Tuesday, October 1, 2002

At Home With MaryEllen Locher

Chattanooga CityScope
Fall 2002
MaryEllen Locher is a television news anchor. Since 1985, she has been a part of the News Channel 9 broadcast team. For most of that time, she has dispensed the news. For some of it, updates on her health have been news. MaryEllen is a two-time cancer survivor, most recently returning to work in January.

Since she was diagnosed with breast cancer in August, 2000, her battle has been a very public one. Regular updates kept concerned viewers informed about her progress, and for someone used to being on camera the outpouring of concern from friends, neighbors, and viewers was most welcome.
"For me it was really a Godsend," she explained. "Chattanooga has become my home, and through my cancers the community was able to reach out to me and know me in a way they really don't know most other people on television. It allowed us to bond, and I feel very loved here and very fortunate to have the prayers, encouragement and well wishes from so many people. It has made all the difference."

In MaryEllen's case, the breast cancer may actually have developed as a result of the radiation treatment she underwent for Hodgkin's Disease 14 years ago. In 1985, she had accepted a job with Channel 9 as one of the first health reporters in the country. A couple of years later, she was planning a potential move.
"In television, the phrase is 'to move up is to move out'" she laughed. "My contract was coming up in six months, and my plan was to work my way back up to the Pittsburgh area. I had sent out 20 tapes the day before my biopsy. When I was diagnosed with Hodgkin's, I thought it just stopped my career in its tracks. I knew I needed the health insurance. Chattanooga really became my home, and I had to change the direction of my life at 28."

It had been a slow diagnosis. "I was in my 20's, and I was on top of the world," she said. "Nobody in my family had ever had a chronic illness, and it never occurred to me that there could be something that could change your life so dramatically, how you think and how you live. It really stole my youth."
The single most prominent symptom had been an overwhelming fatigue. MaryEllen just couldn't seem to recover fully from routine surgery for the removal of wisdom teeth. She made the trip home for Christmas in 1987 but spent the whole visit in bed, just too tired. The course of treatment for her Hodgkin's involved surgery and radiation, which at the time appeared to be the "gentler" of the options. The other was chemotherapy.

"I grieved for what I considered to be the loss of my youth for a long time," MaryEllen related. "When I was with people my own age, they were so very carefree, believing anything is a possibility, and I knew that not everything was. Life is very finite, and I had to enjoy every moment. In some ways, I became more driven to create the life that I wanted. I didn't want to just let things happen. I don't know if that was good or not. I just had to work through it."

Locher finished her radiation therapy in March, 1988, married David Burd in September, and got pregnant in October. The couple's son Alex was born healthy nine months later. The arrival of the baby boy was a miracle. "They just didn't expect it to happen because my body had been so messed up," she said. "We were overjoyed, but the neat thing about it was that when I had Alex I didn't really think about the cancer so much. I was able to move on, and I didn't really consider that I would ever be diagnosed with cancer again."

Life did regain some semblance of normality, but there was a struggle of a different kind. MaryEllen and David experienced difficulties in their and separated approximately two years. Then, amid an awakening of their Christian faith, the couple reconciled. "We were able to begin having the life that both of us dreamed of," remembered Locher, "but we would never have been able to attain it without that mutual faith."

Because of her high profile position at Channel 9, MaryEllen has often been asked to be available for speaking engagements or to lend an encouraging word to another person enduring the ravages of cancer. It is a role she plays with appreciation.

"Whatever I do would be a very small return on what has been given to me, " she explained. "I understand the impact of seeing someone publicly who has battled a disease and can be an encouragement or inspiration to others. I meet people in the grocery store who come up and say, 'I had breast cancer 12 years ago.' Generally, I hug them because they're an inspiration to me. So, I can understand people looking at me in that way. It humbles me, and I am glad of that. I am just thankful for the opportunity to play that role. Because my road has been so difficult, it has been a gift from God. If He wants to use me in that way, then that's awesome."

While cancer is one of the most formidable foes an individual can confront, at the same time the disease can bring out the very best in people. Through personal experience, MaryEllen realizes that her life is forever changed. Cancer, she says, does not steal the love of life away from a person. On the contrary, it enhances that love - so much so that it cultivates an appreciation of every moment.

"When I look at my breast cancer, I consider it primarily a spiritual thing, not physical," she commented. "It was actually liberating because I was able to rely on my faith and my Hixson United Methodist Church community. I couldn't do anything for myself. I had to rely on God's grace and the people that He would bring to me to help me. There were viewers I never met who sent me cards, and people who showed up at my door with food. When I really didn't have control of anything, and I surrendered and let others do for me, it was a wonderful feeling. There was so much joy mixed with the pain that I could never separate the two."
Indeed, the darkest of moments can also be the brightest.

Through all of the tribulations, the management and co-workers at Channel 9 have offered support and encouragement. Few employers, says MaryEllen, would have kept her job open as long as they did. "My boss, Steve Hunsicker, made the decision to keep my face in the open, whether I was there or not. That was incredibly kind of him. They also made the decision that they would announce my name and let people know how I was doing."

Just weeks after coming to Channel 9, Kim Chapman found herself filling in for Locher, and once again, the experience was uplifting. "I have to say this about Kim," MaryEllen stressed, "in this business a lot of people are very ambitious, and I don't know of many female anchors who would have stepped in as Kim did. She wasn't happy that I was sick. A lot of people would have only been looking out for their own careers. She has been a wonderful friend to me for many years."

Co-anchor Bob Johnson often provided fashion-related feedback. "I found myself coming to work with a self-image that had very much changed," said MaryEllen. "I had 14 chemotherapy treatments and lost not only the hair on my head but my eyebrows and eyelashes as well. I had wigs, and I used a lot of makeup. I felt uncomfortable at first, but Bob and I have anchored together so long and we're so close. He is the person I would talk to the most on the set. He heard the most about my insecurity and he was so supportive.

"God bless Bob. I would ask him, 'Is my wig straight?' My chest area was stuffed, and during commercials I might ask him, 'Are my boobs straight? Did my chest move?' He would always take an interest and wanted me to fell good, but he did say I was becoming high maintenance."
While it may be true that the camera shows everything, one aspect of MaryEllen Locher's life it cannot completely convey is the depth of her concern for others. Hats From The Heart, a non-profit organization which distributes hats to cancer patients who have lost their hair, was established after a particularly tough day some time ago.

"I was with my friend Jan Tiano and had just finished a chemo treatment," MaryEllen remarked. "We went to the store to find a hat, and by the time we got home I was just having a nervous breakdown. I wondered why they didn't just have hats at the chemo place so you could get one there. I called Jan later and ran Hats Form The Heart by her. She said we should call it locher's Lids. The hats have to be new. They should be soft and cover a large area of the head, and they should be pretty enough to wear to church or to the grocery store. People just don't realize what a $5 hat can do for somebody."

Hats From The Heart has grown tremendously, with affiliates organizing in the Dalton and Cleveland areas. Distribution centers are located in area hospitals.
When she experienced problems with her vision after a bout with the shingles, MaryEllen visited Dr. Deborah DiStefano. "The doctor realized what financial straits we had been in," said Locher. "David now owns Service Heating and Air, but he had been forced to quit the job he had at that time because it involved a lot of out-of-state travel. I wasn't able to work, and we needed him at home to take care of Alex and me. Deborah called me three days later and said that she had been inspired to start a fund in her mother's memory for women with breast cancer who need financial help. She asked me to help her."

The Helen DiStefano Fund was launched last year, and MaryEllen addressed the gathering at a recent luncheon to raise funds.

Planning for her son's college education prompted Locher to do a little detective work, and she discovered, much to her surprise, that no scholarship fund existed for children who had lost a parent to cancer. "I called the American Cancer Society, and they confirmed it," she related. 'I told David that if I survived, I was going to start a scholarship fund."

With the support of Pete Cooper and the Community Foundation of Chattanooga, MaryEllen has launched the Children of Breast Cancer Scholarship Fund®. Without any formal fundraising effort to date, it appears that enough money may already be in hand to award seven scholarships next year. Mentoring and wellness programs are being established in conjunction with the scholarship fund. Women will write to the scholarship recipients periodically while they are at school, offering words of encouragement, and self-examination among women and healthy lifestyles will be promoted.

"There was a time when David and I couldn't talk about the future, and Alex stopped too," MaryEllen sighed. "It broke my heart. This is a way for those fighting breast cancer to know that people who care are out there. Their children can have dreams of going to college."

Although MaryEllen and her family have experienced the depths of despair, they have also been to the emotional mountaintop. "For me, the tragedy and trauma of cancer have left a hole inside," she explained. "It is fortunate that I have been able to fill that hole and make some sense of things by helping others. These ministries have been my therapy, and that hole is filled up. The grief is displaced by hope. It's not a cure for cancer, but there is hope for every day."

Before one of MaryEllen's hospital visits, Alex wrote a series of Bible verses down and gave them to his mother. "One of them jumped out at me," she noted. "It said, 'You, the devil, meant to hurt her, but God will turn this evil into good.' So many people have been impacted by simple ideas. It is divine inspiration. The door has not just been opened. It has been taken off the hinges. To the families of those with cancer, I would say that I know it is easy to wallow in the grief that you feel, but remember that the cancer doesn't own you. You can't change some of the circumstances in life, but you can determine your attitude toward them."

Through all of these life-changing events, MaryEllen Locher has shown herself to be an example of absolute grace. She has both received lavishly and given generously, and our entire community is richer for the experience.

Story courtesy of and copyrighted by Chattanooga City Scope Magazine

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