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SHALLOTTE — Mary Blackburn, the career development and special populations coordinator at West Brunswick High School, was standing in the guidance office one day when one of her co-workers said, “Mary, I think you’re losing weight.”
“I shrugged it off,” Blackburn said. “I told her, ‘I certainly don’t think so.’”
She’s someone who doesn’t lose weight easily, so the observations by her fellow employee were rather alarming, Blackburn recalls.
It turns out her co-worker was right, so Blackburn went to the doctor to see what was causing the weight loss.
The news was horrifying.
Doctors diagnosed Blackburn with stage 4 inoperable pancreatic cancer. Blackburn’s life was turned upside down.
The lifelong educator remembers the day she was diagnosed, April 1.
“I’ll never forget it,” she said. “The way the doctors described pancreatic cancer to me is, you basically end up starving. Your body can break down the enzymes from your food so you don’t get the proper nourishment.”
On a sunny December day, eight months after receiving the dreadful diagnosis, Blackburn received a show of support she said “was better than anything they could’ve put into my veins.”
Class by class, person by person, students poured into the school’s guidance office and showered Blackburn with flowers, cards and hugs Dec. 3 on the school’s campus.
An emotional Blackburn stood in front of the doorway to her office and wept uncontrollably. Time stopped at West Brunswick that day. Employees dropped what they were doing for a few minutes, students relegated their pencils to the corner of the desks and gathered in the corridors outside Blackburn’s office to show their support for one of their favorite counselors.
“I can’t describe my emotions with words,” Blackburn said. “I’m overwhelmed by their support. Really, I was overwhelmed by the numbers. They just kept coming in here, all day long. I’m surprised at the love they showed.”
Blackburn, who made each student hug her individually, smiled from ear to ear as tears streamed down her face. She personally thanked each student as he or she came in with flowers.
“You’d be surprised to know just how many of them spoke to me in the hallway that day,” she said. “Even the ones I didn’t know spoke to me.”
An educator in some capacity for 46 years — 14 of those years at West Brunswick — Blackburn had to return to the halls of the Shallotte school after her diagnosis.
“I was ready to come back to work,” she said. “I had to get back to the people I work with. They are the ones who have made these last few months possible. I knew that sitting at home dwelling about it wasn’t going to help anything.”
Blackburn missed several weeks of school upon the diagnosis. She started out with chemotherapy and then went through five weeks of radiation. Her last scan showed the cancer had not grown at all, but it hadn’t shrunk, either.
“I can honestly say I’ve been blessed,” she said. “Everyone that deals with pancreatic cancer deals with great amounts of pain and nausea, and I’ve had neither, really.”
Even with the deck stacked against her, Blackburn can turn to those she loves the most, including her second family at West Brunswick, for love and support.
“I’m fortunate to be at a place like West, with the teachers and students we have here,” she said.
“They’ve been supportive, they’ve been comforting … this place means the world to me.”
Sam Hickman is a staff writer for the Beacon. Reach him at 754-6890 or firstname.lastname@example.org.