Celebrating Thanksgiving with Cancer for a Second Year: A New Normal

Fighting cancer and giving thanks goes together for this Novato wife and mother.

People with cancer don’t always look like people with cancer. Marian Caldwell is a perfect example: She’s lovely. The 42-year-old wife and mother of two San Marin High daughters welcomed me into her spacious Vineyard-area home for a chat about gratitude this Thanksgiving week.

“We’ve hosted Thanksgiving at our house for the last 15 years,” Marian tells me. “My youngest (sophomore Marisa) loves to make pumpkin pie with a homemade crust. I love to make turkey soup the next day.”

Last Thanksgiving, just months into her cancer diagnosis, Marian was in the midst of chemotherapy and it seemed like the holiday dinner would need to be held elsewhere. “We still had it at our house because, for my kids, it needed to be here," she says. "I had to call each and every one in my family to explain that it needed to be here.”

Marian found a lump in her breast in August 2010, and sonograms and biopsies confirmed the diagnosis. What goes through your mind when you receive that news?

“I was thinking ‘What a bummer,’” Marian recalls. “You immediately think of your family. I have a loving husband (John) and he was right there with me. I have two teenaged daughters and my concern was with how they’re going to deal with it.”

Over the past 15 months of diagnosis and treatment, Marian has learned that being open and available to talk about it with Megan and Marisa is the only way to go.

“At first I wanted to say as little as possible about it, but I learned very quickly that that was not the right thing to do," she says. "... Whenever they have a question, we talk about it. They’re overprotective sometimes but understandably so. I think it was a lot harder for them at first. Not knowing if the treatment is going to work is hard on them. Once we got good results, things got better for them." 

Marian recently completed two surgeries and 10 months of extended chemotherapy while participating in a clinical trial at the Marin Cancer Institute at Marin General Hospital.

“If you fulfill the requirements you are invited to join the clinical trial,” Marian says. “It’s the cutting edge of treatment, so it will hopefully help me and other patients and I was very responsive to it. ... I tolerated chemo really well and still had a good appetite. I’m the only one I know of who gained five pounds during chemo," she says with a smile.

Is it hard to feel grateful through all the PET scans, the bone density tests, the blood work, the weekly chemo treatments and the mental and emotional stresses?

“God has been present throughout the whole thing and is taking care of me and my whole family,” Marian says with conviction. “The cancer is part of life but it’s not from God, and you just deal with it. ... My prayer of gratitude is that I have my family and the support of the community. I know you can’t do this without the support of your friends and family. I know people are praying for me and I see the signs through my friends and family and my church family. God is working through them.”

Tears stand silently in the corner of her eyes — and mine, too.

Marian has been a member of for many years and it’s the place where she met John as a teenager. Married for 21 years now, she says John has every faith that she’s going to beat it. Admitting that fighting cancer can cast “a shadow” over their date nights, she say firmly, “We try not to dwell on it and I’ve made a commitment to myself not to let it slow me down. ... Even in the days of chemo, I would get out of bed no matter what and put my make-up on and try to look my best so I could feel my best.”

For the moment, Marian has completed her chemotherapy treatment and the neuropathy in her hands and feet that wouldn’t allow her to stand for more than 10-15 minutes has gone away as mysteriously as it came on. “It went away after four weeks after they (her doctors) told me it would take a year,” she says.

“Trusting God is all I have," she adds. "I remember when Elizabeth Edwards passed away and, of course, it hits you. Or Steve Jobs. You can’t dwell on the ‘what ifs’ in life. I do every once in a while, and it’s just not the right path.”

Susanna Boeck November 25, 2011 at 07:29 PM
John, Marian, Megan and Marissa - We're thankful for you all!
Beth Huizenga November 27, 2011 at 03:13 AM
Oops Dept. Alert: I thought crocodile tears meant "large" tears, but some kind readers have pointed out that it means insincere tears, so may I beg your pardon for using it in this story? It's not a phrase I was really very familiar with or heard much before, so an innocent but lousy mistake to make. Apologies!
Brent Ainsworth November 28, 2011 at 05:01 AM
Fixed that reference. Apologies for not catching that, Beth! My fault.
Beth Caldwell November 28, 2011 at 07:08 PM
This is a beautiful tribute to Marian's faith and that of her family. We are thankful for her attitude and strength and proud that she is our daughter-in-law. Beth and David Caldwell
Margaret Stafford November 28, 2011 at 07:26 PM
John, Marian, Megan and Marissa are such a beautiful family. Marian's strength is amazing and inspiring. We wish them the very best and will keep them in our prayers. Margaret & Bill Stafford


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