Three days after testing positive for COVID-19 and going into isolation, Mary Griffin found out she had cancer. On a Zoom call. Hours from home. At just 19 years old.
A sophomore at Virginia Tech, Griffin was outside of her apartment in Blacksburg, Va., last fall when she took the call. Three hundred miles away in Baltimore, her mother, Kelly, was also on the line. Kelly had planned to be there in person to find out the results from a biopsy done the week before, but Griffin’s positive test for COVID kept her away.
No one was expecting the news they received. A doctor informed the family that the tumor they found on Griffin’s pancreas was cancerous.
“I just wanted to hug her,” Kelly Griffin said. “She was being the stronger one. I wanted to get in the car and drive down there and I couldn’t. I told my husband, ‘I don’t care, I want to get her [and bring her home]’ and he said, ‘You can’t do this. You can’t drive in a car with her for five hours.’”
The mind works in mysterious ways in times of stress. Mary Griffin’s initial reaction was to think about losing her hair, but her attention quickly turned to her mother.
“Looking at my mom on a phone screen, being told that her youngest child has cancer, that was the hardest,” she said. “I told her, ‘I promise you I’m OK.’ I didn’t even talk about myself. My main concern was her being upset. It was so hard for her to hear. It hurt my heart.”
When Mary Griffin took the call, standing a socially-distant six feet away from her was the person who may have saved her life — Anne Bryan, an athletic trainer at Virginia Tech.
“Looking at my mom on a phone screen, being told that her youngest child has cancer, that was the hardest…It hurt my heart.” — Mary Griffin
Mary Griffin was 6 years old when she started playing lacrosse. She didn’t have much choice. Her older siblings — Claire, Maggie, Jack and Grace — all played the sport and her mom coached. A competitive mindset quickly formed.
“Mary was very, very shy when she was really little,” Kelly Griffin said. “But she was also really competitive with her siblings. If they were doing something she couldn’t do, she would get so frustrated. She’d say, ‘I’m not playing with you anymore’ and walk away.”
Mary Griffin quickly broke out of her shyness and developed a strong independent streak. Once, when they were at a cookout, a woman walked over to Kelly with Mary in tow and asked if she was her daughter. Mary had gone up to the woman, a stranger, and asked her to help her get some food. The woman didn’t want to feed her without knowing if it was OK with her mother.
That independence is partly how she ended up at Virginia Tech.
Griffin’s sister Grace, just two years older, was the sibling she followed most closely. One of the top recruits in the country, Grace Griffin committed to Maryland early on. She started for the Terps as a freshman in 2018 and won a national championship the following season, Mary’s senior year of high school.
“I saw her getting recruited, playing competitively and I wanted something similar,” Mary Griffin said.
Griffin likely could have followed her sister to Maryland, but she wanted to do her own thing. Her father, John, had a friend whose daughter had played for John Sung at Winthrop and had a good experience. When Sung was hired by Virginia Tech after the 2016 season, her dad suggested she look there.
Nestled in the picturesque New River Valley, next to the Appalachian and Blue Ridge mountain ranges in Southwest Virginia, one of Virginia Tech’s popular Snapchat filters simply says, “This is Home.”
“The second you walk on campus, when you dream of going to college, Virginia Tech is that college,” she said. “It has it all. You’re getting a great education, competitive sports, a football school, a huge campus. It really is the whole package.”
Griffin trained relentlessly the summer before her freshman year, both with her sister, Grace, and former Maryland and current Team USA star defender Alice Mercer. But when the 2020 season started, she found herself out of the starting lineup and on the bench, a place she had rarely seen in her sports career.
Griffin kept working, seeing occasional playing time. When the Hokies met Syracuse, a red card to another defender gave her a chance to show her progress. She played most of the game and earned a start for the next contest against Brown. Before another game could be played, the season was over due to start of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Mary was one of those kids where COVID really hurt her development,” Sung said. “We were getting into the meat of the season, and for the freshmen, sometimes it takes them a bit to get their feet underneath them. She got her first start at Brown, played most of our game against Syracuse. She was ready to roll.”
The end of the season was also the beginning of an unfortunate streak for Griffin and her family due to the pandemic. The children all returned home from their respective schools, only to have a tall pine tree fall and smash their brother Jack’s car. Both parents were laid off from their jobs. The family dog went through surgery for cancer but ultimately had to be put down.
Little things, too. Mary Griffin hated the haircut her mother gave her. But this is a family that laughs and jokes through the toughest times. Kelly Griffin said her younger daughter, true to form, compiled a list of “crappy” things that happened because of the pandemic.
Unfortunately, it was only about to get tougher.
Mary Griffin spent last summer getting ready for this season. Not a fan of the heat, she’d get up early to run. She did variations of Virginia Tech’s run test. Sometimes she used Grace’s run test at Maryland. She was ready.
“I was really excited,” Mary Griffin said. “I know we have a lot of depth on our defense, and I was ready to compete. I was ready to put in all of the hard work. Honestly, I felt rejuvenated. Quarantine was so long, but it was kind of nice to get that mental reset.”
Because of COVID-19 restrictions, fall practice was a little different for the Hokies. Things moved slower than normal. Sung was just happy to have the team together again.
During a series of sprints in a Monday conditioning workout, Mary started to feel a pain in her side.
“I was telling myself to push through it, but on the third one, I said, ‘Absolutely not’ and ran over to Anne,” Mary Griffin said.
“There were definitely no red flags,” said Bryan, the team’s athletic trainer. “She was crushing the conditioning until she had the pain. She wanted to continue, but I told her to please sit down, and I kind of monitored her. She is a really tough kid, but she was visibly in immense pain. That was one of the first triggers something big had happened.”
It didn’t appear to be cramping. There was nothing to suggest a muscular injury. Griffin’s pain eventually lessened, but it was not completely gone. Bryan didn’t feel comfortable just letting it go, so she consulted with the school’s chief medical officer, Dr. Mark Rogers, and they decided to do an abdominal scan as a precaution.
After a practice later that week, Griffin and Bryan sat down with Rogers to go over the results.
“In the doctor’s office, I asked Anne, ‘Am I going die?’ expecting her to laugh,” Mary Griffin said. “She didn’t laugh. The doctor told me they found a tumor on my left side. The doctor saw every range of emotion within 30 seconds. I freaked out. Is it cancer? Then I made a joke. Then I got angry.”
The tumor was roughly the size of a lacrosse ball. Griffin immediately reached out to her mother but couldn’t connect with her. Kelly Griffin, herself a former athletic trainer, had just started a new job working as a physical therapist and didn’t have her phone on her. Mary Griffin sent a text to the family group chat. She called her sister, Maggie. She finally connected with her mother a couple of hours later, but Kelly Griffin wasn’t too concerned.
“I told Mary anything that size can’t be cancer,” Kelly Griffin said. “You’d have symptoms.”
A biopsy was scheduled for the next week but was delayed for a pre-surgical COVID test that turned out to be positive. Mary Griffin eventually got the biopsy, and soon after came the call no one expected.
“You just never know where life is going to take you,” Kelly Griffin said. “Never in my wildest dreams would I have imagined one of my kids would have cancer.”
Being in isolation due to her COVID test result made everything harder.
“That was the longest 10 days of my life,” Mary Griffin said. “I had Facetime calls, text after text, but I was alone in my room. It was a crazy time.”
Tests ultimately revealed a neuroendocrine tumor (NET) on Griffin’s pancreas, unusual for someone her age. The family spent the next few weeks researching the disease and trying to determine the appropriate medical steps. The emotional toll was rough enough, but so were the financial challenges. After Mary’s parents both lost their jobs, they had gone on Medicaid.
The lacrosse community stepped up.
Rebecca New, the mother of another Virginia Tech player, reached out to Kelly to start a GoFundMe page to help the family with their medical expenses.
“I had never met this woman, and she said, ‘I’m sorry if I’m being too forward,’” a grateful Kelly Griffin recalled. “I told her I’d take any help I can get.”
The donations stared pouring in.
“Our parents asked if they could start a GoFundMe page,” Sung said. “This was on a Friday night, and I figured I could wait until Monday to talk to our compliance guys. By Saturday night, it was over $30,000, and I thought, ‘I guess I need to call my compliance guy.’ The lacrosse world really showed up for the Griffin family — other ACC coaches, club coaches, families that played against her. It was mind-blowing.”
“When the contributions started coming in, it was just overwhelming,” Kelly Griffin said. “I couldn’t look at it. My mother would ask, ‘Have you looked at them?’ and I told her, ‘I can’t. It just makes me cry.’ The lacrosse community is an amazing group of people. They’ve been so supportive. It was probably the most amazing experience in my life.”
Beyond the dollars, it was a reminder of how much others care.
“Everyone’s been affected by cancer in some way,” Mary Griffin said. “When it’s a friend, you obviously send a text or well wishes. I love reaching out to people in a time of need. It’s hard to reverse that and be on the other end of the spectrum. Everyone offered me so much love and support, and what really opened that up was the GoFundMe page.
“It was a Virginia Tech [football] gameday, and I was excited to get to watch. I looked down at my phone and there were 80 text messages, 50 DMs. I checked Instagram, and it was all being reposted. I was so uncomfortable. I was with my teammates and friends and everyone’s offering so much help, and I didn’t want all that attention.”
But Griffin quickly realized the attention came from a place of love.
“Once that started going viral, people wanted to offer love and support, so let them,” she said. “I didn’t realize how many people cared about me until I was faced with this.”