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Cancer infusion center is backdrop for high school sweetheart’s 35th anniversary

IU Health North Hospital

Cancer infusion center is backdrop for high school sweetheart’s 35th anniversary

Their marriage has taken them to a number of states where they’ve established home. Settling in Indiana has been a blessing as they marked 35 years of marriage in the care of IU Health.

By IU Health Senior Journalist, T.J. Banes, tfender1@iuhealth.org

On a recent Monday, the end of the day, before they retired to bed, Mark Nicastro handed his wife an anniversary card. He told her she had five minutes to sign it and hand-deliver it to him.

It was reminiscent of their high school days when homework was part of their early relationship. The couple met as sophomores in their Ohio hometown. Both were members of the marching band – Mark played wind instruments; and his sweetheart, Mary, played trumpet and was a flag girl and majorette.

After asking several of her friends, Mark mustered up the courage to invite Mary to homecoming. She agreed and their relationship took flight.

When they first started dating, Mark said he liked that Mary was beautiful, athletic, and smart. She played softball, was on the homecoming court, and was a member of National Honor Society.

Mary said from the beginning Mark was easy to talk to. “We liked the same things and he taught me some new things too – how to golf and snow ski,” said Mary. “We didn’t have a lot of money, but Mark always wanted people to have fun – even if it was just a picnic and a game of bocce ball or croquet. We were at the same school and didn’t have the same classes but we saw each other every day. We could talk about everything and he was my best friend from day one.”

After high school, that friendship continued to grow. Mary attended a two-year x-ray technology program; Mark completed a four-year degree at Bowling Green State University. It was between Mark’s junior and senior year when the couple exchanged vows on August 16th, at Our Lady of Mount Carmel Parish in Niles, Ohio.

“We had 300 guests and an old-fashioned Italian reception with lots of food and dancing. It’s the kind of wedding people are still talking about,” said Mary. The years that followed included a series of moves for Mark’s jobs, including different parts of Ohio, Chicago, Ill., and Somerset, Penn. Thirteen years ago they settled in Indiana. Their first daughter was born 31 years ago; their second was born 27 years ago.

“My mom was the youngest of 11. We liked being around family but the jobs kept coming out from under us so we relied on each other to raise our kids. We were adamant we weren’t going to use day care, even if it meant working opposite shifts,” said Mary. As it turns out, she says they are indeed, “Hoosiers” and counts it as a blessing to live in close proximity to IU Health.

In September 2018 after a series of tests, Mary was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. It was right before their oldest daughter was getting married that she ended up at IU Health for a week.

“I got out right before the wedding and wasn’t able to help with any last minute details, but her dad stepped up just like he always does,” said Mary. At IU Health, in the care of Dr. Michael House, she underwent a pancreaticoduodenectomy, more commonly known as a “Whipple procedure.” The operation is done to remove the head of the pancreas, the first part of the small intestine, the gallbladder, and the bile duct.

“I would have taken her anywhere to get the best care. Dr. House is an amazing man and an accomplished surgeon. We can’t believe we landed in this location 13 years ago and are now in the best care at IU Health,” said Mark.

The Whipple procedure was done in November and Mary was scheduled to begin chemotherapy in January 2019. Right before she started treatment, Mark planned a trip to the Cayman Islands.

“We have a close family but this is the first time we’ve gone through cancer with anyone. So I decided early on that the best way to get through this was to plan something to get her mind off of it,” said Mark. That was the first of many trips – many surprises. Every other week for 12 weeks Mary undergoes chemotherapy at IU Health North’s Schwarz Cancer Center in the care of IU Health oncologist Dr. Erin Newton.

“She’s been fantastic. – I thank her every time I go in there,” said Mary. “She knows what I want and expect out of life. She’ll give me her opinion and work with me because she knows I want to live to the fullest.” At one point when the tumor was shrinking, Mary took a break from treatment and was freed up for travel.

“I decided, let’s experience as much as we can on the short time we’re on this planet,” said Mark. So he’s planned ski trips to Colorado, family fun at Disney, sightseeing visits to West Virginia, golf outings in Ohio, and beach time in Cabo San Lucas. They’ve spent time boating, and visiting family and they have another beach trip coming up to Turks and Caicos.

“Mark has always been like that - full of surprises wanting to get me out of my comfort zone,” said Mary. “It’s important to him that I have distractions while I go through treatment.”

So when their 35th wedding anniversary came and Mary was spending the day at Schwarz Cancer Center, Mark called on nurse Janelle Guyman, the infusion supervisor. “I’ve known and cared for Mary for years. When I got the call from her husband that he wanted to plan something special for their anniversary I wanted to help,” said Guyman, who has been an oncology nurse for more than 20 years. She connected Mark with Ann Bredensteiner, IU Health manager of integrative health, and a Schwarz Cancer Center volunteer.

Typically, Mark drops Mary off for her treatments and then heads to work. On this day, he stayed with her. They walked into an area decorated with balloons and flowers and poster-size prints of their wedding photos. The staff arranged lunch, along with chilled apple cider and dessert. Mark ordered a single layer replica of their wedding cake and another larger cake was served to staff. The hospital chaplain, William Taylor, offered a prayer.

“She spends the entire day in treatment. I felt this was a way to help pass the time,” said Mark. “We learned long ago from Mark’s grandma to put dates on the calendar. We made a pack long ago that we would always mark special occasions and we’d do something special on our anniversary. This year I couldn’t even get him a card,” said Mary.

But at the end of their special day, even the anniversary card was there for her to sign.

“We started with nothing but love and each other. I do for Mary what she deserves. It’s a way of confirming to her that she made the right decision many years ago,” said Mark.

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