‘My cancer diagnosis: What I wish I’d known’ – Bridget Marshall
When Bridget Marshall is touring visitors around City of Hope, one of her favorite stops is the Japanese Garden where a waterfall flows under a wooden bridge, sending the water pooling into a tranquil pond populated with koi and turtles.
It’s a sanctuary drenched in metaphor, says Marshall. “The waterfall is the turbulence of life,” she tells visitors, “and the pond is the tranquility in life.”
As a cancer survivor, the Visitor Services associate has felt that turbulence and tranquility in her own life.
In 2006, a routine mammogram at City of Hope revealed that she had stage 1 and stage 2 tumors in her breast. Entering the surreal transition from employee to patient, she came under the care of a team including I. Benjamin Paz, M.D. , vice chair of the Department of Surgery, Thehang Luu, M.D., assistant professor in the Department of Medical Oncology & Therapeutics Research, and Eric Radany, M.D., Ph.D., associate professor in the Department of Radiation Oncology.
“When you hear you have cancer, your mind goes into an altered state,” she told an interviewer in 2010. “You can’t think straight. It takes awhile to connect. I remember thinking, ‘How do I tell my mother?’”
Doris Marshall not only accepted the news but came to each chemotherapy session with her daughter. Eight months later, Doris had to deal with her own diagnosis: stage 3B lung cancer.
The mother and daughter soon began undergoing radiation together at City of Hope, strengthening their already deep bond and treasuring their unexpected extra time together. After treatment, when nothing else sounded palatable, they often stopped at McDonald's for a shake and a sundae, and enjoyed lazy afternoons watching old movies together. When they completed radiation, they earned “Survivor Medals” from their radiology team.
Doris Marshall lost her struggle in 2008 when she was 88, but Bridget Marshall credits the treatment at City of Hope for extending her mother’s life – and her own.
Back in the Japanese Garden, where turtles sun themselves on the bank, Marshall stands on the bridge watching as the turbulent water comes to rest in the tranquil pond. “When you are diagnosed with cancer,” she says, “your world literally turns upside down. Knowing that my mom and I were going to be treated at City of Hope gave me a sense of calm.”
Today, after radiation, chemotherapy and a lumpectomy, Marshall is healthy, and has resumed her active life and popular tours of City of Hope. When patients she is touring learn she is a survivor, “You can see the relief when they know someone understands what they are going through.”
We recently asked Marshall to look back at the time of her diagnosis and ask herself, what do you know now that you wish you’d known then? What wisdom, soothing words or practical tips – in short, what five pieces of advice (or more, if you'd like) – would you give your newly diagnosed self?
1) Have fun with wigs. When I was going through chemotherapy, I was already playing with wigs. When Mom and I began radiation, we would look through the TLC cancer care catalog and others that wig companies sent and order a few. I would style mine; Mom went to her hairdresser whom she had had for years.
2) You lose your hair, eyebrows, lashes, etc. and so it is a little traumatic at first, as you do not know what to do. Go to the Positive Image Center and they can definitely take care of you and teach you some great tricks. I still use them.
3) If you have questions, don’t feel you can’t ask or that you’re bothering someone. Ask away. I went to Jeanne Lawrence (navigator at the Sheri & Les Biller Patient and Family Resource Center). She was so helpful and gave me a wealth of information to assist in getting transportation for Mom and me. You will recognize her; besides being at the Biller Patient and Family Resource Center’s front desk, she is the one with the warm smile and handshake.
4) When you are coming through treatment and may not be feeling all that well or keen on driving around the parking lot looking for a space, don't drive around: Treat yourself to valet parking. It is there for you and I heartily recommend it. Also, when you have finished with your day (could be short or it could be a long day), it’s nice just to have the car delivered to you. Treat yourself.
5) When Mom and I went through radiation together, the nurses teased us and said we were bonding. But we did learn some interesting facts – whether true or not; it kept us both motivated. Every time you go in for radiation, you supposedly lose 600 calories. Since neither of us had much of an appetite anyway, we knew we had to have something, so to McDonald’s we would go after radiation. Mom would have the hot fudge sundae with nuts and I would have a chocolate shake – they are pretty thick. That was the other thing we learned: The docs and the nurses want you to eat; they encourage it – so you can pretty much eat anything you want – to keep your strength up and not to lose so much weight while you are going through chemotherapy and/or radiation.
6) It is really important to have someone around you when you are not feeling real well and just want to lie around the house all day; which by the way is OK. Mom and I saw many of the great old movies together on TMC. Lifetime and Hallmark were a close second and third.
7) And lastly, as I said before, treat yourself. This is your time; your time with your doctors, nurses, caregivers, friends – YOU are the important one. You can journal, write poetry, bang on the drums or pound the piano. You can sleep all day; eat what you want. It is a very critical time in your life and one that is life-changing.
8) Since being diagnosed seven years ago, I have learned a lot about myself. I have found a stronger spirituality than before. I have treated myself: I have gone on cruises, gone to the theater more, seen Cirque du Soleil and even the Harlem Globetrotters. I recently joined the “Living Well After Cancer” program through the Claremont Club and Pomona Valley Hospital. That was the best 12 weeks I have given to myself. It not only provided me with professionals in the field of cancer treatment, but also trainers who have been trained in the proper exercise for cancer patients and survivors, nutritionists and a strong support group. Here I can feel comfortable with the exercise program that has been laid out for me. I have experienced people that I can go to with my questions. I feel that City of Hope and the Claremont Club have been with me 100 percent, and I can achieve the goals that I set for myself in the future.