swimming as long as she feels good. She intends to find some lakes–and hopefully the ocean–to swim on a trip to California this winter. She plans to continue while and because she can.

“What I’m doing may not help me, but maybe it will help my daughter or her daughter,” she says.

Or perhaps some other person who, like Gooze, deserves not to be forgotten.

For more information on Gooze’s efforts, visit onewomanmanylakes.net.

Woman swims for breast cancer awareness