Not long before Annie McNamara married Dan Evans 13 months ago, she learned that experimental treatments hadn’t halted the acute myeloid leukemia that threatened to shorten her life.
Characteristically, she spared nearly everyone the burden of bad news. She would need a second bone marrow transplant, but didn’t want that to overshadow her wedding. So in a packed church, at a ceremony brimming with happiness, “only a dozen of us knew what was going on,” recalled her uncle Bill Burke.
“In their vows, when Dan said ‘in sickness and in health,’ we started crying,” he added. “Here’s a guy saying this to someone he knew was going back in for another transplant.”
After being diagnosed at 25, Anne McNamara Evans spent the next 3 ½ years raising funds for research and increasing awareness about becoming a bone marrow donor. She was 29, and lived in South Boston, when she died Nov. 7.
“We are hopeful and continue the fight,” she wrote on her CaringBridge online journal in May to mark 100 days after her second bone marrow transplant. “Thank God for medical research — there really are trials popping up every day, and one of them will hopefully be the right one for me.”
On behalf of Be The Match, a nonprofit operated by the National Marrow Donor Program, she had advocated for efforts such as trying to provide test swabs to people waiting in a Registry of Motor Vehicles line, which could vastly expand the number of potential donors.
“Anne and her family were extremely committed to raising awareness throughout the nation,” said Dr. Robert Soiffer, who is chief of the division of hematologic malignancies at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute and was her transplant surgeon.
“She took this up at a time when she was not necessarily feeling her best, championing this even though she herself was fighting a battle,” he said. “That’s a remarkable legacy.”
That legacy of leadership traced back to childhood and never stopped. Annie Mac, as friends knew her, went from being captain of her high school hockey team to appearing as a young adult on the 2017 WEEI/NESN Jimmy Fund Telethon.
She also spoke at a 2017 Dana-Farber Cancer Institute fund-raiser that collected hundreds of thousands of dollars, deftly leavening heartbreaking details of her story with quips about unexpectedly comic moments.
“My world was turned upside down pretty aggressively, and all control I thought I had about my future path seemed gone in an instant,” she recalled.
Then a doctor suggested harvesting embryos, in case she decided to start a family after a bone marrow transplant.
“You certainly know that something has gone terribly wrong when you’re in a fertility office with your mom and boyfriend,” Annie said as the room filled with laughter. “I love them both very much, but that was not ideal.”
At Island Creek Oysters in Duxbury, she worked in marketing, sales, event planning, and seemingly everything else in her years after college — including helping run the company’s educational programs for children and making fund-raisers happen without a hitch.
“Annie always put literally everyone else before her, whether they were complete strangers or good friends,” said Chris Sherman, the company’s president.
“Our mission now is to come up with ways to make Annie’s presence permanent,” he added. “How do we bottle up that Annie Mac spirit and pay it out over time?”
The oldest of four siblings, Anne McNamara was born in Boston in 1990 and grew up in Wellesley, where she played on a state championship hockey team as a Wellesley High School sophomore.
Her mother, Sally Burke McNamara, co-owns the Portland Sea Dogs minor league baseball team with her brother Bill. Annie’s father, Mike McNamara, had worked in advertising sales at the Boston Herald.
“Annie was a leader by doing. That’s what made her special to us,” said her sister Megan of Washington, D.C. “She was this quiet presence and this quiet strength for everybody.”
At Bowdoin College, from which she graduated in 2012 with a bachelor’s degree in government and environmental studies, Annie was a sophomore when she met Dan Evans.
“She was incredible,” he recalled. “She was the kindest, just most genuine person I have ever met.”
And there was her smile — as memorable as the way she led by example, as unforgettable as her presence.
“She had this simple elegance about her,” Dan said. “She was beautiful, she was quick to laugh, she was really funny, and she had this warm soul. I kept loving her more and more every day.”
He proposed on a beach in Kennebunk, Maine — her favorite place, where her family has a home. After she said yes, “we just stayed there for two hours by ourselves without telling anybody. It was a quiet moment with her that I’ll always really treasure.”
They married last year on Sept. 29, in South Congregational Church in Kennebunkport — a day Annie made more joyful by ensuring few knew that her health was imperiled and that she’d begin treatment again one week later.
“She said to my sister, ‘I’ve been cancer girl for two years. I want to be a bride for that night,’ ” her uncle said.
When Annie spoke of her experience as a patient, she emphasized her good fortune. Within days of being diagnosed, she found a perfect bone marrow match – her other sister, Lieutenant Junior Grade Molly McNamara Krysil, of Norfolk, Va., whose Naval Academy graduation she attended not long before their transplant surgery.
“In an unlucky situation, I was so damned lucky,” Annie said at the Dana-Farber fund-raiser.
A Team Sweet Annie rode and raised money in the Pan-Mass Challenge, and she cheered from the sidelines when her sisters ran the 2018 Boston Marathon in her honor.
The good luck continued when she needed a second transplant and matched with an anonymous donor.
And to the end, she worried more about others than about herself.
“In the last months, she wasn’t really scared for herself and she wasn’t really sad about what was happening to her, but she was really, really upset at how sad we were. She wanted everybody around her to be happy,” Megan said. “She kept telling us: ‘Keep finding joy every day.’ ”
In addition to her husband, parents, sisters, and uncle, Annie leaves her brother, Patrick of Los Angeles, and her grandmother, Bunny Burke of Rye, N.Y.
At Annie’s wake, friends from Wellesley and Bowdoin, from Island Creek and Dana-Farber waited in a line that stretched for two hours, and the church filled to overflowing for her funeral Mass.
Wherever she had traveled in life, “she just made people feel good about themselves,” her Uncle Bill said. “I know that sounds trite, but it’s true. People just loved her. She just spread a lot of joy.”
Annie became so loved by doctors and nurses and support staff at Dana-Farber that “we’ve actually had to take time to comfort ourselves from her loss,” said Soiffer, her transplant doctor.
While shouldering the weight of treatment, Annie always knew there was goodness to be found, even amid a devastating diagnosis — a lesson she shared at the Dana-Farber fund-raiser.
“There have been countless blessings,” she said, “whether reconnecting with old friends, becoming even closer with my family, laughing through moments that you just kind of can’t make up and knowing that if Dan and I can get through this, we can conquer the world.”