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November 7-22, 2014, Oklahoma City
Journal at the World

November 13, 2012

A Mane to Cry In

American Quarter Horses help cancer survivor Mary White clear life's hurdles.

By Tara Christiansen
The American Quarter Horse Journal

Mary White and Absolutely For Me

Mary White of Flower Mound, Texas, led Absolutely For Me to 13th place in amateur performance halter geldings at the 2012 AQHA World Show. (Journal photo)

The last thing Mary White will tell you about herself is perhaps her biggest feat.

The amateur competitor will tell you about Absolutely For Me, her latest American Quarter Horse, plus the trials and tribulations that he has been through. She’ll tell you about what took her from Syracuse, New York, and planted her in Flower Mound, Texas – her husband, Mark’s, new job, about17 years ago. You’ll also hear about how the couple met, back when they were both showing on the American Horse Show Association circuit and Mark was riding jumpers. You’ll figure out that Mary has a warm heart and a there’s-always-a-silver-lining, can-do attitude. But by the end, you’ll know that, by all accounts, Mary shouldn’t be alive today.

Even these days, you’d be hard-pressed to find a doctor who comprehends what you mean when you say “leiomyosarcoma,” Mary told the Journal in an exclusive interview. Essentially, leiomyosarcoma is an extremely rare form of cancer, and although it’s not terribly aggressive, the odds didn’t look good when Mary was diagnosed.

“When it happened to me in ’89, I was the seventh documented case ever and only the second known survivor.” And at 22 years old, the last thing Mary was expecting was a battle with cancer.

“It took them almost a month to even figure out what it was,” Mary recalls. “Tests went to the hospital pathology lab, which immediately phoned back to the operating room and said, ‘We haven’t got a clue.’ It went to some of the top pathology labs in Syracuse – they didn’t have a clue. They sent it to Duke – Duke didn’t even have a clue, and they’re one of the top medical research hospitals out there. But it ended up going to the Naval Pathology Lab in Washington, D.C., and it took them 10 days to figure it out.  

“It’s a sarcoma, but it’s really not that aggressive,” Mary said of leiomyosarcomas. “Normally it doesn't respond to radiation or chemo, so they didn’t do chemo on me, but they did radiation – mine responded to the radiation.”

She added, “Mostly, you’re very lucky if you get five years.”

And she has been lucky, until nearly 10 years after the first tumor.

“They say if it’s going to recur, it’ll recur in 10 years.” Strangely enough, Mary attended the funeral of a horse show friend who died from cancer; the same day as the funeral, Mary started having symptoms of a recurring tumor.

“It turned out that I was having a tumor recurrence, so they actually did a full hysterectomy back in 2000,” she said.

The first time around, Mary said, she was shell-shocked by the diagnosis.

“I didn’t have time to think about anything other than, ‘I’m going to beat this: I’m positive, I’m young and healthy. I’ve got too much I want to do.’

“The second time around, it was insane – I was on highs, I was on lows. I was this crazy emotional roller coaster because everything you’ve read about sarcomas is like, if they come back, they’re even more aggressive, they’re more deadly, they’re not as responsive.”

At that time, Mary turned to her best friend: her American Quarter Horse.

“I literally just sat in the stall and bawled, and he just sat there and put his little head in my lap and let me cry and he nuzzled me,” she said.

Luckily enough, Mary’s second tumor, although similar to the first, was benign.

For years, Mary has counted her lucky stars that she’s even alive. And she has eyed the Gateway of Champions at Oklahoma State Fair Park, itching for her chance to walk through the famed threshold into the AQHA World Championship Show pen. She got her first chance to do so at the 2012 AQHA World Show when she showed Absolutely For Me, aka “Milo,” in amateur performance halter geldings; the duo placed 13th. Bred by Dan and Carol McWhirter of Doniphan, Nebraska, Absolutely For Me, a 2007 bay gelding, is by Absolute Asset and out of Twice The Investment by The Invester.

“I’ve always looked at that Gateway of Champions, thinking, ‘One of these days, man, I’m going to be walking down that aisle and I’m going to go under that sign and I’m really going to be going for a world title,’” Mary said. “When I walked under that sign, it was like, ‘This is so cool! This is it!’”

On November 12, one week after her World Show debut, Mary watched Milo march back into the Jim Norick Arena for open performance halter geldings, this time with AQHA Professional Horseman Elizabeth "Liz" Knabenshue of Whitesboro, Texas, at the shank.

Before Liz and Milo entered the pen, all Mary could think about was how glad she was her 5-year-old gelding was happy and healthy, and ready to compete, too. To win another finalist ribbon would be great. As it would happen, Milo and Liz actually earned the fourth-place ribbon and the first-place Intermediate trophy.

Although trophies and titles are great, Mary doesn’t measure her love for horses with gold, silver and bronze.

“Sometimes when the world is crashing down around you, you just put your head in their mane and just bawl,” she said with a smile. “They just look at you like, ‘I don’t know what your problem is, but I’m here.’”

You'd be hard-pressed to find Mary White not wearing pink – she's very proud of the battle that she's fought and won. We know that Mary isn't the only American Quarter Horse enthusiast who has valiantly fought cancer, and that's why November 13 at the 2012 AQHA World Show was "Pink Day."

Supporters took aim at cancer during the night finals by purchasing a Pink Out frisbee. The person with the best aim win a 100x hat donated by Shorty’s Caboy Hattery. Donations and proceeds collected will be donated to the Shirley Bowman Nutrition Center at Oklahoma University’s Stephenson Cancer Center.