Marion Maher is a clinical nurse in our Women’s Center on the Duarte campus, taking care of patients every day. But in 2016, she became one of those patients after being initially diagnosed with different types of breast cancer: lobular and ductal that were ER-positive, PR-negative and HER2 positive, which is extremely rare. At the time of her own diagnosis, Maher also had a family member in Ohio who had just been diagnosed herself.
“That was a rough year, because I was already thinking about her, and was going to be there for her, but then I found out I had breast cancer,” Maher said. “Hers was triple-positive, but I had two kinds.” For both her and her family member, Maher turned to her friend and respected colleague James Waisman, M.D.
“Dr. Waisman provided a second opinion for my relative and put her more at ease when he said she was on the right track for her type of breast cancer with the treatment she was receiving in Ohio,” Maher said. “I remember seeing her MRI scans and they were clear as the night sky, easy to read, very easy to detect where exactly to treat the malignancy. Not the case with me.”
When Maher had an MRI, she presented with a lot of breast cysts, which meant that a biopsy was necessary, but also challenging because of the density of the scans.
“Honestly, my scans were a muddy mess,” Maher said. “You couldn’t tell what you were looking at. Not an easy read.” An MRI-guided biopsy was ordered. The breast cancer type was confirmed and, after a genetic consultation and testing, Maher was also confirmed as having the CHEK2 gene mutation. The CHEK2 gene normally helps prevent cancers, but when mutated, the gene stops working like it should, causing an increased risk for certain types of cancers, breast cancer being among them.
Maher began chemotherapy herself in October 2016, completing the course in December of that year, followed by nine months of the cancer drug Herceptin, a “smart” cancer medication that was developed as a result of technology developed at City of Hope in the 1980s.
"My Family of Providers"
Because of her insurance, she received her treatment at a different hospital than City of Hope, but she relied heavily on the advice, recommendations and support of her colleagues and breast cancer specialists at City of Hope, including Waisman and gynecologic oncologist Than H. Dellinger, M.D.
After her chemotherapy through her network provider, Maher opted for a one-step surgical procedure, a double mastectomy followed by plastic surgery reconstruction. She also took advantage of the supportive care services offered to our patients through the Sheri & Les Biller Patient and Family Resource Center and our Positive Image Center, where she selected a wig to wear during her chemotherapy regimen. She said she is grateful for having what she calls her “family of providers.”
Telling Her Story to Her Patients
Maher said she was shy about telling too many people when she was going through her disease, but having come through it, she will now often share her story with patients in her own care, letting them know she has been right where they are.
“I do like to feel the situation out before I open up,” she said. “I can tell if sharing my own story would be beneficial to them. I can help them understand their options and make informed decisions about the steps they wish to take. There’s a tendency to want to have removal surgery right away, a decision made out of fear, before knowing and weighing all the options that may be available to them and taking into account everything that goes with major surgery.”
Today, Maher herself is doing well, though she said she doesn’t like to use the words “cancer free.”
“I feel like I can’t quite close the door just yet,” she said. “I’m still on hormonal therapy and will be for a few more years.”
One Team, One Dream
Still, she is healthy and so grateful for the support she received from her friends and colleagues. Though she has participated in Walk for Hope in the past, it was a co-worker in the Women’s Center who suggested she formally take on the role of Employee Ambassador for this year’s walk.
"I thought if my story could somehow inspire others to give then I don't want to be silent. I want to help, and I know others would want to help too."
She is also part of the Women’s Center’s “One Team, One Dream” home team, which raised money for the Walk held on November 6.
“I am a person of faith, and I know it was my faith that put me in a position where I can help others on their own cancer journey, as a nurse and as a patient,” she said. “I am so happy to be at City of Hope. It is the best place I have ever worked and where I am meant to be.”
You can find more information on the 2023 Walk for Hope and still donate here.