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Massey cancer survivor shares the “one little thing” that saved her life

Sep 28, 2021

Sue Marshall speaking on stage Sue Marshall shared her story at the annual Our Laughter in the Rain event on September 19, 2021

Sue Marshall stood with confidence on the stage and spoke from the heart. She is a cancer survivor and always wears her battle wounds with pride.

Marshall, who was diagnosed with lymphoma in May 2020 during the height of the novel coronavirus pandemic, shared her story at Our Laughter in the Rain (OLITR). The annual event, held this year on September 19, served as an evening to uplift women affected by cancer. In addition to fashion shows, musical performances and resources, OLITR gave participants an opportunity to connect with others who have also been in the cancer trenches.

“Chemo was awful. I could not eat,” Marshall recounted to the audience. “[My clinical care team at Massey] said, ‘If you don’t eat, you’re going to die.’”

After months of isolation battling cancer during the earliest days of the COVID quarantine, Marshall said her mental health had taken a toll. She lost her will to live, and her increasing eating challenges exacerbated her low spirits.

Marshall had developed a common side effect of treatment called mucositis, according to Victor Yazbeck, M.D., co-leader of the Hematological Malignancies and Plasma Cell Neoplasm Disease Working Group at VCU Massey Cancer Center.

Marshall’s mucositis caused painful mouth sores that made it difficult for her to swallow. As it progressed, Marshall ended up in the hospital at VCU Health in August 2020. It is there where she met a food service worker who gave her the boost she desperately needed.

“Every day he brought in three trays, and every day he took out three trays,” Marshall remembered their initial interactions. “I don’t know why, but for some reason he liked me. He spent his breaks with me or stopped by after work to chat.”

Sue Marshall Isolation coupled with eating challenges wore on Sue Marshall’s spirit as she battled cancer during the earliest days of COVID

The visits were a lifeline for Marshall, who was dealing with her grim prognosis alone in the hospital due to COVID visitation restrictions.

“Unfortunately, COVID-19 has created extreme barriers for the fragile cancer patients with an already compromised immune system,” noted Yazbeck. “Social distancing, institutional policies limiting visitors to the inpatient and outpatient clinics often translated into patient loneliness which does not help the patient’s effort in focusing on reaching a bright future at a time when they feel disconnected and having to face alone the rough present.”

After learning Marshall had a consultation with hospice, the young man gave her a level of strength she had not experienced in months.

“He had a styrofoam cup and chatted with me a little bit, but I couldn’t talk. My mouth was so filled up with ulcers,” Marshall described. “He said, ‘I had the chef do something special for you.’”

At his encouragement, Marshall put a spoon of pureed sweet potato in her mouth. It was the first food she had eaten in weeks, but his kindness was the true nourishment.

“More amazingly, a thought went like this,” Marshall exclaimed, snapping her fingers. “I’m going to fight this. I’m going to fight this. And I started eating, all because of this lovely food service man. He was so special to me.”

The young man continued to check in on Marshall frequently until she was well enough to be discharged after a three-week hospital stay.

“Social support such as being surrounded by family and friends is a critical pillar in cancer patient care. Support from loved ones can often improve a patient’s adherence to treatment, coping with treatment side effects and chances of seeing the glass half full,” said Yazbeck.

Marshall knew physicians, nurses and other clinicians often hear how they have saved a life, so she wanted to acknowledge publicly the extraordinary care she also received from the young man who went above and beyond the responsibilities of his job.

“Sue’s story reminded me that each one of us is given opportunities every day to touch someone’s life in a positive way,” said Cheryl Tankersley, the founder of OLITR. “That power lies within each of us. It can be something as simple as a smile or a kind gesture. For Sue, it happened to be a cafeteria worker.”

Tankersley invited Marshall to speak to other women impacted by cancer at OLITR, knowing the pay it forward approach is often infectious.

From the OLITR stage, Marshall encouraged family members, caregivers and friends of cancer patients to consider simple acts of humanity that will likely have the greatest impact.

“That young man saved my life,” Marshall stated. “Sometimes it’s just one thing, just one little thing that can make all the difference in the world.”

Written by: Amy Lacey

(Editor’s note: The VCU Health food service worker declined a request for an interview for this article.)

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