Story by Bekah Porter
Mary Paglia knows strength when she sees it.
After all, the Gainesville resident works at the Riverside Military Academy, surrounded by young men who thrive under the private school’s military model of education. But she found herself seeing more and more of it in herself when she was diagnosed with an aggressive stomach cancer.
In those moments, the fund manager discovered the three words that best described her.
“Perseverance, perseverance and perseverance,” she said.
OK. So, that’s just one word. But when pressed to provide two more, she responds with, “Steel magnolia.”
The Southern girl has beat the cancer twice, and with her health restored, she spends her days making sure that the young men around her continue to get the best education possible.
Here’s what Paglia had to say about her career and her wellness:
Question: You grew up in the South. What was your career trajectory?
A: I am a Gainesville native and proud to be a Southerner. The day after I graduated from high school, my dad took me around Gainesville to look for a job and the day that I got hired, he took me to Buford to buy a car to get me back and forth to work. I worked for Home Federal to paid for my bright yellow Vega (it was the cheapest car on the lot), and after two years, I quit my job to attend The University of Georgia. My family (particularly my parents) thought that I had lost my mind, and they were not happy with me, at all! I was quitting this really good job as a bank teller to go off on this wild-haired, crazy idea of going to college. No one in my family — either side — had ever attended college, never.
The day that I left for UGA my mother stood at the front door crying, not because she was proud of me, but because she thought that I was making a huge mistake and had literally lost my mind. She said that I would never graduate, among other things. (But) I was the first female at the University of Georgia to receive a degree in Agricultural Mechanization Technology in the School of Ag Engineering. After applying for graduation my senior year, my parents had a complete turnaround in attitude and opinion about my education.
I remember my father introducing me to one of his breakfast buddies as his “daughter who is about to graduate from The University of Georgia.” I could see and feel his sense of pride. After receiving my BSA, two of my four brothers went on to college and received their degrees. I later received a Master’s degree in Education from Brenau College while working full time and pregnant.
Q: You’ve used your experience as Riverside Military Academy’s annual fund coordinator. Describe your role?
A: I have the privilege of working in the Advancement Office at Riverside Military Academy with the smartest, kindest folks I have ever met. My role is to assist with the annual fund and the Georgia GOAL Scholarship Program by establishing long-term relationships with alumni and event planning for alumni.
Q: What drew you to Riverside Military Academy?
A: (It) is over 100 years old, and an institution such as this would not continue to exist today if it were not doing something right. Our school changes lives. In addition to offering a quality, high standard of education, we enable young men to achieve their full potential in mind, body and spirit. Riverside is a unique place to work in that every person — (be they) teachers, coaches, administrators — are role models and mentors for cadets and for each other.
I am thankful to work for an employer that devotes its entire mission to the betterment of other people. Every department does their part to ensure that the young men that attend our school have the greatest opportunity for success in college and life. The people that work at Riverside are the ultimate professionals, but we are also like family.
Q: Can you share a little bit about your battle with cancer?
A: Cancer is a journey, and everyone experiences it differently. For me, it was a blessing. It has given me the opportunity to say the things that I need to say to my children, my husband and my friends. There are no words left unsaid. I appreciate every breath, every flower, every sunrise. I live every day as if it could be my last. After living this way for four years, it has become a way of life.
Q: What was your reaction to your diagnosis?
A: Disbelief. How could this happen to me? I did all the right things!! I suddenly had the realization that I may not see my granddaughter grow up, I may never take another vacation, and last but not least I may never get to wear those beautiful new pumps sitting in my closet. I learned that cancer is an equal opportunity offender. I was faced with the diagnoses of Dedifferentiated Liposarcoma — a very large, aggressive and rare tumor in my abdomen.
Q: What do you wish you had known when you were diagnosed? What do you want other people to know when they receive their own diagnosis? What was the best advice you received at the time?
A: A person newly diagnosed with cancer will discover that there will be people in their lives that they will never hear from again, but on the plus side so many others will surround you with prayers, cards, messages of healing, food and support. A person newly diagnosed with cancer will understand very quickly that their lives are changed forever. They have just joined a club that absolutely no one wants to be a part of, but you are now a member by no choice of your own. (I’d tell others to) draw strength from the friends and family that will become your cheerleaders. Allow them to help by taking you to treatment, cooking for you or just stopping by for a visit. Remember that your family is taking this journey with you and sometimes they need a hand to hold on to. There is a strength deep inside that you never imagined that you had. Use it!
Q: How did cancer change your outlook on life?
A: It strengthened my relationships with friends and family, and I appreciate every day that I get up and take a breath. Material things are just that and have little importance to me anymore. Sometimes I lie awake at night and just enjoy the quiet of the night and the fact that I’m still alive. Cancer has forced me to face the brevity of my time on this earth and that all that we really have is our soul.
Q: How did you handle work with your illness?
A: First of all, let me say that I have the best employer, possibly in the state of Georgia. They allowed me to take two leave of absences in two years and held my job for me both times. I attribute my ability to continue to work full time after such a hard fight with cancer completely to my Riverside family. I was not able to start back to work full time after treatment and again Riverside let me work at the pace I could handle until I fully recovered. I started back to work after chemotherapy without one strand of hair on my head and feeling very ugly and very troll-like. My first day back I walked into the business office, and the sternest, most serious woman in the building looked up at me and said, “I think you look good bald.” That was all I needed to hear. I am thankful every day to work for such a professional, superior group of people.
Q: How do you feel now about your cancer battle?
A: Lucky to be alive and surprised about the internal fortitude and ferocity with which I fought to survive.
Q: When someone refers to you as a cancer survivor, how does that feel to you?
A: I think that is a compliment. I have had two bouts with cancer, and so far, I’m winning. Mary, 2. Cancer, 0. But who’s counting?
Riverside Military Academy is hosting two fundraisers in the coming months: Attack the Castle 5K-10K on March 18 and the Heroes and Champions event June 2-4. Visit www.riversidemilitary.com for more.