The Meaning of Care Magazine
Laughter Is Cancer Survivor’s Not-so-Secret WeaponPublished: Dec. 20, 2023
Spend a little time with Marlene Turner, and you can’t help but laugh.
Whether she’s sharing stories from her 31 years in nursing or poking fun at herself, Marlene radiates unforgettable energy and positivity – even in the face of a cancer recurrence.
“Look at this,” she says, as she plays a video on her phone. The 71-year-old is at the top of a fun house slide, ready to head down with her grandkids. But before she can, she slips and falls on her backside.
“I’ve got to grow up one of these days,” she says with a chuckle.
A few minutes later, Marlene takes her “Cancer Card” from her purse. “This card may be used to get you out of anything,” the Monopoly-style card reads.
“I’ve used it a few times,” she said matter-of-factly, adding that she should have pulled it out to avoid her speech at this year’s Jennie Edmundson Foundation Spirit of Courage gala.
Instead, she took the stage and left the crowd in stitches.
“I have always faced life with humor and laughter,” she said during the fundraiser that honors cancer survivors like herself. “I have laughed at myself, and I’ve laughed at all of you.”
Marlene has had a harder road than she lets on. There were times she considered giving up her fight, and she knows the toll that her battle has taken on her husband of 50 years, Larry, and their family.
But through it all, her sense of humor has been one of her best weapons.
Never Giving Up
For the Turners, Marlene’s cancer diagnosis in 2021 was the latest in a string of blows that began with the historic 2019 floods that ravaged their hometown of Pacific Junction, Iowa.
“We went through a lot of crap in those three years, and we had to lean on each other,” said Marlene, a former oncology floor nurse who was working as the house supervisor at Methodist Jennie Edmundson Hospital at the time. “First, losing your home and all of your stuff – having to start over. Then COVID hit, and there I was as a nurse working with it. I said, ‘God, I can’t wait to see what you have in store for me next year.’ Well, don’t smart off to him.”
In July 2021, after experiencing chest pain, Marlene went to the emergency room – choosing Methodist Hospital because she didn’t want her coworkers to know she might be having a heart attack.
Testing determined her heart was fine, but X-rays showed a suspicious growth, or nodule, in her left lung. A follow-up CT scan was sent to Methodist pulmonologist Sumit Mukherjee, MD. A subsequent PET scan heightened his suspicions of cancer, and in early September, Marlene became the second person at Jennie Edmundson to undergo a robotic-assisted lung biopsy via the Ion by Intuitive system.
The biopsy confirmed that Marlene had small cell carcinoma, an aggressive cancer that can spread quickly to other parts of the body. In early October, Methodist cardiothoracic surgeon HelenMari Merritt, DO, used robotic surgery to remove three-fourths of Marlene’s left lung and several lymph nodes at Methodist Hospital. Chemotherapy followed at Methodist Estabrook Cancer Center with Irina Popa, MD, of Oncology Associates that fall. The following spring brought a combination of chemo with Dr. Popa and radiation therapy with Methodist radiation oncologist Max Chiu, MD, at Jennie Edmundson.
The radiation proved so taxing that for the first time, serious doubts began to creep into Marlene’s mind. If the cancer didn’t respond, she might stop fighting.
“It’s really taking everything out of me,” she said at the time. “My husband and daughter are just beside themselves that I won’t treat it anymore, but the way my body feels right now, it says, ‘No. Stop everything.’”
By April, however, the treatments had done their job. Marlene’s cancer was in remission, and she could get back to living her life – working at Jennie Edmundson, traveling with Larry and spending time with her family.
“We started traveling and having a lot of fun,” she said. “I thought, ‘You know what? I’m really enjoying my life.’”
So much so that she retired in December 2022, ready to embrace her new identity as a cancer survivor.
“It means everything,” she said.
"Don’t Go Alone"
In Marlene’s Spirit of Courage speech, woven into the one-liners and stories was an important message for others who may someday face cancer.
“Don’t go alone.”
Throughout Marlene’s journey, Larry was her constant companion and pillar of support.
“He did the laundry. He did the cooking. He did the cleaning,” she said. “He went to every single treatment with me. Every doctor’s appointment.”
“That’s what I should do,” he replied. “I’m her husband, and I’m there for her. I’ll help her out any way I can. I’m thankful to do it.”
And when Marlene’s cancer returned in August – two spots on her liver found during routine surveillance with Dr. Popa – it perhaps hit Larry harder than his wife.
“Here we go again,” he said. “It hurts, but I’ve got to try to hold up my end to support her. I’ll fight right along with her until we can’t fight it anymore.”
A Promise to Fight
Larry’s comments underline the reality of Marlene’s situation.
“Small cell is relentless,” said NatalieJean Ahrens, RN, Marlene’s nurse navigator at Jennie Edmundson. “It’s a rough disease that often comes back, and it often isn’t responsive the second time around.”
The recurrence was heartbreaking for Ahrens, who grew attached to Marlene while helping her navigate her first two rounds of treatment. When Ahrens learned the cancer had spread, she immediately picked up the phone.
“Marlene told me, ‘There’s no more tears about this. If you called me for that, that’s not what we’re doing. We’re moving forward.’”
She began another round of chemo in September and finished in early November. A CT scan around the same time showed that her two liver tumors were shrinking, and she was set to begin immunotherapy in December.
She has resolved to keep fighting, even though she knows her future is uncertain. The good news from November could be followed by a setback down the road.
“I’m OK with it,” she said before looking at Larry.
“Sorry. He’s not. I always wanted to live long enough to see my granddaughters get married. But if I have no choice …” she said, trailing off.
“But I promised him I’d fight. And I’ll fight.”
She knows he’ll be with her every step of the way, and so will her Methodist care team.
“I’ve worked with those patients, and now I am one of those patients,” she said. “I’ve had the best care that you could ask for. If you want to fight, you have a good team behind you fighting for you.”