Rep. Mary Belk’s legislative days start inside a giant machine called a linear accelerator, lying on a stainless steel gurney, alone behind a thick, lead-lined door.
She’s one of the morning’s first patients at UNC REX Cancer Care, four miles east of the legislative building. That’s where she goes for her daily radiation for breast cancer.
Halfway through a regimen of 21 treatments, she jokes with the staff before changing into a paisley gown and marching in for treatment.
Belk, 60, has juggled cancer treatments since starting her first House term in January. Alone among freshmen lawmakers, she had to learn about the side effects of chemotherapy and radiation even as she’s learned her way around the maze-like legislative building.
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“People told us that until April we’d be like deer in headlights because there’s so much to learn,” said Belk, a Charlotte Democrat. “I take things in stride. And with my cancer, it wasn’t going to define me. It was just one more thing I had to put in the day.”
Belk is among more than 310,000 women diagnosed every year with breast cancer. Women in North Carolina have a 1 in 8 risk of developing breast cancer over their lifetime, according to state health officials.
Cancer is the latest challenge for a woman who raised four kids, now 30-37, returned to college in her 40s, and 15 years ago willed herself to become a recovering alcoholic.
“Once she puts her mind to something she does it,” said long-time friend Jane Whitley, chair of the Mecklenburg County Democratic Party.
I’ve got a really good excuse not to be there, but not enough to say ‘I’m not going to go.’ I love my job and I want to be good at it.
Rep. Mary Belk
Belk’s doctor broke the news in September. With no family history or genetic markers, it came as a shock.
By then she was months into her campaign against Republican incumbent Rob Bryan. It was a tough race. The southeast Charlotte district, which stretches from Dilworth to Ballantyne, has more registered Republicans than Democrats. In 2014 Bryan had won 55 percent of the vote.
When her campaign manager, Natalia Diez, heard the diagnosis, she asked her candidate if she wanted to go on with the campaign.
“Honestly she didn’t even bat an eyelash, ‘Of course I’m going to keep going,’” Diez recalled. “‘That’s a dumb question Natalia.’”
Once Belk realized she would need surgery, she didn’t want to wait around for more tests. “Can’t we go ahead and just do it?” she told her surgeon.
She had a lumpectomy in late September. She slowed down but not much. Diez said for a while Belk cut back her public appearances and spent fewer hours a week on the phone raising money. But the pace quickly accelerated.
“When it was time for early voting, I couldn’t get her to slow down,” Diez said. “Believe me. I tried.”
Belk went on to beat Bryan in one of North Carolina’s closest – and most expensive – races. Together the candidates spent over $1 million. She won by 468 votes out of 43,000.
Belk started chemo treatments two days after the November election. For two months she underwent the treatment every other week. Then she began weekly treatments for 12 weeks. For that she came to Raleigh, where she rents a room, from Monday through Thursday and drove the 165 miles back to Charlotte for treatments on Fridays. They often knocked her out for the weekend. She started radiation last month.
Despite that, Belk has not missed any legislative days, according to the House clerk. Many members have.
Belk has had the usual side effects. She now wears a wig and endures bouts of what she calls “chemo brain.” (“I can feel myself not being as mentally acute or as fast as I’m used to being,” she said. “That’s one of the most frustrating parts.”)
She dived into her legislative job with the same energy she’s taken to other activities. She was president of the PTO at her kids’ school and active in church and community, serving on the board of the Dilworth Community Development Association. In her early 40s, she returned to college. After starting at Central Piedmont Community College, she moved on to UNC Charlotte.
There she majored in political science and joined the Model United Nations program, where she worked with students half her age from diverse countries and backgrounds.
“She did an incredible job stepping across cultural bounds and age differences,” said political science professor Cindy Combs, the group’s adviser. “Nobody ever thought, ‘How old are you?’ Age didn’t make a difference. It was the energy and excitement she put into it.”
Belk accompanied the group to conferences in Scotland and China. Her classmates voted her the group’s secretary-treasurer. “She became a leader because they liked and trusted her,” Combs said.
‘Too busy to dwell on it’
In the House, Belk walks briskly to and from her office in the corner of the legislative building. There are meetings to attend. Votes to make.
“I’m impressed with Mary because I know how physically demanding the job is,” said Rep. Andy Dulin, a Charlotte Republican.
Belk, whose oldest son Ralph is her legislative assistant, has co-sponsored dozens of bills but introduced only a few herself. One would require cosmetics manufacturers to identify their ingredients. “So people can be aware of what they’re putting on their body,” Belk says.
Rep. Becky Carney, a Charlotte Democrat, said Belk “has embraced her (situation) with a lot of courage and incredible sense of humor.”
Carney can appreciate her colleague’s situation. In 2009 she collapsed at her desk with what doctors diagnosed with sudden cardiac death. She now lives with an implanted mechanical device that helps pump blood.
“You are so cognizant about doing your job and also taking care of yourself,” Carney said. “I think she’s coming out of this stronger than ever. I know I certainly did.”
In some ways the demands of legislating have been a relief for Belk.
“I don’t want to say it helped,” she said. “But I think it slowed down the process of processing the fact that I had cancer … I was too busy to dwell on it. Sometimes it was, ‘Wow, I have cancer.’”
She admits to moments when she thinks about staying home and taking a break.
“I’ve got a really good excuse not to be there, but not enough to say, ‘I’m not going to go.’” she said. “I love my job and I want to be good at it.”