Three summers ago, when Mary Cornell Park and her friends were saying their goodbyes, they thought they would reunite for years to come.
But on Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving in 2012, Mary died at Massachusetts General Hospital from a form of brain cancer called glioblastoma. Symptoms of the disease had only begun to appear shortly before her diagnosis a month earlier.
Among Mary’s many friends were those of her husband, lifelong Chautauquan Bill Park, whom she met when she was 14. Growing up, Mary’s family’s cottage was near University Beach, and Bill’s family lived near Heinz Beach. They were both serial “groupers” and also counselors at Boys’ and Girls’ Club. Season after season, Mary enjoyed what Bill called “the mix”: attending lectures, performances and art shows; participating in various sports — especially golf, sailing and tennis; and actively sharing in responsibilities associated with managing the Golf Club, sailing program, the Chautauqua Literary and Scientific Circle and Smith Memorial Library.
During the off-season, Mary attended Sidwell Friends School in Washington, D.C., then Wells College, on the eastern shore of Cayuga Lake in Aurora, New York.
Bill went to Cornell University in Ithaca, New York.
After graduating with a bachelor’s degree in American studies, Mary headed to Boston.
A year later, Bill did, too, because that’s where Mary was.
“We got much better acquainted in college and after in Boston,” Bill said. “We came back here to get married in the Hall of Christ.”
Initially, Mary held administrative and lobbying positions for New England Merchants Bank, Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the Massachusetts Community College System for several years. With the births of Bill Jr. and Doug, she focused on managing her family and raising her sons. When Mary wasn’t bringing together family and friends in their home in Marblehead, Massachusetts, she read, discussed politics, sailed and played tennis and golf.
Glioblastoma Brain Cancer
Glioblastoma multiforme is the most common type of cancerous tumor originating in the brain. It is the cancer that caused the death of Sen. Ted Kennedy in 2009, and it is most frequently diagnosed among people aged 55 to 64. Mary — whose family and friends remember her as active, vibrant, clever, witty, kind and welcoming — was 63.
GBM tumors develop from astrocytes, star-shaped cells that create the glue-like tissue that supports the brain. While usually found in the brain’s cerebral hemispheres, they can appear anywhere in the brain or spinal cord.
Supported by a large network of blood vessels, these tumors develop from normal brain cells and easily invade normal brain tissue.
Because GBM tumors contain so many different cell types and form finger-like tentacles that can spread throughout the brain, including to the areas that control coordination, language and other key functions, they are exceedingly difficult to treat and to completely remove.
Glioblastomas, both primary and secondary, are slightly more common in men than in women. With age, their frequency increases. Primary, or “de novo” glioblastomas — the kind that infiltrated Mary’s brain and 90 percent of those affected — grow rapidly, are especially aggressive, and are the most deadly. The speed with which Mary’s GBM tumors formed, however, was rare.
At any given time, a large number of GBM cells are growing and reproducing quickly. They put pressure on the brain without producing a telltale lump that might be found through self-examination or regular cancer screenings.
Common symptoms include headache, nausea, vomiting and drowsiness. Weakness on one side of the body, memory loss, speech difficulties, visual changes and seizures are among a number of other symptoms that can also occur depending on the position of tumors.
Median survival prognoses are reported in months for patients with primary glioblastomas, and two to three years for those with secondary GBMs. The prognosis is more positive for patients younger than 40. A 2009 study found nearly 10 percent of patients might live for five years or more.
The exact cause of glioblastomas is unknown and thus far there is no cure. In oncology, GBM treatment remains a significant unmet need.
“Miles for Mary” Memorial
After Mary passed, her family learned many of their close friends and associates had also been affected by various forms of brain cancer.
Brain and other nervous system cancer is the 16th most common type of cancer and this year represents 1.4 percent of all new cancer cases in the U.S., according to the National Cancer Institute. NCI has estimated there will be 22,850 new cases this year — 700 more than in 2010 — and 15,320 deaths. Only a third of those diagnosed with brain and ONS cancer survive five or more years.
To honor Mary’s memory, increase awareness of the frequency and severity of many brain cancers, and support brain cancer research, Bill, Bill Jr. and Doug established the “Miles for Mary” campaign in 2013. Its logo is a white sailboat with the symbol for brain cancer, a gray ribbon, on the mainsail.
Bill said after the memorial service for Mary at Chautauqua two summers ago, he emailed a collection of their Chautauqua friends about the race. He now hopes others will participate.
“Miles for Mary” includes an annual 5k memorial run/walk at Devereux Beach on Marblehead Neck, Massachusetts, on a course the USA Track and Field Association certified in time for the inaugural race on Nov. 9, 2013. The second race was held last October. This year’s will be on Saturday, Oct. 24.
“I had never been in a 5k, let alone organized one,” Bill said. “There are a lot of logistics, including getting the word out, town approval, a police detail and water and bananas. Both years the weather was great. A lot of Mary’s friends walk. It is dog and stroller friendly. Walkers bring friends. Runners come from farther away. One guy won his 70-plus age category at age 72.”
For Chautauquans and others who have not been able to come to Marblehead for this event, the Parks’ replicated Old First Night’s “Join in Spirit.”
Bill said participants can learn more about the race and glioblastoma; register to run, walk, or even play golf (alone or with friends); participate; and record their participation from anywhere in the world.
Also integral to the Miles for Mary Campaign are a dinner and annual seminar in Marblehead on innovations in brain cancer research presented by award-winning, clinical neuro-oncologist Elizabeth Gerstner. As part of the awareness and education portion of the campaign, Bill said he plans to post a video of each seminar.
All donations — $125,000 in the first two years — have gone directly to support Gerstner’s research at the Massachusetts General Hospital’s Brain Tumor Center.
At MGH, Gerstner has been on the front line of treating and researching brain cancer. She is using neuroimaging to investigate tumor biology and to determine how to integrate advanced MRI imaging techniques into clinical trials. The Miles for Mary donations have enabled her to hire more interns to build a database of studies of successful treatments for glioblastomas from medical centers in the U.S. and around the world.
According to Bill, brain cancer funding is heavily driven by the pharmaceutical industry. Because the success rate for glioblastomas is so low, pharmaceutical companies have neither developed nor sold drugs for treatments. A combination of government and private funding is needed.
“For glioblastomas, success is now measured in weeks of life span extended,” Bill said. “The three-year survival rate is less than 1 percent. It rounds to zero.”
Moms for Mary
At Chautauqua this summer, friends of Mary who are members of the “Moms” softball team paid tribute to her.
On July 23, wearing blue “Miles For Mary” T-shirts provided by Nancy Neville and Bill, and bolstered by Bill’s encouraging words and cheers for Miles for Mary during their pre-game huddle, the Moms beat the Hot Shots at Sharpe Field.
“I am happy to help raise awareness,” Bill said, “So I appreciate it very much. [Mary and I] grew up here.”
Staff writer Colin Hanner contributed to this report.