Mary's Circle of Hope The Mary Maguire Foundation
Our History

Sisters' foundation takes up fight against cancer

The Post-Crescent

Tracey O'Leary, her battle against cancer and her desire to keep her family intact was an inspiration for "Mary's Circle of Hope, The Mary Maguire Foundation."

O'Leary's hope is that many benefit from the foundation.

"When you go through cancer, you become connected to those who have cancer," said O'Leary, a 48-year-old Menasha resident who was diagnosed with leukemia in spring 2002. "I have a saying, 'You meet the nicest people in the cancer ward.' Just having someone come over and drop food off, the day care, taking the children and going to a movie, there's so much this foundation can offer, especially to mothers."

O'Leary's sister, Maureen Riopelle, started the foundation and considers her older sibling as a model the non-profit organization can emulate. Since Riopelle is a Cincinnati resident, the foundation is focusing on that area for now but is looking to either move or expand to Milwaukee in the near future and, regardless, O'Leary is family.

Riopelle, 42 and a 1980 Xavier High School graduate, was diagnosed with breast cancer in December 2003. The sisters' mother, Mary (Maguire) Riopelle, died of leukemia in June 2001, a disease that killed three of their grandparents.

"Lots of organizations provide services," said Riopelle, the youngest of 11 children in the family. "I wanted to provide services they may not, a circle of services, hence the name. There are cancers that don't get as much attention as breast cancer, such as ovarian and uterine cancer, really scary cancers that are often not caught until it's too late. The mortality rate is higher. I wanted to make sure that these women were represented as well."

O'Leary, a 1974 Appleton West graduate, has three sons from a previous marriage and 3-year-old daughter Delaney with her husband, Pat. O'Leary found out she had leukemia 11 months after Delaney was born.

"I was working full time, breast feeding and was extremely tired," O'Leary said. "I just thought, 'Well, I just had a baby and I'm not a spring chicken anymore.' When I found out, I remembered what my mother had gone through. She was diagnosed at age 70 and lived 12 years after that, but it was hard to see her suffer.

"I'm undergoing chemo again. I have a drug I was given last year that worked for a while, but mine seems to be pretty aggressive. I have a regimen of every 28 days. I go through three days in a row, just trying to knock my white count down and, hopefully, put me into remission."

Rheo Riopelle, the sisters' father, died March 4 at age 88. He had said he sometimes wondered why his family had been hit so hard by cancer, but he relied on his faith.

"You've just got to pray," said Rheo, who was an Appleton resident.

O'Leary's chemo routine, which was scheduled to end this spring, might be shortened from six months to four. She receives her treatments locally from Dr. John Swanson, who is administering a protocol established by Dr. John Byrd, a specialist at the James Comprehensive Cancer Institute at The Ohio State University.

"The doctors were not certain how effective it would be," Riopelle said of O'Leary's treatments. "Now, she's having miraculous results, in her doctor's words. We're all praying that Dr. Byrd not only lengthened her life, but cured her from the disease. That is surely my hope."

As difficult as the sickness and uncertainty are, O'Leary doesn't have to look far for motivation.

"It's hard because I look at my daughter and, as a mom, I want to see her grow up," she said. "I came home one time and she said, 'I don't want you to die.' My sons are also very worried."

O'Leary said she's thankful for the support and extra efforts of Pat and the love of her sons; Chris Gehrt, 27, of Pasadena, Calif.; Bryan Gehrt, 24, of Neenah; and Adam Gehrt, 23, a senior at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. She said her colleagues at Neenah Paper have been extremely kind and helpful, and there are all those brothers and sisters.

"My mother was a very compassionate and caring person and we try to put others before us," O'Leary said. "Maureen has been so wonderful. She knows everything I'm feeling -- the fear, the nausea, the dizziness, the uncertainty of everything."

One certainty is the family will keep praying for a cure.

"I'm hoping in the next five years or sooner they come up with something," O'Leary said. "They're really focusing on leukemias, lymphomas and breast cancer."

Rheo had never stopped being proud of his children.

"The girls are very close and supportive of each other, as are the boys," Rheo said. "It was very hard with the loss of my wife, and I worry about the kids. But I know they'll look out for each other."

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