Martha Jean Greene: Living the bountiful life in spite of aggressive cancer

A life-long resident of Watauga County is the model for how to live life to the fullest despite an aggressive cancer that is as tough a fighter as she is.

Martha Jean Greene: Living the bountiful life in spite of aggressive cancer click to enlarge Martha Jean Greene and her husband, Clay.

Media contact: Stephanie Crayton, (919) 951-4758,

Wednesday, Nov. 16, 2011

Written by Elizabeth Swaringen for UNC Health Care

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – Martha Jean Greene has always lived a bountiful life, and she’s not about to let aggressive ovarian cancer and multiple recurrences change that.

Since her diagnosis in 2007, Martha, 73, and her high-school sweetheart husband of 57 years, Clay, 75, of tiny Vilas, N.C., in Watauga County, have welcomed their first great-grandchild; celebrated the marriages of three of their four grandchildren;  baked the cake and hosted the 50th wedding anniversary celebration of life-long friends; never missed their mid-winter trip to sunny, warm Florida in their RV; finished a hand-made king-size quilt; continued planting a vegetable garden and putting up its bounty, including 150 quarts of green beans this past summer — with the help of family — all in the midst of radiation for a recurrence.  And those are just the highlights.

“I have never asked God why, but I’ve asked him now that I have the disease, how can I use it,” Martha said.  “’What do you want me to do with it besides being here to share with others?’  Maybe that’s enough.

“You don’t know when there is going to be a bump in the road to slow you down and this has been a big one. But I’ve had a peace about it from day one. Regardless of the outcome, I have a win either way.  You can’t go to the gloom and doom.  There’s no hope there.”

Always the picture of health, Martha was diagnosed with Stage III ovarian cancer following an MRI to find out what was causing debilitating pain in her hip and leg.  

“I had been home from the scan an hour, and immediately they got me in to see my gynecologist,” Martha recalled.  She was referred specifically to John Boggess, MD, associate professor of gynecologic oncology, a member of the UNC Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center and one of the world’s leading experts in robotic-assisted surgery in gynecologic oncology.

“Martha’s cancer is a made up of two different cell types which are aggressive and have a high risk of recurrence,” Dr. Boggess said.  “Her tumor was too large for the minimally invasive robotic-assisted surgery, but she was a candidate for traditional surgery to remove two ovarian tumors.  We also removed lymph nodes where we found the disease had spread.  Her cancer is an aggressive enemy to control.”

Since the initial surgery, different chemotherapies have sent the cancer into remission, only to have it pop up in other places in Martha’s body.  Surgery in May removed those tumors, and six weeks of radiation followed in July and August.

While in Chapel Hill for radiation, Martha and Clay stayed at SECU Family House, the 40-bedroom hospital hospitality house minutes away from UNC Hospitals that provides comfortable, convenient and affordable housing for seriously ill adult patients and their family member caregivers.

“It is such a comfortable and safe place,” Martha said.  “We’ve met people from Murphy to Manteo and beyond.  We told our church members at Brushy Fork  Baptist about Family House when we went home on weekends, and they’ve loaded us with supplies for us to bring back for Family House.”

The Greene’s added their own contributions of fresh produce from their garden.  The fresh corn, tomatoes and beans were all a hit.

“Martha has a wonderfully sunny disposition, and she and Clay made us the beneficiaries of their graciousness, warmth and kindness in so many ways,” said Greg Kirkpatrick, executive director of SECU Family House. “Their church family sent them back with regular shipments of snacks, paper goods and toiletries to share with other guests, and supported Martha through her treatment regimen. We know firsthand why they prize her so, and we are lucky to be a part of her journey.”

Clay, a Jack-of-all-trades and retired appliance service owner, never leaves home without his tool box.  He’s fixed an ailing Family House dishwasher and sharpened the kitchen knives. Martha’s helped volunteers fold laundry on Tuesday afternoons. They’ve both unloaded the dishwashers.

“We’ve felt right at home helping out,” Martha said. “The idle parts of our days are the hardest. When you are used to being active and helping others, it’s hard to just sit.”

Beyond the projects they helped with at Family House, reading and word-search puzzles helped them pass the time on the Family House front porch where their personalities shown as bright as their red canvas deck chairs — Mother’s Day and Father’s Day gifts — from their children that they carried back with them from the mountains every week.

Martha’s last radiation treatment was on Aug. 30, Clay’s birthday and their children and their spouses — Rick and Carolyn and Bud and Betty — joined them in Chapel Hill as a surprise to Clay. All were on hand to watch Martha level a huge hit to the gong in the radiation reception area, a tradition that symbolizes completion of treatment.

A late September scan revealed that there were some new hot spots that needed attention, and Martha began chemotherapy again on Oct. 12.  Her earlier chemotherapies had not been easy and left lasting side effects of numbness in her hands and feet.  Fatigue has been a near constant companion.

Still, Martha said, “God has been good and still is.”

“Martha is a survivor,” Dr. Boggess said. “She and Clay take the circumstances they are given, grow from them and get the most out of every day.  Despite the side effects of treatment, Martha continues to enjoy a good quality of life.  We will continue to help her to do that.”

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