The word “cancer” typically evokes images of bedridden patients, often depilated as a result of chemotherapy. Not often would one conjure up the image of a driven, ambitious woman engaged in a display of physical and emotional endurance, but then 64-year-old Mary Gooze isn’t the average cancer patient.

Gooze, a resident of Oregon, Wis., was initially diagnosed with breast cancer in 2012. Two years later the cancer recurred and metastasized to her bones. There are currently no effective measures to combat metastatic breast cancer.

“Being faced with the disease is daunting. It’s difficult to face that disease,” said Gooze. “Prior to this I had been training for a half-marathon and that’s what I thought the pain in my hip was, but actually it was cancer knocking at my door.”

That summer, Gooze had also been planning to participate in a more than two-mile swim across Lake Washington in Seattle. While leg and hip pain restricted Gooze from taking part in the half-marathon, she got the OK from her oncologist to participate in the swim.

Water, with it’s cleansing properties and historical ties to baptismal tradition, has long been a symbol of renewal. For Gooze it was no different.

“It was really a choppy, horrible day, but I got across and thought ‘wow, if I can do this I can do anything,’” Gooze said. “It was so empowering to be able to do that and to face this disease. Then I said I was going to keep swimming and that was the start of this.”

After the swim, Gooze began researching metastatic breast cancer and grew disappointed in what she found.

“The funding and the awareness are both lacking,” Gooze said. “People just don’t understand metastatic breast cancer. They think it’s something we didn’t do, that we don’t take care of ourselves and it has nothing to do with that.”

Gooze found statistics that showed that only two percent of all the fundraising for breast cancer goes to metastatic research.

“It’s as if we were ignored and forgotten, which made me mad, so I decided that I needed to bring awareness to this disease. I knew I loved to swim and that it was healthy for me,” she said.

With that in mind, Gooze began her campaign to raise awareness by swimming across lakes throughout the country. The first lake that Gooze took on was Patagonia Lake in Arizona, where she and her husband spend the winter. 

“I got in all by myself — my husband was in a rowboat next to me — and I swam two miles across that lake,” Gooze said.

When she got out of the lake there was a man on the beach who asked what she was doing. Gooze explained her journey and the man gave her a check. From that moment on, Gooze decided to use the swimming not only as a way to raise awareness, but also to raise funds for metastatic breast cancer research.

After Gooze began to receive more media attention, she decided to swim across five lakes in Madison this June.

“I swam all five lakes and got quite a bit of people interested. We raised over $10,000 and I’m still going,” said Gooze.

All of the donations that Gooze raises go directly to METAvivor, a non-profit organization dedicated to increasing awareness and research of advanced breast cancer.

“100 percent of their donations go to research. I found this organization — it’s been around since 2009 — and it was started by four women who have metastatic breast cancer. They decided that the research funds were lacking, so all their donations go toward research,” Gooze said.

Last weekend, Gooze swam across two Northwoods lakes: Lake Hasbrook in Woodruff and Two Sisters Lake in Lake Tomahawk.

As of this week, Gooze has swum across 12 lakes. She plans to do three more this July, two in August and potentially a few more in September.

The longest distance Gooze has swum so far was 2.8 miles. While she has always been a good swimmer, the longer distances did require some preparation.

“I’ve always been a swimmer, but not necessarily a long-distance swimmer. Last August was my first long-distance swim ... I just started swimming longer distances in the pool. Lake swimming is different because you have some obstacles and it’s not a straight line so you constantly have to sight. There’s something about being in open water. It’s very invigorating to me. It’s healthy, mentally and physically, for me to do it.”

Gooze hasn’t been the only one jumping in the water though. She typically sees 10-15 people join in the swim along with her.

“I started this out and it was just my husband and myself getting across the lake and now the crowds have swelled,” Gooze said. “I’ve gotten up to 60-70 people on the sidelines, people volunteering to go on boats and kayaks for support, and then the swimmers — we had 15 swimmers on the last swim. It was incredible.”

“My last swim, my oncologist took the day off and swam with me. It was a highlight,” she added. “It was a group effort.”

With growing crowds and increased participation, Gooze has found that her main goal — to bring awareness to the disease — is being strongly met with every swim.

“This disease is called the forgotten disease. We say we’ve been forgotten because once your cancer has metastasized its basically a death sentence. 40,00 people a year die from it,” Gooze said. “To have the support makes us feel not forgotten and that is what we want to get across.”

As for the future, Gooze’s plans are to keep spreading the word the best way she knows how: by swimming.

“I hope to keep swimming. Health-wise, with this disease you never know what is going to happen day-to-day, but I hope to keep swimming,” she said. “We winter out west in California, so I’m hoping to finds some lakes and maybe even the ocean to go swimming in. I want to keep this going and keep spreading the word.”

Donations to metastatic breast cancer research can be made by visiting Gooze’s website, www.onewomanmanylakes.net, and clicking the “donate” link.

“Research is our only hope, and research is money, and that’s what I’m pushing for,” said Gooze. “That’s what the 155,000 of us with this disease want.”

Michael Strasburg may be reached at mstrasburg@lakelandtimes.com.