Marilyn Fowler: A survivor with a song in her heart

It was Thanksgiving morning in 2013 when Marilyn Fowler found a lump in her breast.

“I don’t know why I decided to do a breast exam that morning, but I did,” she said.

The following Monday, Marilyn went into work at the Detroit Medical Center’s (DMC) Harper University Hospital, where she served as a patient care associate for more than 40 years. She shared her finding with her team leader, who immediately referred her to Karmanos Cancer Center. Marilyn scheduled an appointment and was able to arrange for all necessary testing to be completed in just one day. By the end of it, her fear was confirmed; she was diagnosed with stage three breast cancer.

“When it comes to breast health, the self-exam is extremely important. Women need to know what’s there so they can notice changes. For women, we notice when we have a beauty mark or freckle or scar on our bodies. The breast should be no different,” said Pamela Johnson, M.D., surgical oncologist and member of the Breast Cancer Multidisciplinary Team at Karmanos Cancer Institute.

Thanks to her self-exam, Marilyn was able to begin treatment but she knew that a tough battle was ahead of her. Luckily, she was prepared for the fight.

“When my surgeon told me I had cancer, I was overwhelmed but I said ‘what’s the plan?’ Let’s keep it moving. I knew I couldn’t get stuck in self-pity.”

Dr. Johnson took the same approach.

“It’s my job to the voice that says ‘we can take care of this’ because we really can. I usually like to spend around an hour and a half with patients during their first visit so we can look at both the long and short term plans. When we can figure out what the whole year might look like, it’s empowering. Most people feel better looking at things when there’s a plan in place,” she said.

Because Marilyn worked at Harper University Hospital, which is adjacent to Karmanos, she knew many of her providers and confidently began treatment with Dr. Johnson.

“I really liked her personality. She took time to explain everything in detail and she expressed genuine concern for what I was going through. She even gave me her home phone number! I would never use it but it showed that she was there to help, that she would do everything she could,” Marilyn said of Johnson. “I could not have asked for a better team.”

Marilyn’s support system expanded well beyond her clinical providers at Karmanos. Her family provided a great deal of care and inspiration during her fight.

“My mom saw me with no hair and she just rubbed my head and told me everything would be alright,” Marilyn said, adding that her mom was a fighter and encourager.

“Cancer hasn’t halted me in any way,” said Marilyn. “You have to look at the positive side and know things happen for a reason.”

Perhaps one blessing in disguise was Marilyn’s ability to spend time with her mother during the last years of her life. Marilyn’s cancer diagnosis and treatment led her to retire early. At first, this frustrated her but she now sees it as a gift. Because she was no longer working, Marilyn was able to provide dedicated care to her mother, who suffered from Alzheimer’s disease.

“Most of the women we see who get breast cancer are generous of heart and are surprised when people step in to take care of them. All the things that these women have been doing for others, they don’t expect it for themselves. They’re used to being the one that everyone leans on but when a cancer diagnosis occurs, the energy arrows have to change direction; they all have to point to the patient,” said Dr. Johnson.

This support was in place for Marilyn throughout her journey. During chemotherapy, she stayed with her younger sister and niece, who had just given birth to a son. Marilyn recalls her sister encouraging her to stay strong so she could support her nephew as he grew up. Now seven, her nephew continues to inspire her. After a visit for his birthday, he reported that seeing his aunt and grandfather was the highlight of his day.

Marilyn has brought inspiration to many, not just through her cancer journey but through her true passion: music. She has been singing in a group with her sisters since a young age and is a member of her church choir. Her father, who is now 98, often accompanies his daughters on the piano or organ.

With a life full of family, creative expression and faith in God, Marilyn sees her experience with cancer as a bump in the road, rather than the full journey.

“I never thought my breasts defined me as a person. During treatment, I was thinking about living, not the way I looked. I have the most beautiful scar in the world,” she said.

With a kind outlook and musical talent, Marilyn Fowler embodies the true spirit of a cancer survivor. Karmanos Cancer Institute is pleased to honor her and many others who have walked a similar path during Breast Cancer Awareness Month and all year round.