Mesothelioma survivor Mary Lyons flew to Paris earlier this month accompanied by her two most prized possessions — a juicer and a border collie named Kailani.
Together, they will keep her strong.
Lyons, 68, finished her fifth round of chemotherapy, closed her front door, put her business on hold and left for Europe, where she will spend eight weeks traveling the countryside.
“I’m feeling good right now. I’m putting my cancer in a box on the shelf for the next two months and saying goodbye,” she said excitedly from her home near San Francisco before leaving for the airport. “It’s my way to not think about mesothelioma for a while. I need this.”
She will go on day hikes in the Pyrenees Mountain Range, partake in a religious pilgrimage at the Catholic shrine of Lourdes in southwest France, and then she will join a friend who is finishing a 45-day walk through Basque country at Santiago de Compostela in Spain.
Lyons will then fly to Ireland so Kailani can herd sheep where her ancestors once did.
“I’m a little unusual, I guess. I still have a real zest for life, and I don’t sit still very well or very long. I can’t imagine what that’s going to be like,” she said. “I know this isn’t going to work forever, but I’ve always believed if you take care of your body, it will take care of you.”
In the fall of 2015, Lyons was told she had pleural mesothelioma, a stunning diagnosis for someone seemingly so healthy. A long-time veterinary technician, she operates A Marin Dog’s Life, a well-respected dog-walking business in Sausalito, California.
She still hikes 4-5 miles daily on hilly terrain with off-leash, canine customers. She lives now with her nonstop border collie, one of the world’s most intelligent, high-energy breed of dogs.
Neither Lyons nor Kailani ever stop moving.
“You wouldn’t believe I am 68 right now. A friend told me I have a body of someone 15-20 years younger,” she said. “My doctor told me, whatever I’m doing, to keep doing it because it’s working now. I’m teaching him to think outside the box a little bit more.”
Even before she was diagnosed, she was a believer in a healthy, outdoor lifestyle. Once diagnosed, her diet changed significantly. She cut out all sugars and processed foods, focusing on an alkaline diet that discourages the growth of cancer cells.
She uses her trusty blender to make a daily juice with spinach, carrots, beets, kale, ginger, cucumber and a variety of other available vegetables. Lyons also takes a shot of wheatgrass every two days.
Gone are the rum and Cokes she loved, giving way to one glass of dry, red wine.
“You have to help the doctor take care of you. It’s a joint effort. I’m going to do everything I can to help myself. Find out what cancer likes, and cut it out,” she said. “I know I’ve got something [mesothelioma], but I’m not giving into it. Sure, it scares the hell out of me — and I have my dark moments — but I’m not going to dwell on it.”
Lyons has been hiking hills and loving the outdoors since the age of 3 when her father started taking her on walks into the countryside. She never stopped. She was born in California, but she lived for 20 years in Hawaii, rollerblading 5-10 miles daily. She worked as an international travel agent, allowing her to tour much of the world.
“I like the city, but I’m still a country girl at heart,” she said. “I love being outdoors, hiking every day with the dogs, seeing what God has made: The birds, the eagles, the coyotes. God has been good to me. I know that. I’ve got two convents of nuns praying for me now. And I’ve seen studies that show people getting prayers do better. Prayer works. I know it does.”
Her latest CT scan showed considerable tumor shrinkage from the chemotherapy. Her doctors at the University of California, San Francisco Comprehensive Cancer Center were thrilled. She was fortunate to be diagnosed at an early stage when it is more treatable.
Surgery was discussed, but she rejected the idea initially, uneasy about being off her feet for too long. She hopes to begin an immunotherapy clinical trial when she returns home.
“This thing [cancer] has changed my life and my way of thinking. It’s made me see the world with a more compassionate eye, made me enjoy things a little bit more,” she said. “Initially, I was blown away by the diagnosis, but I’m getting great care, and I’m taking care of myself.”
She sounds more worried now about Kailani’s future than her own. Border collies require long walks and runs every day. They are high maintenance, which doesn’t fit the typical mesothelioma survivor profile.
This is her third border collie, and much like her previous pets, Lyons and Kailani are a perfect match. Kailani is seven, and Lyons expects the dog has more years of running the hills in northern California.
“I don’t have kids,” Lyons said. “She’s my life, and I worry about what might happen, and who will be there to give her the exercise and the love she needs. I hope it’s me.”