A curious thing began happening once Mary Clancey turned 45.
The 5-foot-1 Pennsylvania woman — who had always easily kept a petite figure, even after the birth of her two sons — started gaining weight.
Five pounds one year. Several more the next. It all seemed to accumulate in her abdomen like a mysterious pregnancy. (And she was certainly not pregnant, Clancey, now 71, wants stated for the record.)
“As time went by, the potbelly just kept moving along,” Clancey told The Washington Post in a phone call from her St. Clair, Pa., home Monday. “I just started getting short, round and fat.”
At first, she chalked it up to being put on blood thinners and a corresponding carbohydrate-heavy diet for several years. But even after she stopped taking the medicine, Clancey continued to put on weight.
Her friends and family teased that perhaps she should lay off the fudge samples at Boscov's department store, where she worked behind the candy counter. But Clancey knew better. Not only was she using all her willpower to not eat any fudge on the job, she was also attempting one diet after another, to no avail.
“Everything that was on TV, I tried,” Clancey said. “Hydroxycut. Lipozene. I ate more lettuce than a rabbit ate. Subway was my favorite place to eat. … I was just beside myself.”
It required all her energy to stand on her feet at work all day. When she retired from Boscov's in 2015, her activities lessened and the pounds persisted. Eventually, Clancey thought of her mother — and all the other “roly-poly women” in her family tree — and resigned herself to her “genetic destiny.”
Tending to her garden became more difficult. Then walking. Then standing.
Then one day in November, Clancey couldn't get out of bed. Her son, Ed, who lives with her, had long observed that her weight gain seemed off. (“Mom, look at your arms now,” she remembers he told her. “They're so thin, and the rest of you is protruding straight forward.") Now he was calling an ambulance.
Clancey, it turned out, had a blood clot. But what had caused it shocked doctors enough to rush Clancey to Lehigh Valley Hospital, about an hour away in Allentown, Pa.
“The CT scan was done, which is like permanently ingrained in my mind, of a mass that was so big it didn't even fit in the picture of the scanner,” physician Richard Boulay said in a video released by the Lehigh Valley Health Network. “I have never seen anything the size of this before.”
Boulay told Clancey that it almost looked like she was carrying quadruplets — except it was an ovarian cyst that had grown unchecked, likely for years.
Clancey was astounded. The growth had not felt tumor-like at all but rather soft and jiggly, something her young grandson liked to pat.
“My stomach just felt like fat,” she said. “It was easy to go with, and I had no pain, no discomfort.”
Boulay suspected it was a less aggressive cancer because of the tumor's large size.
“Think about it. If you have a tumor that, along its behavior, starts to spread, those are the rough ones,” he said in the video. “These big, single masses are oftentimes a low-grade or less aggressive type cancer.”
Still, the cyst was threatening Clancey's life. It had grown to the point that it was pushing up into her diaphragm and other organs, making breathing difficult. It was also pressing on her veins and arteries, and she risked further blood clots.
Clancey weighed 365 pounds at the time.
Boulay knew he needed to operate and remove the tumor immediately. But its size presented numerous challenges.
“My first thought was … how am I going to get it out of her without rupturing it?” he said in the video. “One of the tenets of cancer surgery is, when you take out a mass, you don't want to pop it. And this is mostly fluid, with a rind around it … and it's slippery.”
Boulay ordered two operating tables, one for Clancey and the other for her tumor. He also knew it would be too heavy for him to lift it out or hand it to a nurse; they would have to roll it out of Clancey's body, then onto a wheeled cart.
On Nov. 9, 2016, Clancey went into surgery.
“The first thing I thought was Sigourney Weaver, with the alien,” Clancey told WNEP News. “I was scared.”
Clancey said she allowed hospital staff to take photos of the procedure so she could see for herself afterward.
One picture showed Boulay and his team slicing her open from top to bottom. Another showed the massive growth, the size of an exercise ball, “rolled onto the table,” she said.
Yet another showed her empty body cavity after the tumor was removed. It reminded her of the Easter egg molds she used to use to shape chocolate at her job.
“The cyst pushed everything way to the sides,” Clancey said. “I was like a hollow Easter egg. That to me was the scariest part.”
She was in surgery for five hours. Doctors struggled to find a scale that would accommodate the tumor.
It weighed 140 pounds.
A plastic surgeon, Randolph Wojcik Jr., removed an additional 40 pounds of excess skin from Clancey's body.
By the time Clancey woke up after surgery, she had lost 180 pounds.
For several days after the operation, Clancey said, her body felt “odd,” as if it missed the cyst. She spent 26 days in the hospital recovering.
Now, several months later, Clancey isn't looking back. Though she's still using a walker to fully recover, she marvels at how much more energy she has — and how flat her stomach is.
“I feel great,” Clancey said. “Ever since the surgery, I've been somewhere just about every day. It's really been a change compared to what I was.”
Recently, she returned to the hospital and let them film her story. On camera, Clancey's excitement about her new lease on life is apparent.
“Well hey, I was gonna be a short, fat, round little old lady before, so you never know,” she joked. “I might just turn into a voluptuous babe. Who knows?”
She and her son hope her story encourages other people to visit the doctor if they sense something is wrong.
“Every third commercial on TV … the target audience is women and whatnot and it's diet this and exercise that,” Ed Clancey said. “It's just possible that if you've done all that and you're not losing weight, there may be something else going on. Don't just shame yourself into thinking that it's your fault.”
Mary Clancey has already started planning her spring garden and said she can't wait to go on more road trips and antique shopping now that she is more mobile.
And recently, she returned to the Boscov's candy counter where she used to work and bought something to indulge in after years of resistance: her first box of fudge.
“I figured, hey,” she said, laughing, “it's time.”