It was spring 2008, a few months after Colchester resident Denise Marcelino received her Valentine’s Day breast cancer diagnosis.
Together with her husband and her grandson Matthew of Milton, Marcelino journeyed to the St. Albans Maple Festival in what had become a family tradition. New that year was Marcelino’s hairstyle. She’d chopped her usually long locks, anticipating the massive fallout sure to follow her chemotherapy treatments.
Matthew, then just 4 years old, reached up to Marcelino and uttered a phrase that immediately brought tears to her eyes: “Grandma, I love your hair today.”
Marcelino felt it begin to fly out in sections during the parade later that day and resolved to have it all shaved off the following Monday.
Far more challenging than losing her hair, though, was the lymphedema she suffered after 23 of her lymph nodes were removed during surgery. The condition still requires the use of a compression sleeve and daily muscle massage, Marcelino said, and resulting neuropathy causes a burning sensation in her hands and feet that’s amplified if she stands for extended periods. All offer constant reminders of the disease she battled.
“This isn’t something that they tell you when you go to have your surgery,” Marcelino said in her Poor Farm Rd. home earlier this week. “There’s a lot they don’t tell you.”
Certainly, none of the effects were what Marcelino pictured when she had an annual physical in January 2008 and underwent a standard and uneventful breast exam. Vigilant about routine screenings even then, she had a mammogram the following month.
Doctors immediately called her back in after that appointment and began biopsies the next day. Before she went home, Marcelino asked the technician if she thought it could be cancer. The affirmative answer, later confirmed by the oncologist, rocked her.
Surprising, too, was the fact that Marcelino had performed self-exams almost monthly and hadn’t noticed any unusual lumps in her breasts. The experience has made her a staunch advocate for mammograms and ultrasounds.
“Women say it’s such an inconvenience. So is breast cancer,” Marcelino said. “A real inconvenience.”
At first, she figured she’d be back at work a week or two after surgery. But a stint in the intensive care unit, four rounds of chemotherapy every three weeks, 37 rounds of radiation and months of physical therapy soon proved that goal vastly unrealistic.
She eventually started working again part-time at a local bank but found herself searching for another job once that position was cut.
“After you finish all of your treatments, the chemotherapy and the radiation, you’ve had an agenda, you’ve had a routine going on,” Marcelino said. “It’s horrible the tricks your brain can play on you when you’re all alone.”
Desperate for activity, Marcelino accepted a full-time job despite warnings from many in her life that the schedule might exhaust her and impact her ability to receive disability coverage in the future.
“I went for it anyway and fell flat on my face,” Marcelino said. “[I] had to ask for less hours.”
She’s since retired and found a new way to pass the time: serving on the committee of the American Cancer Society’s Making Strides Against Breast Cancer annual walk. The 2017 event took place earlier this month.
The walk helps Marcelino cope with her own diagnosis, she said, especially with the knowledge that her fundraising can have a direct impact on life-saving research around the world.
In 2012, the Sun’s sister paper, The Milton Independent, featured Matthew after he was named Chittenden County’s youngest Pacesetter, a person who raises at least $2,000 for the Making Strides walk. Marcelino and her daughter also earned the honor, making their family three generations strong.
Just this year, Marcelino said Matthew found a lump in his chest. He was cleared after an ultrasound, but the episode was eye-opening for the Marcelino.
She’s unsure whether she carries a hereditary gene that increases breast cancer risk – because she lacks a strong familial history of the disease, her insurance plan won’t cover genetic testing. Still, her daughter and grandson are now hyper-vigilant when it comes to monitoring their own health.
Matthew, now 13, joined the Making Strides group “Real Men Wear Pink” for the first time this year, Marcelino said.
Through the ACS and online chat rooms, Marcelino has also met many friends afflicted by the disease who have later died. That reality is emotionally draining to face head on year after year, she said.
That, combined with her husband’s impending retirement and their plans to travel the country together, means this will probably be Marcelino’s last year serving on the committee.
She said she would always fundraise, though, and more than likely attend a future Making Strides walks – as a participant, not an organizer.
Plus, she’s become a strong proponent for early detection practices among both women and men, knowing she’d probably be dead if it wasn’t for her routine mammograms.
“Now, I kind of look at it as a blessing in disguise,” she said.
Editor’s note: This story is part of the Sun’s annual Breast Cancer Awareness section.