Hockey mom fights aggressive opponent in cancer

Mary pulls from the values she got from a life of hockey as she battles her second cancer diagnosis.
November 12th, 2018
old family photo
The Pekara family shows off their “old time hockey” shirts in this old Christmas photo.

Mary Pekara’s love for hockey started at age 6. She’d sit next to her father in their suburban Chicago kitchen after dinner, or in his car, listening to Blackhawks’ radio broadcasts.

“The games were televised at that time but not often, so we listened to them on the radio,” Mary recalled. “It was our time together.”

But it wasn’t until she was 21 — with a new man by her side — that Mary got to see the hockey stars she had only heard of play. Her employer, who knew how much she loved the game, gave her all of their Sunday home-game season tickets.

“My husband, Bryan, who was my fiance at the time, attended all the games with me at the old Chicago Stadium,” Mary said. “I finally had the opportunity to see many hockey legends play, including Stan Mikita, Bobby Hull, Tony Esposito and Keith Magnuson. It was an awesome experience, especially cheering on the Blackhawks with the old stadium’s iconic pipe organ.”

The couple married in 1981 and moved to Fort Collins. Their love for hockey continued.

“We attended several Colorado Rockies hockey games at McNichols Arena,” she said. “That year was the first time we saw Wayne Gretzky play — what a memorable experience.”

The Colorado Rockies were a NHL team in Denver from 1976 to 1982.

family standing with the Stanley cup
Pekara family stands beside the Stanley Cup in Feb. 2001 when it was in Denver for the NHL All-Star game.

Mary said the players’ motivation and teamwork always inspired her. And it was those values that she instilled in her sons as they began to play hockey – guidance that served them through their childhood, both on and off the ice. Now, years later, as she battles her second diagnosis of cancer, she pulls from those same ideals.

Hockey heaven

In 1995, the Pekara family was thrilled when the Nordiques moved from Canada to become the Colorado Avalanche. The following year, Mary’s boys — then 5 and 7 — had just started competitive hockey when the Avalanche defeated the Florida Panthers in a four-game sweep to win their first Stanley Cup.

“I’ll never forget staying up and watching the game four marathon — three overtime periods — to win the first cup,” Mary exclaimed. “That was an exciting yet nail-biting game.”

She treasures the memories she and Bryan have shared — watching the 1980s USA Olympic Hockey team win the gold – and attending all of those NHL games. But the best memories, Mary said, are those of watching her sons play.

The hockey mom

Bryan, now 29, is a forward, and Joe, 27, a goalie. As kids, the two practiced in the driveway nearly every day for hours, making each other better and more competitive, Mary said.

Bryan with a Rams jersey on
Bryan Jr. played hockey for Colorado State University and became an all-star senior.

Mary spent more than 10 years managing their youth teams. She served on committees, helped with fundraisers and organized details.

“What I really appreciate now, which I probably didn’t back then, is the amount of time she put in,” Joe said. “She didn’t just drop us off and leave. She stuck around and got to know the people I played with and their moms. We built a lot of friendships through hockey.”

Bryan Sr. volunteered, too, as the scorekeeper or fulfilling penalty box duties. The family traveled to Denver for the Avalanche Freeze Play Clinics at McNichols and attended two state championships — Bryan Jr.’s team won both — in peewee and midget leagues.

Golly in front of net
Mary’s youngest son, Joe, playing hockey. Joe was 2009 Northern Colorado Youth Hockey player of the year.

Joe said hockey helped him come out of his shell, but Mary contests that it did that and much more.

“The boys learned so many life skills through hockey, such as leadership; accountability; respect; balancing home, school and sports; teamwork; ethics; friendships; success; disappointments and hard work,” she said. “As a hockey mom, I enjoyed watching my sons play and develop their talent and skills while supporting their passion.”

Breast cancer diagnosis

Mary standing in front of a hockey rink
Mary Pekara

At the start of her sons’ teenage years, Mary was diagnosed with breast cancer. She underwent a lumpectomy and radiation treatment, and was able to spend her kids’ prime hockey years in remission.

“We had some great road trips, and it was enjoyable to be with them and their teammates,” Mary said.

They traveled all over the United States, from Washington, D.C., to California, as well as into Canada.  In 2009, Joe was named Northern Colorado Youth Hockey Player of the Year. Bryan Jr. went on to play for Colorado State University and became an all-star senior.

Then,  in 2016, cancer returned.

A ‘poorly written soap opera’

In August of that year, Mary had a mastectomy to address her returning breast cancer. The cancer had not spread, but three weeks after her surgery, doctors found a mass on her lung. Despite having never been a smoker, Mary also had stage 4 lung cancer.

Cancer is prevalent in Mary’s family, as many direct relatives have been touched by cancer at some point in their lifetimes.

The same week Mary had her mastectomy, her brother was diagnosed with stage 4 lung cancer. He was a smoker, Mary said, and three weeks later he had a stroke and developed blood clots.

“There wasn’t anything the doctors could do, so he went home to hospice care, and the next day, I found out I had a lung mass,” she said. “Three weeks later I started chemotherapy, and the week after that he passed away. I never told him I also had lung cancer.”

The opponent

Mary during chemo treatment
Mary Pekara at the UCHealth Cancer Center – Harmony Campus in Fort Collins.

Mary’s cancer is aggressive. It has spread throughout her body, including her brain, liver and bones. She’s had several rounds of radiation, which have been successful, and she’s also had three brain stereotactic radiotherapy surgeries to remove 35  tumors.

“Mary has had five lines of treatment, but unfortunately, her disease has been relentlessly progressing,” said Dr. Diana Medgyesy, Mary’s UCHealth oncologist in northern Colorado. “But Mary is a fighter, and she always comes to the office with a smile on her face despite the multiple side effects from the treatment.”

It is Mary’s positive attitude and lack of fear that have gotten her so far, Medgyesy continued, as well as her trust in her medical team and compliance with their prescribed treatment.

“We really are like a hockey team,” Medgyesy said. “Electronic records are a powerful tool that keeps us all connected and makes communication among Mary’s specialists very easy. We can message each other in minutes and communicate with the patient. Everyone on her team knows and understands the plan, what are the next steps, and can communicate their thoughts so that she gets the most streamlined care possible.”

Mary has recently started targeted therapy — medication that shuts down a cancer-cell pathway that drives the growth of the cancer cell.

Hockey fights cancer

family with hockey jerseys and four dogs
A past year’s Christmas letter photo. Mary, Bryan Jr., Joe and Bryan Pekara are all hockey fans.

There are similarities between hockey and battling cancer, Mary said. It’s a daily battle in which one must keep a positive attitude, maintain the motivation to keep fighting and work as a team member.

“Because no one can fight alone,” she said. “I don’t dwell on why I have stage 4 cancer. Instead, I focus on what is next — what can we do now?”

It’s not unlike how hockey players, win or lose, move on to the next game, Mary added.

“I’m grateful for every moment and the tremendous support of my family, friends, coworkers and even complete strangers. I call them my guardian angel network,” she said. “No one fights cancer alone, and I am thankful every day for my team of supporters.”

Her son, Joe, says that his mother is the “strongest woman I know.’’

“He gave me a flower card with that saying on it after surgery, and I keep it in my purse always,” Mary said. “He always reminds how strong I am and to keep fighting.”

Hockey Fights Cancer is a national initiative to raise awareness of cancer. Mary will be among those recognized with special ceremonies prior to puck drop and throughout the 7 p.m. Nov. 16th Colorado Avalanche vs. Washington Capitals game at the Pepsi Center.