Trees of Hope: MOCA and Mary's Story

Updated: December 03, 2018 12:31 PM

It's been a year since Mary Elsenrath passed from ovarian cancer. A year of firsts without the Duluth woman who loved art, the outdoors, and her family. Her large and close family continues to grieve her loss. And they have used their tears, to tell a story of awareness.


Mary had gone into the emergency room for severe abdominal pain. She'd had some pain off and on for a few months. But this time, it was extreme. She ended up having surgery, and that's when the surgeons found the cancer. It was everywhere.

Genevieve Graves remembers her daughter's diagnosis. "Ken and I had been wintering in Puerto Rico. She was supposed to come visit us for a week. And instead, we came home to visit her."

That was in February of 2016. Mary, with the help of her care team, including Dr. Sande, fought on with chemotherapy and surgeries. A final chemo was on the table in the summer of 2017. "It has a 15% success rate. And she wanted to go for it," Genevieve shared. She did, but it wasn't enough to beat the disease.

By then, Mary had moved back home into her parents' place on Schultz Lake. She had grown weaker. It was time to stop the fight. She didn't want to be a burden on her family at the very end, so she decided to go to hospice care. "It was a very, very hard day when she left here," Genevieve said, speaking about their home.

Slowly and deliberately, Mary took in the sights and sounds of the place she loved, the lake and the land. "It's something you don't think ever can be replaced. She gave us a gift," Genevieve recalled through tears.

Less than two weeks later, on October 1st, 2017, she passed away at Solvay House, at the age of 47. She was surrounded by loved ones. 

Genevieve said things were a bit of a blur after that. But that Christmas, mittens made them smile. Mary had so many sweaters, and Michelle made them into mittens. "All the girls in the family got mittens for Christmas, from Mary," Michelle said.

During those months following Mary's death, Genevieve began writing down what happened. "It's helped me a lot. It helps me remember everything."

The former teacher hasn't finished her journaling. The story isn't over yet. Because now they're sharing about Mary, to help other women. "She said, 'I just wish I didn't have to put you through this.' And I said to her, if it helps us understand what other people are going through, it may help us to help them sometime," Genevieve said.

This past fall, Genevieve and another one of Mary's sisters, Melissa, attended their first Light Duluth Teal event. "I could feel her presence there. It was bittersweet. It was also kind of a reality. That this did happen. And it's part of the grieving. And it was a shared celebration. Now we have something in common with other families," Melissa said. MOCA, the Minnesota Ovarian Cancer Alliance, hosts the Light Duluth Teal event and other fundraisers in Duluth.

Mary had known about the tribute of teal the first year she was sick. By the second, she couldn't make it down to see the aerial lift bridge or Enger Tower lit teal. So Melissa went down and took a picture, and brought it back to show her.

After her death, there have been many tough days and nights. But they are finding strength and some laughter, as they live through their memories of Mary. 

"I've learned a lot about how to give grace through adversity. How to love people and meet them where they are at. That's who she was," shared Melissa.

If you want to learn more about MOCA and to donate to help survivors, visit the Trees of Hope banner on our mainpage:

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