Mary Gillam never thought she’d be celebrating the Tar Heels winning the NCAA Men’s Basketball Championship from a hospital ER. Instead, while students partied joyfully outside, Gillam had to face a hard diagnosis — a mass on her pancreas that was later determined to be pancreatic cancer.

“I thought to myself, ‘This has to be a mistake. I’m a healthy, young wife and mother of three. I just ran a marathon,’ ” she said.

Mary Gillam, a pancreatic cancer survivor, speaks to a crowd about her treatment journey.
Mary Gillam, a pancreatic cancer survivor, spoke at the UNC Health surgical tower groundbreaking ceremony in Chapel Hill. UNC Lineberger’s HJ Kim, MD, performed her Whipple surgery as part of her cancer treatment plan.

It was more than two years ago when Gillam, a dedicated runner, first started feeling lethargic.

She lost her appetite and saw a local physician for some blood work. Tests showed elevated liver enzymes, but the doctor thought she had a virus. The fatigue persisted, and she saw an internist in her hometown of Elizabeth City, North Carolina, for a scan. The results showed a mass.

“I remember asking [the physician’s assistant] if I was going to die,” she said. “He said ‘yes, probably so.’ ”

Gillam said her father asked the doctor how long she had — they estimated she’d be gone in 30 days.

“That’s when we understood the magnitude of what I was facing,” she said.

Diagnosis and courage

Gillam and her family drove all night from the North Carolina coast to the N.C. Cancer Hospital, the clinical arm of UNC Lineberger. At the hospital, she met with surgical oncologist H.J. Kim, MD, the Ted B. Seagroves Jr. Distinguished Professor at UNC Lineberger.

Coming from a family of Tar Heel fans, she’d heard “Go Heels!” all of her life. But as she faced surgery, it took on a different meaning.

“H.J. Kim came to compete just like the basketball team, but this was my life,” she said.

She would do anything to stay in the world of the living.

“No way was any other girl going to get my very good-looking husband,” Gillam said.

Kim removed the pancreatic mass, but Gillam’s journey was just beginning. After surgery, she was confirmed to have pancreatic cancer. Then on her 38th birthday, Gillam learned in the cancer had spread to eight of her 15 lymph nodes in addition to the tumor on her pancreas.

“The initial shock was very devastating,” she said. “But I told myself I don’t have time to have a pity party. I have three kids, so I didn’t get to lie around and feel bad; I had to take my kids to school.”

Surviving pancreatic cancer

Under the care of UNC Lineberger’s Autumn McRee, MD, associate professor in the UNC School of Medicine Division of Hematology/Oncology, and radiation oncologist Andrew Wang, MD, associate professor in the UNC School of Medicine Department of Radiation Oncology, Gillam underwent radiation and chemotherapy. Both physicians provided compassion and expertise throughout the months of treatment.

“Dr. McRee and I even got to know each other as she coordinated my care,” she said. “I was immediately impressed, not only by her brilliance, but her kind demeanor. She made me feel like I was her only patient, and I was comforted by her words and optimism. I was going to be in the 25 percent who survives this.”

It has now been more than two years since her surgery, and Gillam remains cancer-free. She has received support from her hometown and her church. She is still running – about five miles each day. She’s also trying to live for the moment.

“I honestly just love my life more, and my children harder, and our relationship is a priority over the small stuff,” she said.

She also feels that McRee, and others on her care team at UNC Lineberger, were life savers.

“I truly could not have gotten through this without Chapel Hill’s support,” she said. “No matter what the outcome is, I will never regret Chapel Hill. The whole team has been outstanding.”