A world-class oncologist wasn’t prepared for hearing the news that his own wife was diagnosed with the life-threatening disease. Now, 15 years after treatment and cancer free, they wrote a book about their journey.
Dr. John Marshall is a top doctor at MedStar Georgetown University Hospital. His wife, Liza Marshall, is a lawyer and active in her community. Together, their world stopped the day she was diagnosed with triple-negative breast cancer.
“Before Liza's, our, experience with cancer, I really thought I was a great doctor. I thought I knew everything,” John said. “But then going through this, having converted now to a caregiver, to a consumer, I realized there was so much I didn't get.”
John’s specialty is gastrointestinal cancer. He has long resented the attention and research money directed at breast cancer at the expense of other cancer research.
After the diagnosis, John had to face the fact that without that research, his wife could have died.
“Coming to terms with my diagnosis and the fact that the research funding that had been accumulated and used by breast cancer researchers really probably did lead to my cure,” Liza said.
She was 43 years old when she was diagnosed in 2006. At the time, her survival chance was just 50%.
Their book, “Off Our Chests,” is written by both in alternating chapters, describing their experience in very intimate detail: through chemotherapy, radiation and mastectomy.
They had two school-age children at the time. Everyone in the family had a different perspective.
“I was very lucky in that I had an oncologist around all the time, but I also knew that he knew a lot of things that I didn't want to know,” Liza said.
John held back, not wanting to scare her about the possible outcomes and risks.
Liza wanted to stay positive, inviting the family to join her as she selected a wig after chemotherapy. She and the kids had fun with it; John found it painful to watch.
Their chapters about the shared experience capture the conflicts many feel about cancer treatment.
“Honestly, in some ways, writing this was our first chance to tell each other some of the things that we felt,” John said.
They hope people will read their book to help cope with their own experience with cancer and learn how to be better caregivers for patients and loved ones who are fighting the disease.
“Cancer is a team sport, medically. We recognize that you need surgeons, oncologists, radiation oncologists, social workers and nurses and all that. But that’s to take care of your body,” John said. “What we don’t really spend very much time on down there at the hospital is your heart and your soul.”