Marla Charon-Ekstrom shares the story of her fight against breast cancer, a battle joined by family and friends
Marla Charon-Ekstrom’s goal is to be an inspiration to those who are dealing with cancer.
She knows firsthand about the trauma involved when stricken with the deadly disease. She was diagnosed with breast cancer January 29, 2008, or as she recalls it, “a day in infamy.” She had surgery to remove her breasts and ovaries three months later.
Marla has been undergoing treatments to keep the cancer in submission ever since.
“I could be a whiny baby and think poor me, poor me or I could fight like a hero, like a tiger to beat it,” says the 57-year-old Roseburg, Oregon, resident. “I want people to remember me when I’m gone as a fighter, not as a whiner.”
Marla, an occupational therapist at Amedisys Home Health in Roseburg, admits she has shed a few tears during the past few years, but she has preferred to fight her battle against cancer with humor and laughter. She hopes her upbeat attitude will inspire others who are dealing with the dreaded disease.
During October, which is Breast Cancer Awareness Month, Marla anticipates being involved in various cancer fundraising and awareness activities.
October was first designated as Breast Cancer Awareness Month in 1985. It was an effort by the American Cancer Society to promote mammography as the most effective weapon in the fight against breast cancer.
Breast cancer is the most common cancer among women, excluding cancers of the skin. In statistics compiled as of 2011 by the American Cancer Society, there were more than 2.6 million breast cancer survivors in the United States. About one woman in eight in the United States develops invasive breast cancer in the course of her lifetime.
Marla has hardly questioned being one of the unfortunate cancer victims. Friend Donna Russell says she has never heard Marla ask, “Why me?”
“She has fought it day in and day out, and has kept a really marvelous attitude about her cancer fight,” Donna says. “It’s been her desire to be an inspiration to other cancer survivors and to show them the way to fight.”
In early July, Marla helped organize the first My Cups Runneth Over event at the Cancer Community Center in Roseburg. It was a fundraising event for the 2012 Douglas County Relay for Life event. Twenty elaborately decorated bras were modeled by men and then auctioned, each with an additional prize. The bras went for bids of $150 to $1,300.
Marla was the team captain for the Amedisys Relay For Life team. She was proud the team raised $14,000 for the event.
Being a part of those activities gives Marla the chance to tell her cancer story in hopes of inspiring others, while helping to raise funds that will be used in finding a cure.
“To share like this means volumes to her,” says Donna.
Marla is no stranger to cancer. She has practiced occupational therapy for 35 years, and many of her patients are cancer patients or cancer survivors. So when she noticed changes—a thickness—in her right breast, she had mixed emotions.
“Fear either drives you to get it checked right away or you avoid getting checked because you’re afraid of what it might be,” she says.
She went for a mammogram, and then was sent to a surgeon. She admits she “flipped” when she saw her profile and the cancer on the screen. The cancer had metastasized to the bone. It was stage 4, a very serious level. Three days later, she started a three-month chemotherapy treatment program.
Because she tested positive for cancer genes, when it came time for surgery, Marla insisted both breasts and her ovaries be removed so she wouldn’t have to go through a second procedure. That proved to be the right decision because a biopsy after the surgery showed cancer was beginning in the left breast.
Two more months of chemo followed.
Marla and her husband, Lonnie, talked, and she decided not to have reconstructive surgery to replace her breasts. They both agreed it wasn’t necessary for her to go through the pain of the procedure and to risk infection, especially since her immune system was compromised.
“The first time I saw myself, with the staples still in from the surgery, I fell apart,” she admits. “I looked down and saw what was missing. I was worried he wouldn’t love me anymore since I wasn’t complete.”
But Lonnie questioned the risk for something not needed to stay alive. He already had shown his commitment for her with his caregiving.
Following the chemo, Marla began six weeks of daily radiation treatments. She suffered burns that led to an infection during the treatments, but she recovered.
Close monitoring followed for the next 18 months and then tests showed increased cancer levels in her blood. A CAT scan confirmed cancer in her liver in March 2011.
She started on a strong oral chemotherapy consisting of seven pills daily. She responded well to the treatment in terms of tumor shrinkage, but her gastrointestinal system was affected. She couldn’t retain food or liquids. Her throat swelled. She lost 20 pounds in a month. Her hair fell out again. The skin on her hands and feet peeled.
“I remember thinking I was done,” she says. “I wasn’t ready to go, but I felt like I was dying. I remember asking the nurses, ‘Am I dying?’ They said, ‘No, you’re not dying.’ But it felt like it.”
After two months of treatment, the tumors had shrunk by 98 percent and some were completely gone.
Through all of her ordeals, Lonnie was by her side, caring for her, encouraging her and making her laugh.
“He was amazing,” she says of Lonnie. “I know some couples where the husband just up and left when the wife’s diagnosis was made, but Lonnie has been my rock. Obviously, there is a very profound love between us, a very strong connection.”