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Cancer survivor

. . . over half her life Marilyn Kirwin reached a milestone this year. She has been a cancer survivor for over half her life. Her story is one of hope and also one of improvement in treatment options and how cancer patients now have a larger role in selecting treatment. Marilyn was a married mother of three living in Morris back in December, 1973, when she felt a small lump on her breast in a self-examination. “I called the doctor the next day,” she said and a biopsy was scheduled. “I thought I was going to die,” she said after discovering the lump, which she thought might be cancer. “I had three small children and wondered what would happen to them. I had my husband, Darrell, and I wondered what he would do. I didn’t know any survivors.” She said that in the 1970s cancer was a word spoken in almost hushed tones. When she had heard that someone had cancer it seemed like they always died. “Your family never discussed cancer, it was almost a secret,” she said. A date was set for the biopsy, which was treated as surgery then. “Back then you had to be hospitalized to have a biopsy,” she said. “When I woke up after what I thought was going to be a biopsy I discovered I had had a radical mastectomy.” She said that the lump was the size of the end of a pencil and was determined to be cancerous, so the mastectomy was performed while she was still out and on the surgery table. One bit of good news was that the lymph nodes were checked and determined to be free of cancer, which meant she didn’t need additional treatments of radiation or chemotherapy. Given today’s patient involvement in treatment decisions, she still is surprised at what happened back then. “I was hospitalized for 10 days,” she said. “I was given no exercises to do, there was no physical therapy in the hospital back then. One older nurse told me to try to find ways to use my arms.” An active person prior to surgery, Marilyn couldn’t raise her right arm, many of the muscles on the front of her chest that dealt with arm movement had been removed. So she started development of what muscles were left with what she calls “crawl to the walls,” walking her hands and arms up the walls with her fingers. By the summer of 1974 she was able to pick up a golf club and begin playing again. And she picked up a tennis racquet as well. And she became involved in “Reach for Recovery,” a program that provides support to cancer survivors. “When you have a family and a lot of family support, it really helps,” said Marilyn of her recovery. “It also changes your perspective on life,” she added. “You place more value on the simpler things in life.” Both Marilyn and Darrell came from large Morris area families — Marilyn from a family of eight children and Darrell from a family of seven children. After her cancer surgery, Marilyn watched her children grow. Son Steve lives in Norway with his wife and six children. Daughter Tracy lives in Brainerd with her husband and seven children. Daughter Patty is single. So her life has been similar to that of most people her age, watching children go through college, getting married, having grandchildren and visiting and hosting those children and grandchildren. It was during that time that two prominent women stepped forward when they had breast cancer and talked openly about it. “When Happy Rockefeller and Betty Ford came out about their cancer it really brought an awareness,” said Kirwin. Rockefeller was the wife of Nelson Rockefeller, who became Vice-President of the United States. Betty Ford was the wife of President Gerald Ford. “People should know you can survive,” said Marilyn. “We have a lot to be thankful for.” “Everyone should have that hope,” she added. “That message of hope comes from survivors.” “There have been so many breakthroughs in different types of cancer,” said Marilyn. And there have been breakthroughs in how cancer patients are treated. A cancer patient would not be treated today as Marilyn was in 1973. The patient would be tested, and treatment options would be discussed with the patient by a doctor, or oncologist, or both. The patient would be involved in the decisions made involving treatment. Over the years Marilyn has also been involved in “Relay for Life” and “Rally for the Cure,” both events that draw survivors together, raise money for cancer research, and show others that there are a lot of cancer survivors in the world today leading normal lives. At one Rally for the Cure golf event she attended, Marilyn said that a small group of people she was with had over 200 years of cancer survival. She was impressed with that. While Marilyn has not had any recurrence of her breast cancer, she did have a bout with a form of stomach cancer four years ago that result in the removal of her stomach. She had to have a feeding tube for 15 months but now eats more small meals and has the system figured out. Again, it was self awareness and calling attention to changes to medical professionals that lead to early discovery, watching and eventual treatment of the condition. “Usually we have warnings,” she said. “We need to pay attention to them. You can save yourself by paying attention to your body.” “I think I am doing OK,” she said. “You don’t have to go far to see people with issues (not just cancer) that are worse than anything I have had.” Marilyn and Darrell celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary four years ago. They travel to see grandchildren, escape some of Minnesota’s winter by heading to Arizona and live lives similar to many other Minnesotans their ages. Marilyn has some additional thoughts about cancer. “I don’t ever consider myself a victim of cancer,” she said. “It has been a positive experience. Things happen for a reason, there are more things for me to do on earth.” “People are lucky today to have medical knowledge and expertise that is so much better than it was before,” she said. “Cancer is not a final thing, there is so much more that can be done now.” “Think positively…. and pass it on!”

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