October 11, 2019
Marquina Iliev-Piselli

Finding Support in Survivors’ Stories

The doctor finally called late on a Friday night.

“I hate having calls like this,” he said. “It’s malignant.”

Malignant, I thought, my brain trying and failing to grasp the enormity of the word.

So began my journey with stage two breast cancer. At night I’d lie awake, staring at the ceiling and massaging the small lump threatening to end my life. I wondered what part of my body it was trying to colonize next—my stomach? My ribcage? My jaw?

Then one morning I was sitting in a chair, and a nurse was prepping me for the day’s chemo treatment. This always began with her stabbing a needle into my chest.

Today, however, she offered me a book. “Something to pass the time,” she said.

Beauty Pearls for Chemo Girls, the cover read. I opened it up to find tips for choosing a wig, applying makeup—you know, making myself beautiful by hiding my condition beneath fake hair and Sephora products.

This is what they gave me? It all seemed so… superficial, both literally and figuratively. I wanted guidance and support. I needed to learn how to face cancer head-on and retain my sanity. I didn’t know if I’d make it out of this thing alive, and the best they could do was teach me how to draw my fucking eyebrows back on?

“I’m going to keep this,” I told the nurse. “Because I can do so, so much better.”

So, I searched for a book idea by seeking out survivors and interviewing them—and time and again, the conversations left me feeling inspired. I found women who shared my experiences, who endured horrific trials and still rediscovered purpose and joy. Maybe, I realized, my life with cancer was not chaotic or directionless, but part of a narrative that many others had successfully lived through. Seeing myself in these women made me feel safer, tougher even—and maybe others would feel the same way.

That’s how Tough: Women Who Survived Cancer was born. It’s a collection of essays written by dozens of these incredible women, in which they describe the precious highs, the brutal lows, and the lessons they learned from their journeys through and past cancer.

One of my favorite contributions to the book came from Ardith Tom, a Navajo woman from New Mexico, who was diagnosed with endometrial cancer at age 25. After beating the cancer to a pulp, she now aims to establish an organization to provide resources and hope for Navajo cancer patients. “If one day I wanna feel like crap, guess what? I’m gonna feel like crap,” she writes. “But the next day I will get up, and I will move forward.”

Cancer totally sucks—there’s no doubt about it. But it sucks less when you surround yourself with people who understand what you’re going through, who can give you the guidance that they never had themselves.

Maybe Tough can be part of that support system for cancer patients. And maybe, while a young woman waits for her chemotherapy to begin, Tough can be not just a way to pass the time, but preparation for a roaring comeback into a healthy and joyful life.

Marquina Iliev-Piselli is a Digital Marketer and the Founder of AuthorpreneurLaunch.com, which aims to help authors feel empowered, not overwhelmed, by marketing. Originally from Ann Arbor, Michigan, she has a Masters from Columbia University in Instructional Technology & Media. After a breast cancer diagnosis in 2015, she created the Glam Chemo Project and the Women's Empowerment Project at Weill Cornell. She is also the editor of the bestselling essay collection TOUGH: Women Who Survived Cancer, and the founder of the Share Triumph Virtual Conference, which brings survivors' stories to life and highlights the small steps that bring us back to joy.

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