At 16, Mary Tsouvalakis was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma and given 48 hours to live. Despite her young age and lack of experience, she chose to fight the life-threatening illness with the help of her faith and determined mother.
Almost four decades later, the girl with the terrifying diagnosis and desperate prognosis is still here and armed with a plethora of stories to tell from a life full of encounters with people, such as Mikis Theodorakis and former Labor minister Nick Bolkus.
Mary is a lawyer for the Victorian Department of Health and serves on the Board of Directors for the Experimental Therapeutics Organisation for Melanoma and Skin Cancer.
She has a 13-year-old son, good friends, optimism, and zest for life that is immediately transmitted to anyone that encounters her.
She turned the pain and trauma she experienced into strength and love for life and people. “A person can overcome anything and come back stronger,” she says.
An aura that hides trauma
Mary’s positive aura does not reflect her trauma at such an early age in her life, and the fact that she experienced pain and the fear of death as well as loss.
At the age of five, her first shock was when her mother Antonia, had a tragic accident on the subway.
“It was when electric doors first started on trains. A lawyer’s bag got caught in the door, and my mother, in the carriage, tried to detach it, as a way to help a fellow person.
“Suddenly the door opened, and she fell out and hit the platform which literally opened her skull,” Mary relays.
Her mother was hospitalised for three months and continues to suffer terrible migraines that often bring her to the brink of despair.
Mary’s heart was shattered into a million pieces, and it would ache with unbearable pain every time her mother uttered those dreaded words. “I’m going to die; I’m going to die.”
The anxiety persisted for decades, and when Mary and her mother finally discussed it years later, her mother tearfully confessed, “I wanted to prepare you, my dear child.”
Mary is philosophical about hardships and doesn’t believe in preparing for them. She says, “We will not hurt less or be more disappointed if we prepare for something. Let’s just believe that it will never happen. If it happens, then it happened.” Despite the unexpected challenge she faced during her teenage years, her story shows that she was prepared to face it.
The great trial
After chemotherapy at the age of 16, Mary’s cancer went into remission until she turned 21. When it reappeared and the battle to suppress it lasted two years.
She endured immense radiation, recalling how “in summer, at the beach, when the salt touched my ‘burned’ skin, I smelled like a barbecue”. But the choices to improve the appearance changes brought by chemotherapy were few.
“Wigs were unattractive the one they gave me had grey hair from the 80s,” possibly to match the room with older cancer patients.
“These images come back and haunt me; the entire system was tragic back then.”
Mary remembers with great love and respect the Greek specialist, Mr. Melios, who immediately diagnosed the seriousness of her condition from her symptoms and yellowing skin.
“He was very kind to me and showed great empathy. Everyone else who followed had terrible behaviour. I remember the haematologist who told me that my prognosis was ‘six months without chemotherapy and five years with chemotherapy’.
I said If I had to live five miserable years after suffering the effects of chemotherapy – which were terrible then – I prefer to live only six months. And I will never forget his response, ‘Then you can just go outside, lie down on the street and wait for a bus to pass over you.’ That’s how he responded to a sixteen-year-old child who, as he saw it, dared to challenge his authority,” she recalls as a dark shadow of bad memory falls over her face.
Thirst for life
Mary’s is a journey from darkness to light, and from pain to recovery and though that tumultuous journey she says what matters most is compassion for our fellow human beings and a thirst for life.
“My mother was a very empathetic person and she cared for everyone. I became like her. I believe that we should allow ourselves to experience emotions to the fullest, such as love or even pain.
“I have been disappointed many times, but I will not change my belief that if you cannot feel with all your being, then you are not allowing yourself to be a full person.”
Her mother, even in the most difficult periods of intensive therapies did not stop telling Mary that, “Doctors are not gods. You will live.
“The Virgin Mary will not take another child from me,” she’d say referring to her 10-month-old daughter, Mary’s sister, who died from meningitis.
Mary defied all odds lives a full life.
Today, more mature, Mary reflects on her experiences, and she believes in something more, something beyond us.
“I believe in miracles because I have seen,” she says.
Apart from the miracle of life, Mary Tsouvalakis enjoys the miracle of motherhood and is the mother of 13-year-old son, Paris. He was a gift as doctors had lowered her hopes of falling pregnant after the countless chemotherapy treatments.
“The thought of anything happening to my child fills me with terror. It’s the only thing that truly scares me, nothing else,” she confides as her voice quivers with emotion and her eyes well up with tears.
At 24, Mary Tsouvalakis met the great Greek composer Mikis Theodorakis who “changed her life”. She took a risk and brought him on a tour of Australia, despite his controversial shift to conservatism after fighting dictatorship and historic links to the Greek left.
Despite warnings Mary followed her mother’s advice and went ahead with the tour, which turned out to be a great success.
Mary remembers that night when she found a seat and enjoyed the concert as a simple spectator, as she had dreamed. Her father, Nikolaos, was also supportive and was extremely proud. Mary and Theodorakis talked about their shared Cretan heritage and their love for their homeland.
In 2002, Greece gave Mary exclusive rights to tour “Zorba’s Ballet,” consisting of 215 dancers, to Australia.
“I knew I could do it, but I didn’t have the funds. So, I asked the Greek Community, which did have the money, to do it, but they declined.”
So, she went ahead regardless. With the help of then-Senator Nick Bolkus, who lent her the money she needed to cover the ballet members’ accommodation expenses, and managed to do it again.
“Nick Bolkus is the person I admire most in the world. He said he would do something, and he did it,” says Mary.
Makronisos 54 Years On
In August of 2003, the desolate island of Makronisos welcomed a special visitor – the former Australian senator Nick Bolkus, who travelled alongside Mary and other notable figures to attend Mikis Theodorakis’ commemorative concert.
Makronisos was not just any Greek island – it was a place of horror and pain, where left-wing activists like Theodorakis were exiled and tortured by the right-wing post-war Greek governments.
For the renowned composer, this was the first time he set foot on the soil that had witnessed his anguish over half a century before. The occasion was moving and poignant, as he stood before the crowd, surrounded by those who shared his passion for justice and freedom. It was a moment that would stay with him forever.
“Everyone was there. The whole crowd standing, crying, and singing: ‘Don’t cry for Romiosini’, ‘This land is theirs and ours’, ‘My son, my heart’s heart…’ “,
Mary relays a funny incident on that day.
“We boarded the boat to cross over to Makronisos , and with us was the Israeli ambassador, which I was unaware of.
When I reserved the seats, I only gave my name and not that of my ex-husband who was accompanying me. As a result, we were not allowed to board the same boat as the Israeli ambassador and were left behind,” she laughs.
Mary reminisces about her days as a young woman organising concerts and tours, including bringing the ballet “Zorba” to town.
“The hotel staff were constantly calling me, begging the Greek dancers not to smoke in the lobby and on the street. It was a cultural clash of epic proportions.”
I asked Mary Tsouvalakis to share her journey in life, its challenges, but also the exceptional moments she experienced associating with prominent figures such as Mikis Theodorakis.
“Love: one word with a powerful meaning. Embrace unconditional love and watch your life transform.
“Love life, nature, animals, your partner, and be grateful for all you have. Love is everything,” Mary advised. “Never give up, face life’s challenges without fear, and with each heartbreak, become stronger.”
She has reconciled with the past, and now lives without stress or a sense of urgency.
“I want to be able to enjoy much time in Greece. At concerts, on the beach. To eat and drink coffee under the Acropolis and generally have authentic experiences.
“I would like to do some concerts again and I believe something will happen,” she tells Neos Kosmos.
She loves literature and poetry, and her favourite poet is Cavafy. “‘Ithaca’ is my most loved poem of his, it is about the meanings of life.”
Mary believes in karma as a positive force, stating that doing good will result in good coming back to you.
She has no time for revenge. We talked more about her family history, encounters with artistic personalities, but unfortunately, these details could not be included in this article. Mary’s life is a testament to her courage and determination to live fully despite the odds. As she says, “life is simply wonderful. It is a huge gift.”