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Meet MaryLee Millard, MMRF 2024 Walk/Run: San Francisco Spirit of Hope Honoree

How did you get involved with the MMRF?

Dennis and I didn’t always have cancer. We were in the middle of a sailing circumnavigation, when I first started noticing how fatigued Dennis was getting. I would think that’s how I will feel someday when I get to be Dennis’s age (we were ten years apart in age). And then I noticed that we were both losing weight, but I thought that was from a healthy lifestyle living off the grid. But then I started getting fatigued too, which I attributed to the fact that I was doing more of the sailing and chores because Dennis was so tired and taking more naps.

All the signs of cancer were there for the two of us, but it took a boating accident off a remote island in Northern Australia that prompted us to get medical attention. Because we didn’t have immediate access to good medical care, it took us a little over three months of sailing from Australia via Indonesia up to Singapore to get a proper diagnosis; we were told to go home immediately.

Once home, the doctors officially diagnosed Dennis with multiple myeloma. Because myeloma was my husband’s first cancer diagnosis, we both felt that it was important to support and fundraise for this treatable, but not curable, cancer. Dennis started the tradition as he wanted to do something and felt that this was something that he could do from a hospital bed in the cancer clinic. Our hopes were for a cure and to keep those treatments coming for those patients like Dennis who did not respond to the available treatments. Sadly, Dennis exhausted all the treatments, so it’s important to keep pushing for more treatments until there is a cure.

Why did you choose to participate in the MMRF Walk/Run?

MMRF is considered one of the best charitable organizations where your dollar goes the furthest to fund research for a cure; that’s important! It’s a dream of mine to have a world without cancer.

After I finished cancer treatment, Dennis and I started participating in the MMRF walks. He wanted to do something for the fight and realized that he could call family and friends for donations while getting chemo and blood/platelet infusions. While Dennis was in the early stages of his cancer, he was able to participate in the walks. Dennis was getting treatment at UCSF and we felt that it was important to support both MMRF and UCSF. We also have three neighbors (Bob, Alan, and Robin) fighting myeloma; plus, I lost a high school classmate (Gary) to myeloma, so the MMRF mission is near and dear to our hearts.

The Spirit of Hope is given to “individuals/groups who inspire hope and show extraordinary commitment to the MMRF.” What does being given the award mean to you?

I am a grateful cancer survivor but have sadly lost many of my family members to cancer. This includes my husband Dennis Millard (total of four cancers: two blood cancers multiple myeloma and acute myeloid leukemia; head and neck cancer; and skin melanoma); my sister Teri Bent, my brother-in-law Mike Millard; my niece Heidi Chamberlain, my daughter-in-law Theresa (the mother of my three grandchildren, Brenton, Alex, and Maddie); my Aunt Pat; and many others. They are why this is a very meaningful honor. There is also an alarming rise of cancer amongst young people, including my niece Claire Bent, who was diagnosed with colon cancer at only 34 years old with a young baby not even six months old. I am grateful that I was cured but truly feel that I must carry the torch for those who have not been so fortunate. Every time there is a survivor, I jump for joy. I was deeply touched when I received this honor because volunteering/fundraising is how I channel my grief. It gives me hope for a cure and encourages me to continue volunteering. Thank you to the MMRF!

How have you found perseverance in light of obstacles? Please share any stories that have given you strength.

I often wished that Dennis had a treatable/curable tumor cancer instead of blood cancer, which can be difficult to treat. The multiple cancer diagnoses, including two blood cancers, were tough. I thought to myself if there were one more diagnosis, I might jump off a cliff, but you can see that I haven’t. And because Dennis hung in there, so did I.

I actually found that caregiving was my most intimate time with Dennis, a period of my life with him that I truly cherished. We were together for nearly 40 years, and fighting cancer together only made our love for each other grow stronger.

We quickly learned to shift our focus from what we could do rather than focus on what we could not do. We shared some of the best times in our life during our cancer years, doing the simple things—whether it was sitting on a park bench watching the world turn while holding hands or so many others activities, including the simple joys of birdwatching, eating ice cream, cycling around the block, and even traveling some too. We would spend days in the clinic going through photos, playing backgammon, eating pastries, watching old movies, cheering the Warriors, and getting to know the nurses we were seeing on a very regular basis. We made the best of the limited time that we had together.

Also, the quality time that we did have was a result of treatments that were available to Dennis, which is why it’s so important to support the MMRF.

Do you have a favorite mantra, quote, or lyric that gives you strength?

You could often hear Dennis and I say, “It is what it is, so let’s make the most out of life.” And that old saying, “one day at a time,” also helped us to keep our focus on what was important rather than fretting too much on all the realities of cancer that we were facing. Often, we would refer to the “bag of tricks” when we thought that there was nothing more available, but Dennis’s doctors would find something to keep Dennis going, thanks to the MMRF.

The MMRF is delighted to recognize MaryLee Millard as the MMRF Spirit of Hope Honoree at the 2024 MMRF Team for Cures: San Francisco Walk/Run.

This award is presented at every Walk/Run to a patient, caregiver, or family who inspires hope through their resilience, perseverance, and dedication to the MMRF and its mission.