We all hope our lives will count—that in some way we will make an indelible mark within our circles, our society and, perhaps, even beyond. But what happens when a promising young life is snuffed out much too soon? For Mary Woodall the unimaginable loss of her son, Christopher "Chris" Cash, at just 20 years old was almost more than she could bear. However, Woodall has discovered that the difference she’s made in the 24 years since her son's passing has given his existence longevity and meaning that will continue to reverberate for years to come.
“Our world changed in November 1992 when Chris, then a music major at Western Carolina University in Cullowhee, North Carolina, began complaining of excruciating headaches,” remembered Woodall, 71. “I don’t know why, but even before we saw a doctor, in the pit of my stomach I knew something was very wrong.”
Cash went to the school’s infirmary. After a CAT scan, doctors shared that he had some type of tumor in his brain. Woodall decided to drive to Cullowhee to bring Cash home to Durham where he could be seen by a specialist at Duke. However, while coming down the mountain on their way home, Cash’s piercing headache worsened and he began to vomit. Distressed and full of fear, Woodall made a detour, taking her son to nearby Wake Forest Baptist Hospital in Winston Salem. Doctors suspected Cash’s tumor was glioblastoma—a deadly and highly malignant tumor in which cancer cells reproduce rapidly. Woodall’s son underwent surgery to remove the tumor. It was then that neurosurgeons confirmed the tumor was indeed glioblastoma.
Wanting to get him closer to home so he could get the best care possible, Woodall and Cash’s stepfather arranged for their son to see Henry Friedman, MD, a world-renowned neuro-oncologist at The Preston Robert Tisch Brain Tumor Center at Duke.
“I was so very scared,” Woodall recounted. “I just wanted to protect my baby.”
Glioblastoma is challenging to treat as these particular tumors consist of many kinds of cancer cells, some of which respond better to some therapies than others. Often, treatment includes multiple approaches.
Friedman immediately admitted Cash to Duke Medical Center where he underwent intense chemotherapy for several months. Over the course of the next year and a half, Cash experienced multiple rounds of chemotherapy, radiation, a bone marrow transplant and two surgeries.
Even though oncologists unleashed every treatment strategy at their disposal, Cash succumbed to his cancer on May 16, 1994—18 months to the day of his first surgery and just nine days before his 22nd birthday.
“My worse fear was realized,” remembered Woodall, her voice trailing off as her eyes wandered to a nearby window, as if to relive the very moment over again. “About three years before Chris’s passing, I was at a funeral for one of his Sigma Nu fraternity brothers. I stood there watching Chris, one of the pallbearers, helping to bring the casket to the gravesite, and I remember thinking to myself, ‘That could be Chris.’”
Two years after the devastating loss of her only son, Woodall, an administrative assistant with the History Department at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, found herself just going through the motions. She quickly discovered that the day-to-day demands of life never seem to waver—no matter how great the loss or excruciating the pain.
“Back then we were expected to just ‘deal with it,’” she said. “There was a respectable time allotted for grief—and no more. My neighbors, my church, my family and friends – they all tried to help. But they, too, had responsibilities and demands of their own. I turned inward.”
Eventually, Woodall sought counseling. She found talking it out can be “good for the soul.”
Despite her grief Woodall and her husband continued to fundraise for the brain tumor center’s annual 5K run and walk event. The center’s first event, then known as the Duke Forest 5K and Family Fun Walk, was held a month before Cash’s passing. Although frail and in a wheelchair, Cash had given his all to the fundraiser, which collected funds to support cancer research conducted by physicians and scientists with The Preston Robert Tisch Brain Tumor Center. Enlisting his Sigma Nu fraternity brothers and their contacts, his team, Chris Cash, raised more than $9,000 toward the event’s $27,000 total that year.
Event organizers dedicated the second annual event to Cash. Woodall, who had also gotten involved with the brain tumor center’s Parent Advisory Counsel, signed on to help organize the 3rd annual event, hoping to help the fledgling event grow.
And, grow it did. Now 22 years later, the event, renamed in 1998 the Angels Among Us 5K and Family Fun Walk, is organized by The Preston Robert Tisch Brain Tumor Center, for which Woodall served as an event coordinator for more than two decades—11 years as a volunteer and 12 years on-staff. The event attracts participants from across the country and raises about $2 million each year—$22 million over its launch 25 years ago. For Woodall, who has supported and helped plan the event every year throughout its history, it has been a means for giving purpose to Cash’s legacy.
“This has been an amazing journey,” recounted Woodall. “There’s been so much good that has taken place since those early years when it was a very small event organized by just a handful of grieving parents. Cash’s team, today known as the Cash-Dennis team in honor of my brother-in-law’s own fight with brain cancer, still thrives. We’ve also become close to many of Chris’s fraternity brothers, some of whom, despite living in other states, have never missed a single event. I’ve had the satisfaction of seeing the funds raised propel breakthrough science that has translated into once considered inconceivable treatments, now saving lives.”
Although she plans to continue fundraising for team Cash-Dennis and Angels Among Us, Woodall will step down this year from her position as event coordinator, a stint she believes has been, at the very least, been therapeutic.
“It’s hard to be caught up in bitterness when you’re giving back and championing the fight for someone you love,” she said, her eye’s brightening as a smile crossed her face. “I did this for Chris. He left me with a silent challenge to live life as well as he lived it. In response, I’ve done things I could have never imagined.”
Over the course of the past decades, the center’s faculty and staff have become “like family.”
“It has been a blessing to get to know the doctors and staff and witness their dogged commitment to their patients,” said Woodall, whose team hopes to raise $16,636 this year, which adds up to a 25-year total of $300,000 raised. “It’s not going to be easy to give all this up, but one thing I’ll cherish and hold close to my heart is the fulfillment of knowing we’ve made a difference. It wasn’t for nothing.”
The 2018 Angels Among Us 5K and Family Walk takes place Saturday, April 28, at Duke Medical Center Campus in Durham, North Carolina. To learn more or to register, visit AngelsAmongUs.org. To honor Cash and to celebrate Woodall’s 25 years of service to Angels Among Us, please donate at Team Cash-Dennis.
Above Circle Photo: Mary Woodall takes a break from her duties organizing this year's Angels Among Us 5K to pose with Ellen Stainback, director of external relations for The Preston Robert Tisch Brain Tumor Center. The duo has worked together for more than two decades to put on the annual fundraiser. "Mary is truly an angel among us," said Stainback. "She has been devoted to helping raise funds for brain tumor research at Duke since the day Chris was diagnosed. Mary has worked tirelessly for 25 years so no other family would have to endure the pain of losing a child. It has been an honor and privilege to work alongside Mary, who has become much more than just a 'partner in crime.' She's a wonderful friend."