Even through the wig phase, the bald phase and the current short-hair phase, there are still people who didn’t know Marilyn Balcombe had breast cancer and survived.
“It doesn't define me,” said Balcombe. “It's nice that people don't know. Often the focus is on the cancer and I'm much more than that.”
As the president and CEO of the Gaithersburg-Germantown Chamber of Commerce, chair of the Corridor Cities Transitway Coalition and a member of the Germantown Alliance, Balcombe is a highly visible community leader.
So when she was diagnosed with breast cancer in January 2010, she did so under the gaze of the public’s eye — maintaining a blog at HealthyWomen.org throughout her treatment, taking readers through the ups and downs of treatment with hopes of educating people on the depth of the cancer’s reach.
“We're talking one in eight women,” Balcombe said, providing a starker example of what that one in eight looks like. Picture the attendees at a PTA meeting. If there are 24 women in the room, Balcombe said, three of those women have had or will have cancer in their lifetimes.
But despite its prevalence and the amount of attention given to breast cancer, Balcombe said, her diagnosis came as a shock, which is where we’ll pick up from our conversation with Balcombe, nearly two years after her diagnosis:
Balcombe: I didn't know anything about it. I've had mammograms every year. I started getting them when I was 40.
Patch: You were doing what you knew to do.
Balcombe: I knew that I was supposed to do mammograms every year. I knew breast cancer's a terrible thing. I know there's a pink ribbon campaign and I know the pink ribbon means we all want to end breast cancer. But I just didn't understand the magnitude and the impact. So I was really shocked when I was diagnosed. It was routine mammogram. There was nothing on film the year before. Within a year, I was at stage two. It was my 12th mammogram.
I'm aware and I'm educated and I didn't know anything about it (cancer). So, I felt like it was important to tell my story. I have a very visible job. I felt like it was important for people to know that I had cancer. I think a lot of people make a lot of assumptions about cancer — I know I did. Not everybody who gets cancer dies. Not everybody who gets cancer survives. And it's not like a broke leg. That once you get over it, you're done. It's a life long thing. You're not cured.
I asked my doctor if I'm remission and she said there's no such thing as remission, there's no such thing as a cure. Cancer is either present or it's not. So right now, based on all the studies done to my body, cancer currently is not present. But that doesn't mean I don't have cells. It doesn't mean that it's never going to come back. I think it's important to be out there the same way as people who suffer with mental illness or people who suffer with other types of issues — physical and emotional that might be debilitating.
In this day and age, I still have people who call it the "C word."
Patch: The “C word”?
Balcombe: Yeah. Or, back in the old days, people would whisper, "Cancer, she has cancer." I had friends of mine who couldn't say it.
Patch: Why do you think the fear is there?
Balcombe: I think people are in the olden days — people with cancer died. And so people think if you have cancer you're going to die, or that it's “catchy,” or if you get operated on, if it's cancer, it's going to explode. There are so many myths. People are afraid. Some people don't know how to act around it. I had people pick up the phone and call and say, gosh I heard I'm so sorry, which was so refreshing. … People don't know what to do so they don't do anything, so they're embarrassed to see you. I don't know what it is. People are afraid of it.
Patch: What was your reception, once your blog was out there.
Balcombe: I got really great feedback. It was real boost for people to say you’re doing great. It helps. The whole treatment is a very cyclical thing, so my blogs were also cyclical. I could always tell I was feeling better when I thought I should write a post.
And as I said, I'm in a very public position; I'm out there in the community a lot. I started going without my wig last summer. I just took the wig off, so it was really apparent that I was ill. The bald head really gave me a lot of strength. It's resonated with people. It gave me courage.
Patch: If you were not in such a public role, would you not have done the same thing, blogging or otherwise?
Balcombe: I don't know. I think I probably would have. The blog evolved kind of naturally. The only difference is that it would have been a lot smaller (less visible) because people now will say they read my blog because they'll Google me for some other reason. If I weren't a visible person in the community, people wouldn't be Googling me in the first place.
Everybody blogs now. A lot of people go without the wig. It's out there. Nancy Floreen, the county councilwoman, she went through radiation and she took cameras in with her into radiation. I think it's a much, much more out-there thing. People are sharing their stories, through Facebook, and neighbors — my neighbors had been with me through the whole thing. They saw me up and down. They saw me walking through the neighborhood, with my husband on one arm and my daughter on the other, going very slowly through the neighborhood. So they were part of it. Having a team with you is really important.
The first time I went to a public event without my wig, was at the ground breaking for the National Cancer Institute on Key West Avenue. It was last summer. I was going to this event and I didn't have my wig on. I was going to put it on in the car. It was 98 degrees and the event was outside in the tent. I was getting ready to put my wig on and I was thinking, this is the National Cancer Institute groundbreaking. I just got out of the car and I went to the tent and of course people were shocked to see me without my wig.
Patch: Didn’t people know you had cancer?
Balcombe: Well, a lot of people did but a lot of people didn't. There were probably 200 people at this event. Maybe I knew 80 of them — 30 of them knew I had cancer the other 50 didn't. You know, it was one of those wow. I've had people introduce themselves to me, people I've known for years.
Patch: They didn't recognize you?
Balcombe: No. I've had people say oh, I'm sorry I don't think I know you.
Patch: So looking back now, what advice might you give to someone who were you before the diagnosis — the person who was getting the mammograms, and know what they know regarding cancer?
Balcombe: My advice is just that, mammograms — that's the only advice you can give people. The other thing is an annual mammogram. There's been discussion about any other year. That, I don't think, is a good thing. If I had waited another year, it might have been the difference between stage two and stage three or stage three and stage four. So mammograms, mammograms, mammograms. It's the most important thing you can do.
Then if it happens, then there is a world out there of support. You need a mentor to go through it. I needed a team. I needed a big group of people behind me: my family, my friends, my neighbors, my book club, my staff, my board. You need a lot of people to do it.