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Friends' Support a Source of Strength

When Theresa Mahan was diagnosed with cancer earlier this year, she found out she has many allies at BC to help her through the battle

“They lifted my spirits during one of the most difficult times of my life.” — Theresa Mahan (center, back row, with glasses) and some of her RecPlex friends

By Reid Oslin | Chronicle Staff

Published: Dec. 15, 2011

Always healthy, energetic and outgoing, Theresa Mahan for years has been part of a group of Boston College women who meet informally at the Flynn Recreation Complex each weekday morning for fitness and socializing before heading to work.

But last Jan. 19, Mahan, an events and web specialist for the Office of University Mission and Ministry’s service center, thought that her association with her ’Plex colleagues had come to an unforeseen and abrupt end: Just days before her 51st birthday, she was diagnosed with stage IV colorectal cancer, and the disease had already spread into her lungs.
For Mahan, the past year has involved two major surgeries, repeated rounds of chemotherapy and radiation treatments, and a long and painful convalescence. Without an outpouring of love and support from her circle of RecPlex friends, the University community, her family, and her fiancé Mike Spinello, she says, her recovery might not have been possible.
On Dec. 1, Mahan rejoined her early morning fitness partners to express her appreciation for their support during her illness and long recuperation.
“It’s been a difficult 10 months,” says Mahan, who has worked at Boston College for 11 years. “What makes this story unique for me is that I didn’t know every woman in this group really all that well; we’d just see each other in the locker room and talk.
“But when I got sick, they started doing something every month – getting together, taking pictures of the group and sending me cards that they had all signed,” she says. “They lifted my spirits during one of the most difficult times of my life.
“Sometimes, when you are sick it seems like such a betrayal,” Mahan notes, “because you take such good care of yourself, you do all of the right things, and then you get such a devastating diagnosis. All of the women at the ’Plex made me feel very hopeful — hopeful that I would get back there someday.”
As she recovered, the group sent Mahan pictures of themselves in various ’Plex venues — at the swimming pool diving board, on the building’s front steps, even in the locker row where Mahan kept her workout gear. Many of the photos contained the month’s calendar page, showing that the group was counting off the days until Mahan would be healthy enough to rejoin them.
“The plan all along was to take one final picture,” she says. “And I would be in it.”
“Theresa is such a lovely person,” says one RecPlex friend, Loretta Cedrone, administrative assistant in the Office of Institutional Research, Planning and Assessment. “I think that she was much more an inspiration to us than we were to her. When we saw the way she carried on — after the surgeries, the chemo, the radiation — what’s so hard about taking a picture? When we put a basket out to collect some small gifts and said that they would be going to Theresa, people just filled it. We thought about her all the time.
“There are many, many big hearts out there,” Cedrone says. “This is what it is all about.”
English Department senior lecturer Bonnie Rudner is another one of the morning fitness circle members who stepped up to bolster Mahan’s spirits.  Rudner says that sending the first group photo was an effort to show Mahan that her ’Plex friends missed her and were thinking of her. “This wonderful group of women of which I am blessed to be a part went out of its way to make sure, in spite of work schedules, summer vacations, the July 4th holiday, swimming lessons, yoga classes and other commitments, that there was always a large enough group to show Theresa how much she means to us.”
Other members of the University community were similarly helpful, Mahan adds. “Fr. Jack Butler [Vice President for University Mission and Ministry] was wonderful,” she says. “He said a Healing Mass for me last February and he told me at the time that things would get much harder for me. I couldn’t imagine what he meant.
“But, from the very beginning, Fr. Jack told me ‘I know you are going to survive this,’” she says. “And I never doubted it.”
Fr. Butler was a frequent visitor and constant source of hope during her long recuperation, Mahan says.
Other BC employees sent small, but thoughtful gifts, such as healing oil for her surgical scars, scarves and warm socks. The Athletics Department offered a free RecPlex membership. Co-workers provided transportation to medical appointments. Business Systems support analyst Mary Pohlman loaned an electrically controlled reclining chair that enabled Mahan to sleep comfortably while she was recuperating from major chest surgery.
“Everybody has been wonderful,” says Mahan, who recently returned to her job in Carney Hall. “You think to yourself, ‘How do I ever repay such kindness?’ For me, it will just be paying it forward to someone else at some time.”