“Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.”
Hebrews 11:1, KJV
By, Tara Drinks, EIC
Faith. The utmost confidence and/or belief not based on the presence of proof.
Many are familiar and possess their own perception of faith, but not all can diligently practice it through life’s toughest battles. A conqueror of many things, Marilyn can firmly attest that she indeed can.
Following the birth of her second child, Marilyn’s faith was put to the ultimate test. A test she did not expect, however a test she did not fear. Sixteen years later, Marilyn stands stronger than ever as a Survivor of the most common cancer diagnosed among women in the United States. Breast Cancer.
I had the esteemed pleasure of speaking with Marilyn as for the first time, she shares publicly her tedious journey. Her journey she says was simply, “a test.”
Take me back to the day you were diagnosed
M: That would be June 1999; one year and a few days after the birth of my second child. I felt that I needed a complete physical. I felt like something just wasn’t right. I started with my primary care physician and then they referred me to a gynecologist, who then decided to send me for a yearly mammogram.
I went through all of the tests. While you’re waiting for the radiologist to read the film, you’re a nervous wreck. I’ve had them before and I couldn’t figure out why they were taking so long [this time]. They kept going in and out and I was by myself. I really didn’t think much of it, my blood was low but [cancer] was the furthest from my mind.
After the mammogram, they saw something unusual so they decided to send me for more tests. They performed a Stereotactic Biopsy of the area in which they questioned. It was the most painful biopsy of my life! You’re on this table while they take this very long needle to the area in which they perform the biopsy. [The procedure] didn’t take very long but I didn’t recover from it quickly! It was on the same scale as childbirth but the recovery! I had such bad bruising, I couldn’t lift my arm for quite a few weeks. It frightened me so bad and so I didn’t go back until they kept calling me. They had to discuss the results.
Who was with you when you went to listen to the results?
M: My husband, Preston. Let’s back up though. I never felt a lump but when they found it, it was 13 centimeters. In November of ’99, I had the Stereotactic Biopsy. The mammography was in June and they called me in July for further tests. They referred me to a doctor that specialized in masses of the breast; I couldn’t get an appointment with him until November. The results of that showed that I had Duct Carcinoma and it was already invasive. There were two foci and it was measuring about 2 centimeters, respectfully.
They called me at work, which I thought was the worst way a doctor could ever tell you news. I’ve never in my life received a phone call at work like that. They never asked me to come to the office they read my pathology over the phone. I work for a doctor too and was in the middle of office hours. I didn’t know what to say or what to do. They wanted me to come in after they had already told me the news. I could’ve had a heart condition, I could’ve fainted! I hung up the phone but then called them back and asked for the faxed report. I took it to my employer; he was the first person I told. I couldn’t understand [the report], I guess I was going into shock. My boss kept telling me “Not to worry!” He called one of his colleagues that specialized in breast cancer and he walked us through what we should do. I then came home and told my husband. I told him that I had already made the appointment for a consultation and he said that he wanted to come with me.
We went in and at that point we went over the results again. We discussed our options, the first being to try a lumpectomy.
What’s going through your mind as your sitting in these doctor appointments?
M: I have a one year old and I have a seven year old daughter. I knew I wanted to do everything that I could to be strong and go through this. I didn’t have fear, I just felt that my faith was going to get me through this. [My husband and I] left the doctor’s office with a lot to think about and as we were riding down the elevator, we both looked at each other and said “This is a test. It’s just a test!”.
We decided to make the appointment to remove that tissue not knowing that at that follow up appointment, we would be told that they didn’t get it all. It had already started to spread and I would need more surgery, this is now surgery number two.
It was a blow to my morale; I thought that that would be it! The soreness and everything hadn’t healed yet. What do I do after this? We decided to go for a second opinion. We prayed about it, we didn’t even tell family because it was near Thanksgiving. It was just [my husband and I]. He told me don’t worry, I’m going to get you the best doctors and he did.
I went to New York Presbyterian/Cornell Hospital, two days after Thanksgiving for that’s second opinion. I advise all women to go for a second opinion. Doctors have different methods of curing illnesses, they all have guidelines but their methodology of how they will treat it is always different.
It’s two days after Thanksgiving, you go in for the second opinion and now what?
M: They reviewed all slides and told me it would be best to remove the breast and later go in for reconstructive surgery. At the time, the surgery was at least 6-12 hours.
During these appointments, how are your children? Are you seeing them?
M: Yes, I am. I still followed the same routine. I still worked, took my daughter to daycare and my son to the babysitter, which was my mom at the time.
After the second opinion, we decided that the second surgery was the best option. To get rid of cancer, you must cut it out. It’s now almost Christmas and I didn’t’ want to spoil that for my children. I told my mom and dad right after Christmas. I went into the hospital on December 27th.
What was their reaction?
M: My mom was shocked and my father told me “It’s going to be alright!”. They weren’t very emotional people. I asked them to watch the kids for me and they did.
Recuperating was not easy, I could not lift my left arm. I had a lot of fluid in my arm because they had removed many lymph nodes because [the cancer] had spread into them.
You thought you were done after this surgery. Were you?
M: No, it was only the beginning! Cutting out the disease is the beginning. The fact that it was found in a lymph node meant that I would have to have chemotherapy. Six months work of chemo, every ten days.
Chemotherapy is the most difficult part of fighting cancer. It affects your emotions and your mind. It was the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do! It’s a cycle. You’re in a treatment room and you’re watching this purple looking chemical kill every cell in your body. I lost all of my hair, facial hair, and eyebrows. [Chemotherapy] affects your bones, I had to be very careful.
Day one is the first day you receive treatment, by day two you’re okay. By day three and four, you could be vomiting and then by day five and six you start to mellow out. It leaves a horrible taste in your mouth, like metal. I always smelled metal! Once you started to feel better, it was time to go back! (laughs)
By the third or fourth month of chemotherapy, it’s a different drug so it’s not as harsh. Your hair does begin to grow back. You’re also on steroids, so your body tends to bloat and gain weight. It takes about a year to really detox your body from it all and get your blood cell count back up. Your chemotherapy may have stopped but you’re constantly going for blood work to make sure you’re not becoming anemic. If at any point your blood cell count is not correct, you have to stop treatment. I was able to go through all of my treatments without interruptions, which was a blessing. Most people can’t do that.
After you finish chemo, you have a list of tests. Cat scans of the chest, bone scans to make sure your bones weren’t damaged, tests like that.
I think one thing that kept me going was the fact that I had two small children. I had a son that always wanted to be picked up! That pushed me. Lifting him was exercise and it brought the strength back into that side. I never lost mobility of my arm. I never went through Lymphnodemia. To keep the swelling from happening in my arm, I kept lifting my son!
Did you ever want to give up?
M: When you’re in the middle of a cycle of chemo, you’re so sick! You’re practically hanging over, trying not to bother anybody. Because of my independence, I never wanted to feel like I was a burden. It never failed, during my time of chemo, there was always a party or dinner that I had to attend. The smell of food was nauseating.
I was blessed to have someone cook for my family so I never had to worry about that. My husband took care of that. There were times that I couldn’t eat nor look at food. One day, I thought I was having a heart attack but it was reflux from the chemo and steroids. It felt like a flame of fire was shooting up form my stomach into my chest and my esophagus.
I was young and I felt my faith played a big part in my fight.
How was your prayer life?
M: Every night I had my Bible by my bedside, underneath my pillow. The drugs at time would make me hear, [Satan] say he was going to kill me when they put that needle in me tomorrow. My veins were so bad and chemo was stripping it more. I had to go in for another surgery to get a port placed in the other side of my chest. That’s how I received my chemo. So not only was I healing on one side, I had to heal on the other. My body was constantly trying to fight that port!
Do you recall having a moment during your fight were your heard God tell you He had you?
M: I felt it. I kept standing on the fact that this was a test and I had to pass it for other women! When you live in the public, as a Pastor’s Wife, it was very difficult because I never told anybody. I knew that I had to do it alone. I had to trust in God. It was just me and Him. My mother prayed for me.
I’ll never forget, I asked my mom to wash my hair for me and half of it fell out! [laughs] She started crying, she didn’t know what to do, she didn’t know how to help me. I told her “It’s okay! They told me this would happen.” That happened one time even at the beauty parlor. I couldn’t keep giving people heart attacks! [laughs]
I kept getting stronger though. It was something that I had to do.
Unless I was hospitalized, I never missed church. I never wanted to cause suspicion. People constantly want to see you and see you at your best. I put makeup on my face to hide the glow of chemo. My nail beds were black so I had to find darker shades of nail polish to hide it.
One Sunday my husband was preaching and he was talking about healing. He called me up on the pulpit and I didn’t know what he was doing. I asked him if he wanted me to tell them? He said it was up to me and that’s when I told everyone that about a year ago I was diagnosed with cancer. I’ve had four operations, one of which I woke up during! [laughs]
What was the reaction of the church?
M: They were shocked because they never knew! I acted normal and was always on my post. I only missed two big church functions. One was an ordination service and one was a funeral. After the funeral, my husband drove back to Manhattan and slept in my room with me. He had the flu! [laughs] So I sent him home.
What did you learn from all of this?
M: I learned how strong my faith in God is! I learned to depend on Him for encouragement. I never knew how strong I was. It was very difficult mentally but I learned that if I could go through this, I could go through anything. Although I get tired, weary and want to give up, I get into my Word and I pull from the promises of God.
What advice could you offer women who are currently battling?
M: If they don’t know God, I tell them to seek strength from God. I believe in God and I want everyone to believe in God! [laughs] I give my personal testimony that you can get through this! I will tell them, it will be the hardest thing they’ve every had to do in their lives but if they don’t give up and take it one day at a time, they will be able to fight it. I can’t stress enough early detection! If I didn’t follow my gut and go for that physical! You just don’t know.
Next to God, who would you say played a significant role in helping you get through this?
M: My husband. He was really there for me. [begins to get emotional] He stopped everything, took me to the best doctors and the best hospital. He truly was there. He and I had to do this.
The chemotherapy part was when it got the hardest because physically I was altered. It was a constant reminder, it was difficult to hear me throwing up. I had staples across my chest. He could see how it was beating me down. He didn’t know how to help and he couldn’t help. It was a long process.
Why don’t you share your story often?
M: Because I treated it like the test that it was! I passed the test so therefore I don’t want to go back to that. It’s almost as if God erased the memories. I can’t tell you the names of the medication or the specific tests, what I could or could not eat. Some of it is a faded memory. I put it behind me and kept going forward! It made me stronger. It was a very difficult time for me. I only share my testimony when God asks me to.
If you could describe yourself in one word what would it be and why?
M: Resilient. I come from such strong women that were prayer warriors and pulled from the strength of God. I have this resilience that I can get through anything.
A Note to Marilyn
For your bravery, for your tenacity, I salute you. I cannot fathom what the present state of my life would be, if you had not fought the way that you did.
So graceful and so very poised, you never once showed your struggle to my brother and I. Though I was aware that something wasn’t quite right, I could never put my finger on it because my curiosity was always overshadowed by the beautiful smile you wore. You continue to wear that same smile today, regardless of what life brings your way.
Because of your strength, I’ve adopted the same belief that obstacles come as tests to shape and strengthen our faith. Because of your smile, I’ve learned to never let anyone see me sweat. Because of your love for God, I’ve learned to know Him more every single day. Because of the example you’ve set, I continuously grow into the woman He’s called on this earth to be.
I thank you for sharing your story, not only with me but with the vision of TNJ. I’m blessed to know you and most importantly, I’m honored to have you as my mother.
You are the reason why I wear pink. I love you.