Tougher Together: Sharing Stories of Surviving Cancer

by Marquina Iliev-PiselliOctober 10, 2019View more posts from Marquina Iliev-Piselli

The doctor finally called late on a Friday night. Holding my son in my arms, I rushed to the kitchen and picked up the phone.

“I hate having calls like this,” he said. “It’s malignant.”

Malignant, I thought, my brain trying and failing to grasp the enormity of the word.

“You’re going to have to call your surgeon,” he said.

My surgeon? I didn’t have one. I’d never needed to have one.

So began my journey with stage two breast cancer. I’d lie awake at night, my husband nestled in a private dream, as I stared at the ceiling and massaged the small lump threatening to end my life. I wondered what part of my body it was trying to colonize next—my stomach? My ribcage? My jaw? Eventually my alarm would go off, and I’d start getting ready to take my son to school.

At age three, Lorenzo didn’t fully understand what was happening to his mother. I did my best to explain to him that I was sick, that I was going to be more tired than usual, that I would soon lose my hair. Still, I’m not sure it ever fully registered.

Before putting Lorenzo to bed I would read to him, picture books about little boys whose mothers had cancer. But not even these stories, written and drawn for maximum relatability, seemed to know what I was going through. These women were older than me, scarves wrapped around their heads, lying on the couch, while I was still working part-time, running errands, and making dinner for my family. I’d close the books and give Lorenzo a smile, feeling a little more alone than I had before.

One morning I was sitting in a chair, and a nurse was swabbing my chest with alcohol. After determining that my platelet levels were acceptable, she was prepping me for the day’s chemo treatment, which always began with a needle stabbing into my chest.

Before we got the show on the road, however, she offered me a book, copies of which were stacked on a shelf nearby.

“Something to pass the time,” she said. I work with books and authors every day at the office, so I looked down curiously at the cover between my hands.

Beauty Pearls for Chemo Girls, it read. I opened it up to find tips for choosing a wig, applying makeup—you know, making myself beautiful by hiding my condition beneath fake hair and Sephora products.

This is what they gave me? It all seemed so… superficial, both literally and figuratively. I wanted guidance and support. I needed to learn how to face cancer head-on and retain my sanity. I didn’t know if I’d make it out of this thing alive, and the best they could do was teach me how to draw my fucking eyebrows back on?

“I’m going to keep this,” I told the nurse. She smiled, satisfied that she had delivered such an important book into the right hands. The smile faded when I added, “Because I can do so, so much better.”

Marquina during chemo

But what would “better” look like? Maybe a memoir? After going into remission, I tried writing about my treatment, and about my passion for the unusual but very real sport of competitive air guitar. After feeling my body and mind being pulled toward death for so long, returning to air guitar helped me rediscover what it meant to feel very, very alive. And maybe with my memoir in hand, others would feel inspired to get back up on their stage too, whatever and wherever that happened to be.

Still, the memoir never quite came together. Detailing my history with cancer for hundreds of pages felt not only difficult, but also, somehow, wrong—what made my story so special? There were thousands and thousands of women out there just like me. How did they beat cancer? What incredible stories out there were just waiting to be told?

That’s when I started the interviews. I spoke with friends I made at the adult survivor camp Camp Koru, then got in touch with women from a wide variety of backgrounds and walks of life from all across the United States. These women had the strength and good fortune to beat cancer, but just as importantly, they had each fought to rediscover joy in their lives. In their stories, I saw parallels not only to my own experiences in treatment, but also my decision to return to air guitar.

At last, I had found a group of women who truly understood what I had endured. And it brought me comfort to know that my life with cancer was not chaotic or directionless, but part of a narrative that others had successfully lived through. Seeing myself among these women made me feel safer, tougher even—and I wondered if others would feel the same way.

That’s why I put together a book called Tough: Women Who Survived Cancer. It’s a collection of essays written by dozens of these incredible women, in which they describe the precious highs, the brutal lows, and the lessons they learned from their journeys through and past cancer.

Tough: Women Who Survived Cancer

There’s Elana Schwam from Cambridge, Massachusetts, who was diagnosed with stage three melanoma at age 29. Throughout her treatment, she continued to play her favorite sport, Ultimate Frisbee, and is now a primary-care nurse practitioner, providing health care to underserved patients in a community-health setting. “Surround yourself with people and things that you love, and live it up,” she says.

Then there’s Ardith Tom, the Navajo woman from New Mexico, who was diagnosed with endometrial cancer at age 25. After beating the cancer to a pulp, she now aims to establish an organization to provide resources and hope for Navajo cancer patients. “If one day I wanna feel like crap, guess what? I’m gonna feel like crap,” she writes. “But the next day I will get up, and I will move forward.”

And there’s Tamika Partridge, the single mom from Newnan, Georgia who was diagnosed with breast cancer at age 37. Now cancer-free, she participates in the yearly Tour de Pink, a 200-mile bike ride to raise money for breast cancer support services. Her best advice? To avoid throwing up while on chemo, take your nausea medication before you get queasy!

For me, these stories taught me two big things: Number one, cancer sucks—like it really, really sucks. But number two was that cancer sucks less when you surround yourself with people who understand what you’re going through, who can give you the guidance that they never had themselves.

Maybe Tough can be part of that support system for cancer patients. And maybe, while a young woman waits for her chemotherapy to begin, Tough can be not just a way to pass the time, but preparation for a roaring comeback into a healthy and joyful life.

Marquina Iliev-Piselli is a Digital Marketer and the Founder of AuthorpreneurLaunch.com, which aims to help authors feel empowered, not overwhelmed, by marketing. Originally from Ann Arbor, Michigan, she has a Masters from Columbia University in Instructional Technology & Media. After a breast cancer diagnosis in 2015, she created the Glam Chemo Project and the Women’s Empowerment Project at Weill Cornell. She is also the editor of the forthcoming essay collection TOUGH: Women Who Survived Cancer, and the founder of the Share Triumph Virtual Conference, which brings survivors’ stories to life and highlights the small steps that bring us back to joy.

Marquina and her book Tough

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