Mary Lucy Glockner was appreciating a few days away in the western North Carolina mountains with friends. Her life was a bit crazy in July 2020. COVID-19 had wreaked havoc on her workplace, as it had on everyone else’s.
Known as “Mrs. Glockner” to the fifth graders at Bolivia Elementary in Brunswick County on the coast of North Carolina, she needed to focus soon on final preparations for the coming school year. Because of COVID, that meant hours of refining her strategies to teach math, social studies and science virtually to a dispersed group of rowdy fifth graders.
Her theater training would come in handy to grab their attention. The Charlotte native had majored in theater at UNC Wilmington until a classmate asked her if she wanted to take on a tutoring gig for a little extra cash. Glockner discovered in the weekly sessions that she loved helping her student, a fourth-grade boy, realize all he could do. She switched majors and earned a B.A. in elementary education with a concentration in theater.
In college, she met Rod, the love of her life. They married and had two sons, Jack, now 20, and William, 16. Stella, their yellow Lab, rounded out the family.
With so much going on, she never imagined she would soon become intimately acquainted with Dr. Lindsey Prochaska at Novant Health Cancer Institute - New Hanover. Or that she would someday sing and perform on stage after facing unimaginable news.
‘You’re in for a big fight’
The mountain vacation had been a joy, with good food, hikes and conversation. But while changing her clothes, Glockner noticed a lump in her left breast. Her mammogram had been fine the previous year. She scheduled an appointment with a physician’s assistant, who sent her for a diagnostic mammogram.
A nurse and doctor at the clinic, which is not part of the Novant Health system, sat down with her to give her the results. She needed a biopsy right away.
As Glockner gathered herself to leave the doctor’s office, the news was sinking in. She started to cry. A nurse hugged her and said, “I understand. My mom has had breast cancer twice.”
The nurse clearly intended to be comforting. Glockner felt as if she might collapse. “I thought, ‘Now we’re (already) saying the ‘C’ word.’”
From the biopsy, a Novant Health surgeon confirmed a diagnosis of stage 2 cancer in the breast and one lymph node. Glockner had quietly held out hope that the diagnosis would be nothing serious, but reality was here. The surgeon told her she was in for a big fight, but she would get through it. They talked alone as Rod waited anxiously in the parking lot, unable to be by her side because of COVID protocols.
The first step was notifying her school family that she needed to take a leave of absence. She sent messages to parents and assured them she would talk to students. After six weeks of classes, she felt a connection with her kids and wanted to be honest with them.
The students had lots of questions. They asked about treatments. Would she lose her red hair? “They were very sweet about it,” she recalled. “They told me they loved me and would be praying for me.”
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School faculty and staff were concerned, too. They asked cancer survivors what items were most helpful and presented Glockner with gift baskets packed with heating pads, blankets and gift cards on her last day. Later, honoring her love of the Harry Potter books, they created a school T-shirt adorned with a wand plus the phrase: Love. Light. Glockner’s Army.
She started chemotherapy with Prochaska. On a scan after the first chemo treatment, the doctor spotted something on Glockner’s L5 vertebra in her lower back. It could have been arthritis, but Prochaska wanted to make sure and scheduled a bone biopsy.
Prochaska chokes up recalling what happened next. Even for an experienced oncologist, “it was pretty gut-wrenching to have to bring (Glockner) back so quickly and say things are different than we thought,” she said.
The cancer had indeed traveled to her spine. The new diagnosis was stage 4 metastatic breast cancer, or breast cancer that has spread to another part of the body. Prochaska assured her that many treatment options could help her live a good, long life. Stage 4 metastatic breast cancer is not the death sentence it once was.
Glockner, stunned, worried aloud how to tell Rod. Prochaska was devastated that family members couldn’t be there in person during COVID for these conversations. “Let’s call him right now,” she urged, not wanting Glockner to be alone when she delivered the news. Rod, though shocked, assured his wife they would get through this together.
‘I have years ahead of me’
Glockner endured 16 rounds of chemotherapy over the next five months. Her last treatment was bittersweet. While she knew there was a good chance of needing chemotherapy again someday, she still rang the celebratory bell in the hospital “to signify that part of my cancer fight was behind me.”
Scans revealed the happy news that the chemo had significantly shrunk the breast tumors. The L5 lesion was no longer detectable. But the images also showed tiny lesions along the spine. Prochaska believed the lesions were there prior to treatment and now appeared as scars. While it was clear Glockner’s cancer had spread to several places in her body, it was controllable through targeted therapies. For now, she would not need a lumpectomy or mastectomy, because chemo had been effective.
Glockner’s cancer is “estrogen receptor-positive,” meaning it is fed by estrogen, so she takes estrogen blockers and targeted therapies that help the estrogen blockers work. She also required a full hysterectomy and removal of her ovaries – “AKA, all my female organs are coming out!” she wrote in a spirited update to friends.
“Bottom line is that I will always have cancer,” she wrote. “My doctor feels, and I agree, that I have years ahead of me. I will have appointments with my oncologist monthly and scans every three months for the rest of my life to see if our current line of treatment is keeping the cancer at bay. When it doesn’t, we will change the plan. I am hopeful that scientists will find more effective treatments in the future.”
While all this was happening, her mom, Lucy, was diagnosed with stage 1 breast cancer. Lucy was able to have a lumpectomy and the cancer has not spread further. She is in remission now. “We spend time together as much as we can,” Glockner said.
Rod and the boys have always bolstered her with hope: “They gave me their strength when I needed it.” She and Rod try to take advantage of little moments more now, from dinner date nights to enjoying time with Stella and the family at dog-friendly breweries.
She returned to teaching for the 2021-22 school year – and more.
An alto in a dogfight
Glockner’s best friend volunteers as a stage manager at the Thalian Association Community Theatre in Wilmington. She had been suggesting for years that Glockner try out for a show. This summer, they put on “Dogfight,” a musical from the creators of “Dear Evan Hansen.”
Glockner loves singing but hates auditioning. Still, she thought if she was ever going to be on stage again, this was the moment. “My goal was just to get through the audition.”
She got a callback and realized she really wanted to be in this show. Her rich alto earned her the part of Mama and a place in the singing ensemble. It was her first time on stage since college, and she loved being there. “I’m a creative person. I like a challenge,” she said. “This has been a fun way to explore that side of me.”
When Prochaska heard Glockner’s plan to audition, she thought the idea was “awesome.” Her example, Prochaska said, shows cancer can be “a part of your life, but not define your life.”
You might say Glockner has followed the advice from a lyric in her own musical. “At the dogfight ... take the crown. Gotta claim it, win it, own it and don't back down."