After an Endometrial Cancer Diagnosis, a Nurse Seizes a Chance to Soar

To thank her doctor and celebrate life, Mary Skehan wanted to do something spectacular — so she went skydiving.

“It's fantastic. I love it,” Mary Skehan says of her skydiving experience. “I will never look at the sky the same way again.”

In June 2023, Bronx native and nurse Mary Skehan, 62, did something she never could have imagined herself doing — she skydived from 13,500 feet over the mountains of New York’s Hudson Valley. “I thought, ‘It’s been a year of being cancer-free. I want to do something spectacular,’” she recalls. “And I felt that jumping out of a plane would allow me to leave cancer behind and just celebrate this. But don’t get me wrong — I’m afraid of heights!”

Mary, who had been diagnosed with endometrial cancer — the most common cancer of the female reproductive system — didn’t just jump to celebrate her anniversary of being in remission. She also raised $2,000 for a fund that her doctor oversees supporting gynecologic cancer research. And she did it while wearing a tee-shirt with a photo of Dr. Jason Wright, her gynecologic oncologist, and the words, “THANK YOU!”

“My story might have turned out differently but for the way I was treated,” Mary says.

Mary Skehan and Dr. Jason Wright

Mary Skehan with Dr. Jason Wright

A Cancer on the Rise

Endometrial cancer, a type of uterine cancer, occurs in the inner lining of the uterus. Unusual vaginal bleeding is the most common symptom, occurring in 90% of patients, yet only about 10% of women with abnormal bleeding wind up having endometrial cancer, says Dr. Wright, chief of gynecologic oncology at NewYork-Presbyterian/Columbia University Irving Medical Center. However, it is one of the only cancers where both the incidence rate as well as the mortality rate in patients have increased, and it’s been steadily creeping up over the last two decades. Obesity is believed to play a role, as it causes an uptick in the production of estrogen, a hormone linked to endometrial cancer. But genetics and other factors also likely play a part, Dr. Wright says.

“We don’t really have a good understanding of why we’re seeing that increase,” says Dr. Wright. Currently, there is no screening available, “so the best thing is to try to recognize it early. For many women with uterine cancer, they often have symptoms early in the process. The most important and common symptom is abnormal vaginal bleeding, so we always recommend that people with abnormal bleeding, especially postmenopausal women like Mary, should see their doctor so they can be evaluated.”

“Part of the Collaborative Team”

Mary has worked as a nurse in New York City for more than 40 years, yet she has rarely been a patient, choosing instead to avoid seeing doctors for much of her life.

“I just thought I was busy taking care of other people,” Mary says.

This changed in late March 2022 when she experienced heavy vaginal bleeding and immediately knew she needed to see a specialist. Dr. Wright was recommended to Mary.

“Dr. Wright came in and he spoke to me, not at me,” Mary recalls. “And he listened to what I had to say. I felt like I was part of the collaborative team.”

Two days after her first appointment with Dr. Wright, Mary had an MRI, which showed a 5-centimenter mass inside Mary’s uterus, protruding through the cervix. The next week, she underwent biopsies of the lining of the uterus and the mass, which didn’t show cancer. Feeling hopeful, Mary agreed to have a total abdominal hysterectomy to remove the uterus and cervix — and the mass.

In the operating room, while preparing for the hysterectomy, Dr. Wright took another biopsy that showed a type of precancer that is associated with cancer in around 40% of cases. Given his “high concern for the possibility of cancer based on the biopsy,” he also performed a bilateral salpingo-oophorectomy (BSO), a procedure that removes both fallopian tubes and ovaries.

“In some women, especially younger women with endometrial cancer, we’ll sometimes preserve the ovaries,” says Dr. Wright, as the ovaries produce beneficial hormones that help protect against conditions such as heart disease and osteoporosis. “But in postmenopausal women (like Mary), there’s a benefit to removing the ovaries. So, typically, we’ll remove the uterus and ovaries, and we’ll often take a biopsy of the lymph nodes to make sure that cancer hasn’t spread.”

When Mary arrived at her follow-up appointment two weeks later, Dr. Wright had tough news to deliver: the result of her lab pathology showed, in an area that he had removed, what he called “very early endometrial cancer.” “He took my hand and looked me in the eye and said, ‘I think you’re going to be fine,’” Mary recalls. “And I said, ‘Do I need chemo? Do I need radiation?’ And he said, ‘No, we’re just going to watch you.’”

Appreciating Every Day

Fortunately, the cancer hadn’t spread to Mary’s lymph nodes, but she wasn’t yet deemed cancer-free. Since her surgery in June 2022, she sees Dr. Wright every three months, receiving a pelvic exam and consultation on her general health. So far, so good, and she is currently closing in on her first major milestone — two years without a recurrence. According to Dr. Wright, 80% of women who see a recurrence do so in the first two years.

“The outlook is very good for Mary,” says Dr. Wright, noting that endometrial cancer is often curable when caught early. “She had a relatively early cancer when she was diagnosed. For most women with endometrial cancer, treatment requires surgery. Sometimes we also need to do radiation or chemotherapy but, in many women (like Mary), we don’t need to do any additional treatment.”

Mary didn’t wait for any milestones to start seizing her days; however, and she hasn’t stopped at skydiving. She now walks 20,000 steps a day – to and from work, the halls and stairs of her nursing unit, and in her neighborhood after dinner – and takes her health and fitness very seriously. She’s even planning to join NewYork-Presbyterian’s team in this year’s New York City Marathon, with a mix of running and walking, and once again raise funds for gynecologic cancer research. And she plans to skydive again, to commemorate the two-year anniversary since her surgery.

“It’s scary but also exhilarating and freeing,” Mary says. “I want to experience life. Others have not been as lucky as me. I appreciate every day.”

Additional Resources

  • Learn more about NewYork-Presbyterian’s gynecologic cancer care.

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