Although the physical distress caused by breast cancer is significant, Marla Kelley says it is the emotional anguish that is the most difficult. “They don't prepare you for the mental end of things,” she says.
Marla was diagnosed in 2015 with Stage 2, Estrogen Receptor+, HER2+ breast cancer. She was just 36. Her treatment plan included six months of chemotherapy, a lumpectomy, six weeks of radiation, a year of Herceptin and will be on an estrogen blocking chemo pill for the next five years, for a total of 10. She is now also facing surgery to remove her ovaries for additional precautionary measures.
Now 42, the Johnstown woman has been cancer free for five years. While she recognizes how fortunate she is and is celebrating the milestone, she deals with emotional scars that are hard to overcome.
“Everybody thinks it's all pink ribbons, but October ends and it doesn't just go away. The survivor’s guilt alone can be crushing.” Marla says.
Marla says she clearly remembers the day she learned she had breast cancer. “The news itself is so traumatizing, it should come with a user’s manual.”
She struggled through chemotherapy treatments, losing her hair and friends in the process. “I did not go around anyone without a wig,” she says. “Only my very close family and friends saw me bald.
“You look at yourself in the mirror and you don't even recognize yourself. I not only avoided seeing people, I avoided seeing myself.
“My dog barked at me like I was a stranger the first time she saw me bald. It broke my heart.”
Marla says someone once told her that with chemotherapy, “They figure out how much it takes to kill you and then give you just a little bit less.”
She believes the statement is just about right.
“I was scared to death to walk into my first treatment,” she says. “My husband, Michael, said the absolute best thing he could have possibly said. He said, 'It's ok to be nervous before a fight – even when you know you are going to win.'” So, I walked in there like the heavy weight champion of the world.”
But it was a battle, and, for Marla, there was more devastating news. “When I was going through treatment, I lost both of my dogs,” she says. “I was already out of my mind with everything that was going on. Losing them both, one to cancer, was devastating.
“People were trying to talk to me, but for three days straight I didn't do anything but cry.
“By the end of the third day, thanks to my husband and my sister, I had another dog, Paige, who helped me more than I can explain.”
When treatments finally ended, Marla was left with issues she had not expected.
“Every time I have a test now, I am absolutely terrified,” she says. “It's like you are just waiting for that bad news all the time. The waiting is almost unbearable and can tear you up from the inside.
“You have already had to accept news about yourself that you had never expected. Feeling foreign in your own body takes you on a roller coaster emotionally and mentally that you can't even grasp unless you have been through it.”
Marla says she deals with anxiety, depression, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and has been diagnosed with Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder. “You may have had underlying problems before, but cancer brings it all to light.” she says. “A lot of people are suffering from mental illness, but when you combine cancer with mental illness, it creates a whole other animal.”
Marla says she has benefitted from an amazing support system.
“My husband and I have been married for 17 years. Everything that you can think of that he could do to help me, he tried it. He and my family included, could not have done anything more.
“The whole family is impacted by cancer. All they want to do is help you and they don't know how, so it’s very frustrating for them, but I’ve had constant support from my family and friends. I never had to be alone, so I was and am very fortunate.
“My new dog had a huge impact on my wellbeing,” she adds. “When I was very sick, she just laid with me like she knew” (Marla's canine family now includes a male dog and four puppies. “I didn't have the heart to get rid of any of them. They’re my family” she says.)
Whenever possible, Marla tries to help those going through breast cancer.
“If I didn't have the support system I have, I don't know how I would have gotten to where I am today,” she says. “I knew I needed help, so when I see somebody going through breast cancer, I jump in. I try to give them things you can’t read in a book or tell you at the cancer center. Those little tips between survivors makes it easier to get through.”
Marla belongs to many organizations locally and nationally in efforts to support other women not only through cancer, but in life. She belongs to the local chapter of The Stiletto Network, a site dedicated to the empowerment of women, and an online group called Wine and Dash that was solely created to brighten the days of women all over the state. She tries to surround herself with as much positivity as possible. “I even have positive quotes hanging in my home to help with bad days,” she says. “My sister and I started a website for dog lovers all over the world.
“I try staying active in as many things as I can, while staying confined to my own bubble.”
While she had to take a step back from her work for Johnstown Tomahawks, she remains involved with the Slapshot Cup Hockey Tournament to be held this month.
She is looking forward to the arrival of her first nephew in December and enjoying her niece's first year of college.
She also went back to school and is in her second year of college where she is pursuing a degree in Applied Sciences for Criminal Justice and stays on the dean's list.
But the struggle is never over for Marla. “I am not embarrassed to admit (what I am dealing with) because it is part of who I am. “Mental illness is a battle that I don’t think is addressed enough. Nor do I think that there are significant resources for facing it,” she says.
“I am going to be affected by this for the rest of my life. The only way to survive, is through finding the good in everything and always striving to be a better person. You never know what someone is carrying emotionally."