Mary Ann’s Story: Returning to the Spotlight After Two Cancer Diagnoses

Despite the challenges of her diagnoses and the COVID-19 pandemic, Mary Ann is now successfully managing her disease and returning to her calling as an actress.

April 27, 2023

Mary Ann Conk has been a professional actress since 1981, working in many mediums including theater, film and voice. When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, she, like many of her peers in the industry, were essentially out of work. But for Mary Ann, experiencing the heartbreak of not being able to perform in the arts began even years before.  

Diagnosed in 2001 with chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL), a type of cancer in the blood and bone marrow, Mary Ann would eventually have to pull away from doing live theater, her favorite part of being an actress. Patients with CLL have an increased susceptibility to infections, so being on stage in close proximity to fellow actors made her too vulnerable to work. The CLL was manageable with a “wait-and-watch” approach for 15 years, and then progressed in 2016 to chemotherapy treatment. In 2018, Mary Ann received another cancer diagnosis.  

At a visit with her oncologist, Dr. Joseph Jurcic, director of hematologic malignancies at the Herbert Irving Comprehensive Cancer Center (HICCC) at NewYork-Presbyterian/Columbia University Irving Medical Center (CUIMC), a PET scan and subsequent biopsy determined that Mary Ann had lung cancer. It was difficult news for Mary Ann, not only taking in the diagnosis itself but also feeling like her professional career was slipping away.  

“It was a tough time. Having cancer, being susceptible to infections, and then with the pandemic, having to be extremely careful about where I go and who I see was hard,” says Mary Ann. Dealing with the second cancer diagnosis, Mary Ann and her thoracic surgeon, Dr. Bryan Stanifer, talked a lot about the shame tied to lung cancer. She is grateful for Dr. Stanifer’s kindness during that stressful time.

On the receiving end of compassion and kindness

Mary Ann with her surgical oncologist, Dr. Bryan Stanifer

“Dr. Stanifer said it's natural for people to ask why or how did you get lung cancer. We all want to know the ‘how’ and ‘why’. It’s human nature for us to be curious,” adds Mary Ann, “but he also said to me, you didn't cause this. I want you to know you did not cause this to yourself.” 

Mary Ann, who quit smoking 25 years prior to being diagnosed, wants other patients to not feel so stigmatized by the disease and fight off the self-blame. 

“This is the face of cancer. I’m the face of cancer. Let’s not beat ourselves up,” she says. “Having lung cancer doesn't have to be the end.” 

Now that COVID-19 restrictions have loosened and the world is at a re-opening phase post-pandemic, Mary Ann, still very cautious, has started to enjoy her craft again. She has acted in virtual productions and continues to land voiceover work. She is living with CLL and managing it under the “devoted and compassionate care of Dr. Jurcic and his caring staff,” and after two successful surgeries led by Dr. Stanifer, Mary Ann’s lung cancer is now stable. After her last surgery in 2019, her follow-up visits and scans have decreased from every three months to every six months. Mary Ann is grateful to her team of physicians at the HICCC including oncologist, Dr. Catherine Shu, with whom she had a few visits prior to the pandemic, and also Dr. Ian Sandler of psychosocial oncology at CUIMC. 

“I cannot express into words the level of compassionate care I am getting at Columbia and NewYork-Presbyterian,” says Mary Ann. “I always feel like they have all the time in the world for me. My doctors and the staff are so kind. I am not just a CT scan to them, I am a person. It's truly unbelievable …They're like my Earth angels.”