October 11, 2021

The perfect gift: New chair position will fund metastatic breast cancer research for decades

After 43 years of marriage, it can be difficult – some may say impossible – to find that perfect birthday gift for your spouse.

But as Mary Gooze approached her 70th birthday, husband Rob hatched a plan to surprise his wife with a special, personal gift with a big impact: one that will benefit the UW Carbone Cancer Center – and individuals living with metastatic breast cancer – for decades to come.

“I did it all secretly on her,” Rob said with a laugh.

But for the better part of the last decade, the laughs have been harder to come by. Mary was first diagnosed with breast cancer in 2012 and underwent months of treatment to combat the disease. But two years later, her cancer returned and spread to her bones.

She’s been living with metastatic, or Stage IV, breast cancer ever since.

The diagnosis was devastating and life-changing, to say the least. Metastatic breast cancer or MBC is considered incurable. While some specific treatments and clinical trials are available, aimed at managing the disease and extending life, options are limited. And as Mary would learn over time, research and funding for new MBC treatments frequently lag behind other types of breast cancer.

But, rather than despair, Mary – a longtime tri-athlete – saw an opportunity to do something with Rob at her side.

“As a retired teacher, I’m always into educating,” Mary said. “Rob and I started talking about how we could educate people about this disease. My running days were pretty much over because of the cancer, but I thought that maybe if I got in the lake and swam and provided some information, we could educate people.”

In 2015, the couple launched One Woman Many Lakes to raise awareness and bust myths about MBC, while also raising money for the More for Stage IV Fund at the UW Carbone Cancer Center, where Mary was being treated. The name came from Mary’s goal to swim across as many bodies of water as possible, and so far, she’s racked up an impressive list.

Since her first swim six years ago, One Woman Many Lakes has raised more than $1.6 million for MBC research at UW Carbone. But the couple wasn’t stopping there.

As Mary approached her 70th birthday – and her seventh year of living with metastatic breast cancer – the pair set a new fundraising goal of $70,000 for the More for Stage IV Fund. Rob also planned a birthday party for friends, family and other supporters.

But unbeknownst to Mary, Rob had a special surprise planned for the party. Behind the scenes, he had reached out to the UW Foundation to make a personal philanthropic gift aimed at funding MBC research at UW Carbone through an ongoing endowment.

“People don’t realize that UW Carbone is one of the leaders in not just breast cancer, but metastatic breast cancer research as well,” Rob said. “So I wanted to increase awareness of that, but also, I wanted to thank UW for the research and get a chance to honor what we consider a top researcher in metastatic breast cancer.”

With a personal gift of $1 million – which was then doubled though a Morgridge Match – the Mary and Rob Gooze Chair in Metastatic Breast Cancer was officially created. For Rob, it just might have been the perfect gift after more than four decades of marriage.

All that was left to do was tell Mary about it. And for that, he had a little help.

At her birthday party, hosted at a local park, Mary wondered why so many folks from UW Carbone – including her oncologist Kari Wisinski, MD – were on hand. Certainly, she had gotten to know them over the years, but seeing them at her party on a beautiful Saturday evening was a surprise.

But little did she know the surprise that awaited her – the reveal of the chair position – which was officially announced by UW Carbone director Howard Bailey, MD.

“It left me speechless,” Mary said.

Later, the Gooze family helped select the individual who would hold the chair with their name on it. In conjunction with Bailey, they chose medical oncologist and MBC expert Mark Burkard, MD, PhD, as the first recipient of the title.

“He’s just a brilliant researcher,” Mary said, adding that both she and Rob have been impressed with Burkard’s Outliers study, which seeks to identify and study long-term survivors of MBC.

Reacting to his new title, Burkard said, “It’s an incredible honor. It also just reinforces what we already knew about Mary and Rob as wonderful supporters and colleagues. I look forward to finding ways to continue to work with them, to collaborate and to meet their goals."

Meanwhile, both Rob and Mary say they’ve got one goal for Burkard: find a cure.

“If not for Mary, then for our daughter, our granddaughters and other people down the road,” Rob said. “Long after we’re gone, hopefully the chair name is out there and making a difference.”

Meanwhile, both Rob and Mary will continue doing what they’ve been doing for seven years now: tackling each moment – and each lake – together and united in purpose.

“It sounds like a cliché, but you live each day, embrace the good days and muddle through the bad days,” she said. “But I’ve got a good partner here, and that has helped greatly.”