Gift from the Heart

Melanie Seymore and Toncred Styblo

Melanie Seymore, left, received such great care from surgeon Toncred Styblo, right, that Seymore and her husband asked wedding guests to donate to Winship rather than give presents to the newlyweds.

By Quinn Eastman / Photography by Jack Kearse

Melanie Seymore had plans to get married.

But instead of getting married in 2010, she was diagnosed with breast cancer.

"It was pretty shocking, because I was considered the healthy one," she says. "I worked out, I ate vegetables. I wasn't expecting it."

And yet despite a cancer diagnosis, treatment, surgery, the tragic loss of her fiance's parents, Melanie and now-husband Dan Mowery decided she had to give back to Winship. In an extraordinary gesture of generosity, the couple asked that guests for their long-awaited wedding make donations to Winship instead of buying traditional wedding gifts for the couple.

"Melanie is just an exceptional person," says Toncred Styblo, the Winship surgical oncologist who performed Melanie's lumpectomy. "She is very strong, very caring. We were so happy to be able to see her get married, see her wedding photos, and share in that time with her. And to think that she donated her wedding gifts to Winship was really more than we could imagine. She's just amazing."

Melanie knew that Dan was a good catch as soon as she met him in 2007. Both Chicago natives, they immediately hit it off, sharing memories of their hometown.

The couple became engaged in 2008. For a 40-something-year-old career woman who had waited decades for her soul mate, her engagement was a joy not only for her but also for all those who knew her and cared about her and husband-to-be.

After waiting so long to find Dan, Melanie knew she wanted a fairy-tale wedding—family, friends, and a beautiful gown. They planned to marry in 2010. Dan and Melanie were trying to sell one of their houses to prepare for moving into one house after they married. An uncooperative housing market interfered.

Then, in July, 2010, Dan's parents were killed in a car crash.

"They went out to get his mother a haircut," Melanie says. Dan's father lost control of their car, and it slammed into a brick wall. Dan's father died within 24 hours of the accident; his mother died a few days later. The grief of the sudden loss was especially difficult, Melanie says. There was no way the couple could consider rejoicing in a wedding when their hearts were breaking from the loss of Dan's parents.

Three months later, Melanie was diagnosed with breast cancer. She knew she would have to postpone the wedding.

Melanie Seymore

"I would just want every single woman who goes through cancer to know there's a light at the end of the tunnel and that there can still be a fairy tale ending." —Melanie Seymore

"I didn't want to be a bald-headed bride," Melanie says. "I had seen far too many TV wedding shows with brides trying dresses on with veils. I wasn't going to give that up."

Melanie had a type of breast cancer called triple negative. It is called triple negative because it tests negative for three different kinds of receptors on the surface of breast cancer cells. Researchers have developed effective treatment that targets those receptors. Because triple negative breast cancer does not have those receptors, it is less vulnerable to those drugs. It can be a very challenging cancer to treat.

The day she received her diagnosis, she recalls feeling very comforted by the kindness of surgeon Styblo.

"She held my hand and hugged me and assured me that everything was going to be OK," Melanie says. "I felt very fortunate I was there."

Melanie had chemotherapy, a lumpectomy, and radiation. Amelia Zelnak, whom she says was "absolutely wonderful," was her medical oncologist.

Dan was beside her every step, she says, even being acknowledged by the American Cancer Society as one of three top caregivers of the year.

"In fact, he went with me to every single chemo visit, using up all his vacation days," Melanie says. "He acted like my valet."

Dan says it was very hard watching Melanie go through treatment. When he was a teenager, his father was diagnosed with cancer.

"I can remember the moment my mother told me," he says. "That memory was seared into my heart."

Going through cancer treatment with Melanie almost broke his heart.

"You hate to see anyone suffer, but when it's someone you love so much, someone like Melanie…it was tough," he remembers.

He did everything he possibly could to help his fiancée, and he was glad to be able to do so, he says. He credits great co-workers and a network of friends who were there for him so he could be there for Melanie.

"Sometimes these kinds of things tear a couple apart," he says. "But not us, thank goodness. It made us stronger."

Melanie also credits breast cancer nurse navigator Heather Pinkerton, who helped her find answers—and helped her stay calm. "Every time I'd read something about triple negative, I'd email Heather. I would get so upset. Heather said I needed to get offline."

Heather also helped lift her spirits.

"When you go through breast cancer treatment, you don't feel pretty any more," Melanie says. "It's really a hit to your self-esteem."

By the summer of 2011, things had begun to change. Her hair was growing back. She had energy. She was feeling good and hoping that she and Dan could finally plan their wedding.

Their chance arrived on Oct. 29, 2011. They finally married.  As they were planning their wedding, they needed to decide where to register for gifts that their friends and family would be interested in buying for them.

"Everybody kept saying, ‘where are you going to register?'" Melanie recalls.

And after all the trials and heartbreaks the couple had been through, they thought of other people at one of the times in people's lives when the spotlight rightly should fall on them.

"And I thought, ‘why don't we just ask people to donate to Winship?'

The choice was obvious, Melanie says. To date, their guests have donated more than $6,000 to Winship.

"I would just want every single woman who goes through cancer to know there's a light at the end of the tunnel," says Melanie, "and that there can still be a fairy tale ending."


       
 
 

The Winship Way

Do you have a story of heroism or kindness about a patient, doctor, nurse or staffer at Winship that you'd like to share? Tell us about it for The Winship Way. Send your story to: virginia.l.anderson@emory.edu, or call at 404-778-5452.

 
         

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