Since beating Stage 4 Lymphoma and enduring two years of chemotherapy as a med school student, Dr. William McGarry, a Vero Beach medical oncologist, found life going extremely well for his family and practice some years later. His trials with cancer as a young man only pushed him towards an incredible recovery that left him stronger than ever before. His personal experience with cancer inspired him to go into hematology/oncology, which he felt was a calling from God encouraging him take the path where he could make the most difference. To say that McGarry was shocked to learn that, in the prime of his life, he was again diagnosed with cancer was an understatement.
“I was getting ready to do a triathlon and was doing mission work in Haiti, where I had helped set up a clinic after the 2010 earthquake,” said McGarry. “I remember looking at the images from my initial endoscopy. My wife, who was in the room, saw me looking at the pictures and asked what it was. I just said, ‘It’s bad.’ I had a CT scan an hour later which showed the cancer had already spread, and there were six golf-ball sized tumors in my abdomen. Being an oncologist, I knew that meant less than a five percent chance of surviving.”
McGarry recalled how he told his wife that he wanted to “enjoy the rest of my life—drink beer, scuba dive—until I couldn’t do it anymore, and then I’d go into Hospice.” But Laura, the woman he had met as a fourth-year medical student and who he knew was the one he would marry after their first date, wasn’t hearing that.
“No way,” she said. “You are going to be an example of faith and courage to our children, no matter how this comes out. That’s what we’re going to do.”
Laura called Fr. Tri Pham, pastor at Holy Family in Port St. Lucie and the priest her husband had intended to travel to Haiti with, to share the news. Father Pham prayed with the couple and gave McGarry a water bottle filled with water from sanctuary shrine at Lourdes, France.
“He refused to leave until I drank it,” he said chuckling at the memory.
Then the pair of friends prayed the rosary together that day—Friday—which called for the sorrowful mysteries of the rosary.
“The first one is the Agony in the Garden, and I had always wondered what that really was, but that day, I realized that it was because Christ already knew everything that was going to happen to him and was still choosing to go down this path in which he would suffer for all of us. That’s what I felt like that day. I knew what it was going to be like with surgery, radiation, chemo, yet it all made sense that God chose to come among us to show us not to be afraid. He showed us that he wasn’t asking us anything that he was not willing to do himself, and it really gave me more ease.”
McGarry went through the treatments and suffered greatly from every side effect he’d warned his own patients they would have during treatment. After the first chemo treatment, he underwent another CT scan which revealed the tumors has disappeared.
To confirm the outcome was certain, McGarry did a second chemo treatment under the guidance of a former mentor at MD Anderson, where he had been a patient during his earlier bout with lymphoma. He traveled to Houston for an endoscopy that yielded clear results.
McGarry said, “My mentor and I went through the literature together. We knew that the people who beat this kind of cancer are the ones who endure the full treatment. Laura and I moved to Tampa for two months so I could get treatment at the Moffitt Cancer Center. They took out two-thirds of my esophagus and one-third of my stomach. When I finished the therapy and met with the surgeon, he told me they could not find a trace of tumor in me.”
But the treatment had taken a toll physically and financially, and it was nearly two years before McGarry would be capable of returning to work. Before he did, he wanted to do something to honor both his faith and the love of the woman who had made his recovery possible.
“It was our twentieth wedding anniversary,” McGarry said, “so I arranged for us to renew our vows at the Vatican, which is no easy feat. I had a priest friend of a friend who agreed to do it, and I spent nearly all the money I had left after not working for two years to do this special thing for Laura.”
The doctor then shared that while he and his family were preparing for their trip to the Vatican, he received a call from the Sovereign Order of Malta, which is a lay religious order of the Catholic Church, first formed in 1113. The order has diplomatic relations with more than 100 states and the European Union, and permanent observer status at the United Nations. Its main focus is to care for people in need through medical, social and humanitarian works.
McGarry said, “It was so out of the blue. One of their main things is to meet at Lourdes and bring sick people with them. They invited me to come as one of the sick people, and I initially turned them down because we didn’t have the money, but they told me someone was sponsoring us.”
With the excitement of this good news of a future pilgrimage, the McGarry family then proceeded with their plans to visit Rome and participate in a papal audience at Vatican Square.
“When I showed up to pick up the tickets, the gentleman handing out tickets told me he wasn’t going to give me the tickets until I went to confession because I looked like I hadn’t been in a while,” McGarry remarked. “I got in line for confession, and there I got into conversation with another man waiting in line. Two weeks later, when I arrived in Baltimore to depart for my trip to Lourdes, the folks from the Order of Malta introduced me to the person who had sponsored this pilgrimage. It was Dr. John Quinn, the man I had met in line waiting for confession at the Vatican.”
After an inspirational trip, the doctor began volunteering with the order and eventually became invested as a Knight of the Order of Malta.
It would be easy to say that the story ends there however, McGarry shared another chapter to his faith story.
A week before heading to Lourdes a second time, this time as a volunteer and with Laura, an oncology nurse, his wife was diagnosed with stage 3 breast cancer.
“My wife is much stronger than I am,” said McGarry. “As soon as she had the drains taken out, she put on the uniform and went on the trip to Lourdes and refused to tell anyone.”
McGarry said that because of his private practice, he is fortunate to integrate faith and medicine, a combination which is difficult to carry out in the corporate medicine many professionals are a part of. Faith, he said, is often a cornerstone in the treatment he provides.
“I remember treating a young woman who was 12 weeks pregnant and had a large mass on her chest. She told me I was her second opinion and she asked me if she should get an abortion. I told her that though I knew there were many who would advise that, I was not one of them because I was a Catholic. She breathed a sigh of relief and said that she was a Baptist and that abortion was not the right answer for her. We began to work together, selecting a regimen of drugs that were the least likely to cross the placenta. She ended up having lymphoma and after she delivered, we went on to aggressive therapy and eventually a stem cell transplant. Because I was there, she was able to give birth to a beautiful young girl who is now in college and whose middle name is Faith simply because that was what helped guide us through the difficulty.”
Despite multiple challenges that might have shaken his faith, McGarry sees the events of his life, both good and bad, as blessings.
“Whenever you give someone bad news, you also have to give them some hope. The hope may not be that I can cure them but, that I can keep them free of pain and help relieve their suffering, so I always try to plan the conversation before I go into the room. Those conversations are different for me as a Catholic. I always have hope for my patients because I believe we have a loving God. I believe if I pray for my patients as well, God’s mercy will come through for them, but I think I have more strength because I believe in God.
He continued, “The grace of what I have been through has to do with how I view all suffering. One thing I have learned about cancer patients is that almost all the petty things in life seem to drop away. One of the blessings of suffering is that we finally realize everything we are is not from us but from God. I don’t know if I would have learned that without the cancer,” he said.
Dr. William McGarry shared his story on the Palm Beach Physicians Guild of the Catholic Medical Association's podcast, “Doctor Doctor,” an ongoing series focused on medical specialties. He is a member of the guild, a parishioner of St. Helen Church, and an oncologist practicing in Vero Beach. To listen to the full episode, visit https://soundcloud.com/user-546435917/dd-182-specialty-focus-having-and-treating-cancer.