In this episode:
A moment of absolute shock, disbelief, and fear. A death sentence. Fear that she would leave her three and a half year old son motherless.
I heard ‘malignant’ and thought, I must not know the definition of that word.
Previously healthy, feeling fine. Except for that lump. Her gynecologist recommended she call ‘her surgeon.’ Marquina did not have a primary care doctor much less a surgeon.
She feared the pain. The changes her body would undergo.
Not believing yet that she had cancer, the meeting with the first surgeon left Marquina feeling written off, not seen as a woman navigating a devastating diagnosis. After glancing her over and pinching her body, he told Marquina that she had plenty of time, and simply that they’d cut off both breasts and she would get implants – but – she lacked sufficient fatty tissue for reconstruction. “Think about what size breasts you want.” Unwilling to accept being treated by a physician with disregard for her body and psyche, Marquina was referred to an experienced breast surgeon who thoughtfully discussed the implications of her diagnosis, performed a more in-depth exam and discovered that the cancer had spread. Had she remained with her original breast surgeon, the cancer in her lymph node would have metastasized and rendered her stage 4, metastatic.
Over the course of 30 days, Marquina’s days were filled with back-to-back appointments, her vocabulary expanded to include words and terms that she had never imagined. She was forced to make major decisions about her body. She also knew that how she responded to this crisis would impact her journey and her memory of it. She did not want this period to be defined as traumatic; she wanted to define her experience through growth and self-transformation.
Marquina settled into a rhythm, weaving chemotherapy and its side effects into her life, working on the days that she felt well. Marquina vacillated between the highs of “I’ve got this” and the pits of despair and pain. Her doctor encouraged her,
Don’t lay on the couch and feel sorry for yourself. Keep moving.
Marquina lived her life day by day. Listening to her body. Doing what her body allowed. Creativity allowed Marquina to begin to reclaim her life and gave her strength on her darkest days. Marquina realized that she could transform the experience of her eight-hour chemo infusions. With the help of a makeup artist, gown and accessory donations, and a photographer, Marquina created the Glam Chemo photo project. The weeks in between her chemotherapy sessions, Marquina dreamed up her next character. She reached out to her friends and transformed conversations from sadness to joy. Seeing the photos propelled Marquina forward to the next treatment.
Marquina created the Women’s Empowerment Project wherein artists created beautiful canvases from the bodies of women with cancer. While the artists were painting, the women bonded as they shared their reasons for participation: some were saying goodbye to their breasts, some with post-mastectomy scars wanting to discovery beauty in their bodies. Feeling empowered, the women headed to Central Park to celebrate their art, their bodies.
Societal pressures lead many of us to hide our authentic selves. Cancer forced Marquina to explore who she wanted to be, what she valued. Valuing close friendships, she recognized that deep friendships require sharing of yourself and listening. Being vulnerable, sharing your struggles fosters true connection.
Marquina attempted a memoir. A book marketer, she couldn’t get behind her own book. Although the process was cathartic, Marquina pivoted and explored another avenue. Thus was born, Tough: Women Who Survived Cancer, a collection of 37 stories of women with cancer. Marquina wanted to highlight the breadth and the depth of women’s experiences coping with cancer. Marquina’s greatest hope is that women can see themselves in the stories of others.
Every new symptom or lump fuels the fear that her cancer will recur. Marquina finds strength in sharing this fear with others, admitting that everything is not ok. Finding your true expression and activities that bring you closer to others provides support and strength.
Marina is a competitive air guitarist. Air guitar drives self-expression, creativity, spontaneity, character development, friendship, and community. This creative outlet helped Marina express and embrace herself throughout her cancer journey – and she’s continuing on, rocking this pandemic with her air guitar.
TedX, The Unexpected Lifeline
Women’s Empowerment Project Artists
Thank you for listening!
May our stories help forge your path forward. I hope you’ll stay tuned for our next episode and in the meantime, learn more about my story on my blog.