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Survivor Story: Marilyn May

MarilynMayJapan2Marilyn May was first diagnosed with breast cancer in 1997 after seeing two different radiologists and surgeons to find the care and treatment that felt right for her. Seventeen years and two additional cancer diagnoses later, Marilyn simply refuses to let metastatic breast cancer keep her from living a full life. Whether traveling across the globe or sharing her passion for art with her students, Marilyn fights her battle by squeezing the most joy out of every single day.

“I’ve already gone through two or three bucket lists,” says Marilyn, a retired schoolteacher who lives in Ventura and also teaches English as a Second Language. Art is her first love, and she currently teaches seniors in Ventura and elementary schoolchildren in the Rio School District. “No matter how tired I am it energizes me,” she says. Marilyn has also explored the world, traveling to Japan, Hong Kong, Thailand, India and more.

MarilynMayJapanNow age 72, Marilyn has packed so much into her life since her first diagnosis 17 years ago. After monitoring a shadow on her mammogram, and through a difficult process of finding the right healthcare team, Marilyn underwent a lumpectomy, chemotherapy and radiation. Nine years later, she had severe pain in her leg for nine months before an MRI showed cancer in her hip and femur, requiring an 11-day hospital stay and 25 days of radiation.

Throughout her cancer journey, Marilyn and her husband have found solace in several local groups. Marilyn attends and now volunteers for American Cancer Society’s Reach to Recovery program, which has a Simi Valley-based group for women with metastatic breast cancer. The Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction and Comedy Night series offered by the Cancer Support Community have also helped Marilyn and her husband.

Artwork by Marilyn's students, on permanent display at the SCAN Offices in Ventura.

Artwork by Marilyn’s students is on permanent display at the SCAN Offices in Ventura.

For almost nine years Marilyn has also attended a support group offered by the Cancer Support Community and St. John’s Hospital in Oxnard. Marilyn and her husband both attended Cancer Support Community groups in Camarillo as well.

“The groups help so much,” says Marilyn. “My husband found out in his group that everyone’s going through the same experience as him and he felt free to say everything he needed to say, and not be afraid that he would hurt or offend me. And I was able to talk about all the different areas that I didn’t want to discuss with him.”

One of Marilyn's paintings.

One of Marilyn’s paintings.

Last year Marilyn underwent a bilateral mastectomy after her doctor discovered a different type of breast cancer. “I never again wanted to go through the anxiety of waiting for tests and appointments and results, so I opted for the mastectomy,” says Marilyn. Although the cancer has spread to her liver and shoulders, Marilyn is still as active as ever, and holding out hope for a medication that she was approved for in September through a program that allows compassionate use of certain drugs not yet on the market.

“Even though I feel a little closer to the end I rejoice in every day and I am very grateful for my friends and family who get me to my treatments and send me funny jokes,” says Marilyn. “Every day is a joyous day.”


Ask the Expert: This Year Could Be Different

Thanks to certified Oncology Nutrition Specialist Susan J. Speer, MS, RD for sharing these fun and easy ways to make your resolutions work for you.

DoAnythingButLetItProduceJoyAt this time of year when people begin thinking of New Year’s resolutions, articles abound about making SMART resolutions: goals that are Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic and Timed.

I recommend even smarter goals. Don’t set a “Don’t” goal. Do set a “Do” goal. Make your resolutions centered around positive action, add an element of fun, and you’re more likely to succeed. Consider these resolutions:

1. Frequent the farmers market.
FarmersMarketWant to eat more fruits and vegetables? Thinking about going more natural or organic? Don’t nag yourself about substituting fruit for dessert, instead resolve to frequent your local farmers’ market once a week. Not only is it a beautiful way to spend an afternoon, you might get inspired by purple cauliflower or a pink lady apple. Everything in a certified farmers’ market is not certified organic, but often you can talk directly to the farmer, ask questions about how they handle their crop, and even taste the produce before you buy. Plus, you will be rubbing elbows with other people trying to eat healthfully and live lightly on the earth. Check here to find a farmers’ market around Ventura County.

2. Join a CSA.
If you are already a farmers’ market regular, consider joining a CSA (Community Supported Agricultural Group). CSA members pledge to support local farms by paying a subscriber fee monthly or seasonally. Once harvesting begins, members receive weekly shares of vegetables and fruit, in a “vegetable box.” Depending on the CSA, boxes may also include herbs, cut flowers, honey, eggs, dairy products and meat. Check here for a listing of CSAs around Ventura County. Many markets include recipes on their websites, or consider giving yourself the gift of Saltsman’s Santa Monica Farmers’ Market Cookbook.


3. Play often.
IQuotation-Dr-Seuss-fun-work-Meetville-Quotes-261205s exercise on your list of resolutions? Forget the “E” word (exercise) and instead just PLAY. If you’ve got young kids around, even better. Resolve to say “yes” to every request for activity: look for frogs in the backyard, go bike riding, run through the house playing fireman. Remember those Family Circle cartoons with the squiggly line maps of the routes kids will take? Just try to keep up and you’ll likely get a workout without all the work. If you don’t have kids for inspiration, you can still play. Try wii bowling, get a hula hoop, play miniature golf, or put up a badminton net.

4. Get your game on.
game night 1
Enjoy life more by interacting with those around you. Turn off the TV and play a game. Studies show that brain exercises like learning a new game help to reduce age-related cognitive decline and may even improve the symptoms of “chemo brain.” Haul out the old favorites like Monopoly, Sorry, Risk, or Scrabble. (We play Scrabble in teams to take the pressure off). Don’t forget card games. There’s fun for every age from Go Fish to Gin Rummy to Hearts. Branch out and try new games. Some of our family favorites are Apples to Apples, Pictionary and, our current favorite, Loaded Questions.

5. Take a class.
If the resolution you are considering is to be more active, take a class to get you moving. Learn ballroom dancing or take up golf. If stress management is your focus, take a class on meditation, tai chi or yoga. Or try something completely new – learn to play bridge or take a photography class.

6. Soothe Your Sleep.
If having more energy in 2015 sounds good, consider sleeping more. Count back from when you get up in the morning. Seven to 8 hours of sleep is ideal. Figure your healthiest bedtime and start winding down an hour before. Unplug from all electronics: computer, phone, and TV. Put together an enjoyable and relaxing sleep routine: take a hot shower or bath, do some gentle stretching exercises. Then get into bed. If you’re not quite ready for sleep resist the temptation to turn on the TV or surf the net on your phone. Read a book or leaf through a magazine with a cup of Sleepytime tea. At the appointed bedtime, lie down and close your eyes. Ah…

7. Smile more.
smiling dogBoost your happiness quotient with one simple trick: smile. Check in several times a day and see what your face is doing. If you’re not already sporting a big toothy grin, smile. If you need help getting in the mood, imagine some of your favorite things: a great vacation, the face of your grandchild, something you are grateful for. If you don’t feel like smiling, do it anyway. Studies show that even forcing a smile improves mood and hastens recovery from stressful emotions. Fake it ‘til you make it.

In fact, crack a grin every time you think of your New Year’s resolutions. Take a lighthearted approach to everything you do. People don’t do things that don’t feel good. Resolve to have some fun next year and ensure your success. Happy New Year!

Photo Courtesy of Mark Brandes Studio

Photo Courtesy of Mark Brandes 

Susan Speer is a certified Oncology Nutrition Specialist at the Cancer Center of Ventura County.  She has been developing and teaching programs in health promotion and disease management for more than 30 years and is the 2012 recipient of the Cancer Support Community VVSB’s Celebration of Excellence Award. Susan is heading for a family reunion Christmas and plans to start her resolutions early: play with the kids, organize an all-family game of Loaded Questions, and smile, smile, smile.