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Marianne Sarcich: I Survived Cancer and Here Is How I Did It

An Interview With Savio P. Clemente

Take time to learn what is okay with you and what is not. And keep checking in with yourself because things can change by the second. It’s all new and sometimes very overwhelming. This is your breast cancer experience, and no one else’s. There is no wrong way to respond to it. There is just your way. So, for instance, if you don’t want to tell anyone outside of your immediate family, that is your right. Set that boundary and protect it. If that upsets other people, that is their response to deal with.

Cancer is a horrible and terrifying disease. Yet millions of people have beaten the odds and beat cancer. Authority Magazine started a new series called “I Survived Cancer and Here Is How I Did It”. In this interview series, we are talking to cancer survivors to share their stories, in order to offer hope and provide strength to people who are being impacted by cancer today. As a part of this interview series, I had the pleasure of interviewing Marianne Sarcich.

Marianne Sarcich, a breast cancer survivor and advocate, is the founder of the breast cancer peer support group In This Together Philly Wilmington, where she helps patients and survivors in Eastern Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Delaware. She advocates locally and nationally, creating programming and awareness for the breast cancer community, with a focus on metastatic breast cancer. Her affiliations include Living Beyond Breast Cancer, National Coalition for Cancer Survivorship, WEGO Health, Sharsheret, Society for Integrative Oncology, AnaOno, Young Survival Coalition, Triage Cancer, The Grace Project, Outcomes4Me and MBC Travelers.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! We really appreciate the courage it takes to publicly share your story. Before we start, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your background and your childhood backstory?

Of course. I’m a mother of two incredible daughters, Elise and Anna, and I’m married to a wonderful husband, Paul. And now, I have a son, Alex, who joined the family this summer when he and Elise married. I love to start my day with a run outdoors, sometimes with our rescue dog, Poppy. I lived and worked in New York City before I had kids and to this day I miss living there., I’m a NYC city cat at heart :-).

Now, I live in the very caring community ,of Wilmington, Delaware, although I didn’t realize the depth of their care until I got my breast cancer diagnosis.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

The one that speaks to me the most right now is this….

Be a blessing to somebody. — Maya Angelou

What it has brought to me, I believe, is more than what I have brought to others. I discovered that being that blessing is so emotionally healing for me. I still deal with anxiety from my breast cancer. And helping others has become one of the ways I manage it. It’s extraordinary how very healing it can be.

Listen to Maya say these words yourself. Because then you will learn another powerful perspective from her that can become a self-care tool to comfort yourself in frightening times

I bring everyone who has ever been kind to me with

me. …. Come with me, I need you now….. So I don’t ever

feel I have no help. I’ve had rainbows in my clouds.

That resonates so much with me. Rainbows in my clouds. You can hear her for yourself at this link

https://vm.tiktok.com/ZMRSg1Ve7/

Let’s now shift to the main part of our discussion about surviving cancer. Do you feel comfortable sharing with us the story surrounding how you found out that you had cancer?

I’m happy to. One of the things I’ve discovered is that sharing my story is healing for me. So I’ve become very transparent with my breast cancer experience.

My cancer story began Wednesday evening. July 28th, 2016. My hand accidentally brushed down my chest, and I felt a lump. My breath stopped. I froze. I was afraid to even bring my hand back up to that lump. My first acquaintance with my now constant companion — cancer fear — was that moment.

I was diagnosed August 19th. Declared no evidence of disease (NED) the first week of November. Today, I am still NED. In between August 19th and today were many surgeries, a second biopsy, monstrous anxiety and oh so much living.

What was the scariest part of that event? What did you think was the worst thing that could happen to you?

I remember being in such an emotional spin when I got my diagnosis. My biggest fear that rose above them all — including the fear for myself — was who would take care of my family, our then ten year old Anna, our college senior Elise? That’s my job.

Who would keep their childhood on track and normal? Of all the things not ok with me about what cancer could and would do to our lives, disrupting their childhood was what upset me most.

How did you react in the short term?

So I went into what I call Marianne Mode. My inner control freak took over, and I left no virtual stone unturned in my desperate quest to learn what I had to do, where I should be treated and who should be treating me. All in order to live. My small yellow notepad and pen together with my laptop and phone became my makeshift breast cancer war room in my dining room. I worked every connection I had. And soon that yellow pad was filled with a long list of potential breast surgeons.

While I was doing that, I was also planning support for my husband and children. And this is where I hit a personal wall. I discovered my immense fear of saying the words “I have breast cancer” out loud. But, if I didn’t tell people, how could I get support for my family?

Remember, however, I was in Marianne Mode. That meant, no time for obstacles, including my own. So I shifted my perspective and told myself I was asking for help for my family, not me. That and a huge emotional shove by my inner control freak got me over that wall. Although, the only way I could tell people was by text. And writing those texts? Made me cry.

The time between learning about my diagnosis in Auugust and going into my mastectomy on September 26th was jammed with pure panic and frantic, non-stop work. I had to find transportation for Anna to and from school for weeks while I recovered. I had to arrange for meals for the family to lift the burden off my husband. I had to make sure Elise had the support she needed at college and ask for additional financial aid. I had to help my husband learn how I managed Anna’s asthma care, something that was always my responsibility. And I distinctly remember writing up some notes for him on this and breaking down. Because, I hought, I am writing myself out of my own life.

I also had to find ways to lift the financial burden off my family. I spent an enormous amount of time researching financial grants only to discover that as soon as I was rolled out of the OR, I would no longer be eligible for any of them. You have to be in treatment to be considered. And the mastectomy was my only treatment. That meant that I had to complete all financial grant applications before I went into surgery. The pressure was enormous.

After the dust settled, what coping mechanisms did you use? What did you do to cope physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually?

Recovery right after my mastectomy became my full-time job. I loaded it with some fairly good coping tools, most new to me. I replaced my early morning run with a meditation from calm.com, something new. I went for mini walks several times a day. Literally just back and forth in front of my house and then back to the couch.

And I spent time every day on finding the good in the day. Because I knew this much about myself. I’m the person that usually is overcome by negative thoughts. So I forced myself to look for the good. Literally. Looking for the good was an activity on my daily to-do list. And I created a note in my Google Keep app, a note which I still have today, where I jotted down my findings. It could be the littlest thing. That was okay because at least it got me focused on something good and took me out of dark thoughts. What I discovered: doing this brought on a feeling of calm. Even reading over my notes triggered that calm feeling. It wasn’t until much, much later that I discovered that gratitude work is actually an evidence-based therapeutic tool.

However, a few weeks later I was hit with a tsunami of emotional upheaval when my oncologist told me I was no evidence of disease or NED at our first meeting. Doesn’t make sense, right? Agreed. I never saw it coming, and yet now, I know. It’s fairly common.

Is there a particular person you are grateful towards who helped you learn to cope and heal? Can you share a story about that?

If I have to single out one person, then it’s my husband. There is an image of him I will never forget. Paul coming home from work and me watching from my spot lying on the couch after my mastectomy. Without taking off his coat, he quickly checked on me and then went right into the kitchen to get dinner ready, still with his coat on. Eventually he sat down to eat, yes, with his coat off finally. He repeated all of that for weeks. The circles under his eyes broke my heart. I hated the burden I had become. Yet how he showed up for me and our family was so beautiful. I will never forget it.

I do have to say, however, it’s difficult to single out one person. There is no way I would have gotten through my breast cancer without my children and my friends and my local community. Things like Elise, who was studying at Arcadia University, finding a friend to drive her to the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania to visit me after my mastectomy. And Anna, who made me a flower out of pipe cleaners to brighten my day. And the moms in my community who brought me dinner even though they didn’t know me. Or even sent their husbands to my door with things like a memory foam pillow because as one husband told me “my wife says your ass hurts, so here’s a pillow.” He wasn’t wrong. I had said that :-)

In my own cancer struggle, I sometimes used the idea of embodiment to help me cope. Let’s take a minute to look at cancer from an embodiment perspective. If your cancer had a message for you, what do you think it would want or say?

This is a tough one for me. Whenever I have visualized my cancer, I have seen it as a parasite with not a a single human trait. No compassion. No empathy. No mercy. Simply a parasite looking for a host to survive. And that host is me. Whether or not I survived was irrelevant to this parasite.

So on the same vein, my takeaway from my cancer is I too want to survive. And if the choice is you or me, cancer, it will be me. I will do as you do. I will do what it takes to live..

What did you learn about yourself from this very difficult experience? How has cancer shaped your worldview? What has it taught you that you might never have considered before? Can you please explain with a story or example?

What I discovered is how little I knew myself. I mean, really knew myself. With cancer, things get real really quickly. And what would be best for me? Well, I didn’t always know. I know now, for the most part. And if I don’t know, I know to take the time and ask myself is this okay with me. Something I never would have done before breast cancer. In fact, that simple question is in my self-care tool kit. And just the fact that I have a self-care tool kit is something new since breast cancer. I now consider self care medicinal.

And, because of breast cancer, I now understand community and how pivotal it is. To receive care and love from the community. And to give it. My breast cancer was the first time I was on the receiving end from my community. A meal train was started and strangers came to my house every night for weeks with home cooked meals. Gifts were given to our daughters to comfort them on the day of my mastectomy. Even a stand-alone freezer was found and delivered so we could freeze the many meals we were given. All of this was humbling and beautiful. And taught me so much about what it means to be part of a community. And now, because of that, I’m a very active member of my community. Not just with my breast cancer group.

How have you used your experience to bring goodness to the world?

The breast cancer peer support group I started, quite honestly, I started for selfish reasons. My anxiety was still not managed well despite all my efforts. And I realized that I needed to spend time with people from the breast cancer community in person. So I launched that group to help myself. We had about 10 of us initially.

As membership began to grow, I realized I needed to do more than just create in person get-togethers. And here’s where I think my story of bringing goodness to the world really begins. There were so many unmet needs among the members. So I expanded the mission. And kept expanding the mission to fill the needs as best I could.

For instance, I created resource lists on everything from financial grants to free travel and lodging for out of town treatment. Because I never forgot the panic and effort I went through to do that research myself before my mastectomy. I launched a card writing program and rallied volunteers from within the group and the local community to send inspirational and supportive cards to members each month. I started a second Facebook group to gather community volunteers to help me support the group. And then I started a third group for the members to exchange items with each other, like wigs and drain holders. And I launched a recovery recliner program with power lift recliners I gathered from the community and loan out to group members for them to recover in after surgery. Anything to help ease the burden of the diagnosis and help the members become informed patients who are confident in self-advocating.

Now I’ve become known in my local community for my breast cancer advocacy. And I often get messages from strangers asking for advice or information. And I get tagged in Facebook posts regarding breast concerns.

And, to support my local community, at the beginning of the pandemic, I launched a Facebook group and partnered with a friend of mine, Chryssa Cohen, to deliver meals and snacks to the Delaware frontline workers. Through our group, called To Our Helpers with Love, we rallied the local community and ended up delivering just over a thousand meals. I did what I could to get some press coverage in the hopes of generating additional donations. Here’s one of those stories…

https://www.wdel.com/news/coronavirus/brandywine-hundred-girl-scout-troop-says-thank-you-to-health-care-heroes/article_6ecbefa0-8fe6-11ea-bb76-67d78e59eae3.html

What are a few of the biggest misconceptions and myths out there about fighting cancer that you would like to dispel?

I’m so glad you’re asking this. There are several. The first one is we may be feeling very physically ill and emotionally wrung out while still looking fairly healthy. And that makes the disease invisible at times and tricky for people to know what’s truly going on with us. Just remember: how we look has nothing to do with how we actually feel.

Another one is metastatic breast cancer is incurable. These patients are in forever treatment. But they are often asked by friends, family and even the medical community questions like, when will you finish treatment? Questions like these can be very painful to hear and make the patient feel so misunderstood and alone.

And for those of us like me who are early stagers, the effects of the diagnosis and treatment can linger and linger sometimes for a lifetime. Treatment can cause permanent heart damage; it can cause dental issues that don’t pop up until years later. Memory issues. Joint pain. And some of us, me included, are on a daily med for years after diagnosis, I meant that causes constant side effects.

There’s more. The color pink and that pink ribbon? It’s not embraced by the entire breast cancer community. It can actually trigger quite a bit of anxiety for some of us. The response to that ribbon and that color is a full spectrum from joy to hatred and everything in between. So please be mindful and understanding if a breast cancer patient or survivor in your life doesn’t respond positively to a pink ribbon or the color pink. They will appreciate your intention. And, no, they may not realize until they see it what their response will be.

Here’s some insights into why. Just because an item being sold has a pink ribbon doesn’t mean the retailer is making a donation to a breast cancer nonprofit. Often times it’s being sold purely for profit. But we are so trained to believe and rightly so that pink ribbon items are fundraisers for the breast cancer community. And that’s just not the case. We call this pinkwashing. If you do want to support the breast cancer community by purchasing a pink ribbon item — and thank you for your support — we ask you think before you pink. Simply ask before you buy. Will you be making a donation from the sale of this item? And then ask how much and where will this donation go? If it’s not going to a reputable non-profit, save your dollars for another pink ribbon item.

And there’s more. The pink ribbon is synonymous with breast cancer and breast cancer fundraising. And billions of dollars have been raised because of it. All of which is beyond wonderful. What most people don’t realize, however, is less than 7% of those dollars annually goes to research for metastatic breast cancer. Even though that is the only way to find a cure. To this day, researchers do not know why breast cancer metastasizes. Once it does metastasize, or spread outside of the breast, it becomes incurable. And if only more of the breast cancer research dollars would go toward metastatic breast cancer research, perhaps we could stop it from metastasizing and and even eventually find a cure.

Fantastic. Here is the main question of our interview. Based on your experiences and knowledge, what advice would you give to others who have recently been diagnosed with cancer? What are your “5 Things You Need To Beat Cancer? Please share a story or example for each.

Community….. Gather your family and friends so that they can support you and your immediate family as you move through treatment and recovery. And remember. It is okay to ask for help. You and your family will it. Allow others to help you all. Lift the burden off your family. And off of yourself.

Boundaries… Take time to learn what is okay with you and what is not. And keep checking in with yourself because things can change by the second. It’s all new and sometimes very overwhelming. This is your breast cancer experience, and no one else’s. There is no wrong way to respond to it. There is just your way. So, for instance, if you don’t want to tell anyone outside of your immediate family, that is your right. Set that boundary and protect it. If that upsets other people, that is their response to deal with.

Your voice…. Raise your voice. Those boundaries we just talked about? Use your voice to set them and protect them. And feel the strength flow through you as you do it. Hearing your own voice speaking up for yourself will empower you. Because I know. That breast cancer diagnosis can make you feel powerless. But you’re not. You have your voice. So if you have questions but your oncologist is walking out of the room headed to the next appointment, raise your voice. If you’re headed into radiation and you’re petrified, say something. Talk it through with your loved ones and with your radiation oncologist. What exactly has you frightened, and what can they do to help ease your fear?

Expand your cancer team…. Go beyond creating a core team of oncologist, breast surgeon and radiologist. Add professionals who will help you maintain a quality of life during and after treatment. This includes a social worker, an oncology dietitian, a counselor and a supportive care (also known as palliative care) doctor. Supportive care is one of the best things you can give yourself at diagnosis. And it’s so misunderstood. It is all about providing patients the best quality of life as defined by that patient. That’s you. And it encompasses care of the family too. In fact, studies show supportive care not only can significantly increase quality of life but also improve the efficacy of treatment. And, the American Society of Clinical Oncologists recommends in its guidelines that supportive care be given early on.

Self care…. Rethink self-care and consider it now medicinal. It is how you will restore yourself emotionally as you move through treatment and recovery. Create a self-care toolkit. What goes in it? Whatever speaks to you. Spend time thinking about it. You are worth it. In my tool kit, you will find running outdoors in the early morning, spending time with my family, mindfulness, meditation and having alone time.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the greatest amount of people, what would that be?

There is a love / pain relationship between some of us in the breast cancer community and how breast cancer awareness is currently depicted in what we call the mainstream, anyone who has not had a breast cancer diagnosis. Why? Because many of us don’t feel included and heard in the current breast cancer narrative believed by the mainstream. What they don’t know hurts us.

Like breast cancer is incurable. When you become metastatic, you will die. That’s not pretty. That’s not pink, but that’s the reality. Like men get breast cancer too. And yet they are severely underrepresented in breast cancer research. Like the disparities in treatment that cause not only physical and emotional fallout, but even death among minority communities like Black/African-American. And they too are sorely underrepresented in research. Like the young can get breast cancer, even in their twenties, even while pregnant. And yet they are frequently dismissed when they bring breast concerns to medical professionals, too often hearing the words “you’re too young to have breast cancer.”

Imagine just the emotional healing that could happen if the entire breast cancer community felt heard for who we truly are and not for who the mainstream have been taught we are. And then imagine the strides we could make together, breast cancer and mainstream communities, with this new understanding between us.

Reshaping that narrative to make it inclusive of us all. That is a movement that would impact countless people now and in the future. And that is a movement worth launching and getting behind.

We are very blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them. :-)

What comes to mind are memories from the pandemic of spending time with my family. All of us sitting on the couch, eating dinner and having a great time watching a movie. And it’s hard to find something that we all truly enjoy. That movie was Zombieland. And then we watched the sequel. So, with those memories in my heart, I would love to hang out with Emma Stone. I’ve enjoyed her performances for years. But now that she has gifted our families such wonderful memories during such a difficult time, I want to say thank you.

And, honestly, I would also love to say thank you to Taylor Swift. That’s whose music fills the kitchen as we get dinner ready. And fills the car as I drive my daughter to and from school and around town. She’s been a family favorite for years. And we have countless beautiful memories thanks to her.

How can our readers further follow your work online?

I use my personal Facebook page for my breast cancer advocacy. And I post many things publicly on that page. In fact, last year during breast cancer awareness month, I created a post everyday on a different topic I wanted people outside of the breast cancer community to know. And I plan on doing the same this year. And if someone has had a breast cancer diagnosis and lives in Eastern Pennsylvania or New Jersey or Delaware,, they are more than welcome to join the peer support group that I run. Here is the link for it.

https://www.facebook.com/groups/2006782929610286/

Thank you so much for sharing these important insights. We wish you continued success and good health!

About The Interviewer: Savio P. Clemente helps cancer survivors overcome the confusion and gain the clarity needed to get busy living in mind, body, and spirit. He inspires health and wellness seekers to find meaning in the “why” and to cultivate resilience in their mindset. Savio is a Board Certified wellness coach (NBC-HWC, ACC), stage 3 cancer survivor, podcaster, writer, and founder of The Human Resolve LLC.

Savio pens a weekly newsletter at thehumanresolve.com where he delves into secrets from living smarter to feeding your “three brains” — head 🧠, heart 💓, and gut 🤰 — in hopes of connecting the dots to those sticky parts in our nature that matter.

He has been featured on Fox News, and has collaborated with Authority Magazine, Thrive Global, Food Network, WW, and Bloomberg. His mission is to offer clients, listeners, and viewers alike tangible takeaways in living a truly healthy, wealthy, and wise lifestyle.

Savio lives in the suburbs of Westchester County, New York and continues to follow his boundless curiosity. He hopes to one day live out a childhood fantasy and explore outer space.

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