On MAY 26, 2017 we lost Marlyn. We honor his memory every day.
As told by his wife, Patricia Washburn
Our story starts in 1994. I had been attending a support group for those divorced, widowed and separated for a couple years. One night a friend of mine introduced me to another friend of his, a fellow educator, Marlyn Washburn. As it turned out, Marlyn had begun his career in education by student teaching in my high school in Battle Creek, Nebraska. I did not remember him, but he was in my high school yearbook.
After a wild and crazy romance, we married on September 10, 1994. This man was everything to me. He treated me like a queen. I could do no wrong in his eyes. He treated me the way every woman wants to be treated. He opened doors for me, he walked on the street side of the sidewalk, he followed me up steps, and he led the way down steps. Soon we were finishing each other’s sentences. We had many private jokes that weren’t “bad”, but funny as all get out, and maybe a little bit un-politically correct.
We started our married life in Neligh, Nebraska, as he was the High School Principal there. Prior to that time, he had taught secondary math in Bushnell, O’Neill, and Seward, Nebraska. While in Seward, he got his Master’s Degree in Secondary Administration at UNL in Lincoln. He then took a job as High School Principal in Osmond, Nebraska. That’s when I met him. He was divorced and had five children. I was also divorced and had one daughter and two step-sons.
After marrying and living in Neligh for one year, we moved to Exira, Iowa. Marlyn was the High School Principal and Athletic Director there. In 2000 we moved up to Lawton, Iowa, where he was the High School Principal and I became the City Clerk of our little city of 700. In 2005, Marlyn decided he needed to finish his education career in Nebraska due to his retirement nearing. Thus began a five-hour commute between homes which continued for nine years!
Marlyn moved to the little community of Red Cloud, Nebraska. He loved the students and wanted to get back into the classroom. He was hired there originally to be the secondary math teacher. After a few years, he was asked to take on the high school Principal’s job half time, which he did. He finished his career in education by being the full-time High School Principal in Red Cloud in May of 2014.
In the meantime, I stayed in our home in Lawton which allowed his youngest son to finish and graduate from High School at Lawton-Bronson. I retired from my job in the fall of 2014. We had found a home we fell in love with in Omaha and had purchased it in 2013. This was to be our retirement home and we planned to do much traveling after retirement. Unfortunately, that dream was cut short.
Marlyn was an avid golfer. He had his right hip replaced several years ago that slowed his golf game down for a few weeks, but he bounced back quickly. In January of 2016, he had his left knee replaced. His knee was full of infection and he had to have it opened up and cleaned out two weeks after the initial surgery. Just one week after the first clean-out, he had to be opened up again because of infection. Having three surgeries in such a short amount of time was bound to slow him down on the golf course. But he persevered. By the end of last summer, he was trying to get in 27 holes each weekday morning. He felt some pain in his right arm and shoulder that just seemed to get worse as the summer and fall progressed. Some days he was home after only 9 or 18 holes because of the pain.
On November 28, 2016, he went to see his “new” Primary Care Physician (an older gentleman, but the first time Marlyn had seen him as a patient). After having his blood drawn for his regular diabetic blood tests, he mentioned to the doctor that he was experiencing quite a bit of pain in his right arm and shoulder. He shared with the doctor that we assumed the pain was just a strain from golfing.
The next day we got a phone call from the doctor that his Alkaline Phosphatase was elevated. That, coupled with the pain in his arm and shoulder, was a red flag for our PCP. He said it could potentially mean a problem with either the gallbladder or the liver. An ultrasound was ordered.
Marlyn went in the following morning for the ultrasound. The ultrasound tech had me in the room helping hold Marlyn’s arm in the air as it was so painful for him to hold it in certain positions. Little did I know that the “things” she was measuring on the screen in front of me were not simply different measurements of his liver, but instead she was actually measuring lesions on his liver. This ultrasound led us to his first MRI. The MRI revealed a mass in his left breast just under the nipple.
A bit of history: Marlyn’s oldest daughter was diagnosed with breast cancer in August of 2014. Knowing his father had died many years ago with lung cancer, I commented to Marlyn that he really needed to watch himself since there was cancer in the family. His response to me was, “Well, it’s not like I’m ever going to get breast cancer”. You see, as educated as Marlyn was, he had no idea men could get breast cancer. This was absolutely the furthest thing from his mind. Barbara had a genetic test done at the time she was going through treatments. When her doctor found out that her father had now also been diagnosed with breast cancer, she was told he should also get the genetic testing done to see if there was some correlation. A blood draw was taken the day before Marlyn died. His results have come back as “negative”.
Over the next few days and weeks, we met many doctors including an Oncologist. Marlyn had test after test, scan after scan to include chest x-rays, a PET, CT scan, a mammogram, biopsies of his left breast and liver, a bone survey, and even a brain MRI. The Oncologist performed a manual exam on Marlyn and discovered a 2.5 cm lump below the nipple on his left breast. When asked if he had ever noticed it before, he said he wasn’t sure. He had lipomas in different locations on his body and had always been told not to worry about them. A lipoma is a fatty mass just under the skin and is non-cancerous. Marlyn said if he felt this particular lump, he probably would have assumed it was another lipoma.
The Oncologist asked me if I had noticed any personality change recently. I told her “no”, believing his irritability with me at times was just because we were finally living together again after nine years of living in different states. Retirement had thrown us both into the same house 24 hours a day, and it made sense to me that we needed to get accustomed to each other again.
Around Christmastime, shortly after we celebrated his 66th birthday, we were told we were looking at Stage 4 Metastatic Breast Cancer, for which there was no cure. We had taken two of our children with us to the Oncologist’s appointment as I feared the two of us might miss something that was said. That ended up being a very smart move on our part. One of the kids took notes and another recorded everything being said. I took notes, also, but became numb to what I was hearing. The phrase “no cure” kept pounding in my head.
The Oncologist said she hoped she could give us “five quality years”. Marlyn had been a heavy smoker since his teens. In recent years his smoking was much less, but he still had the habit. He told the Oncologist he had quit two years prior to his diagnosis, which is perhaps why she hoped to give us five years. In actuality, he smoked nearly up until the day of his diagnosis. Nicotine Use is listed on his Death Certificate as a contributing factor to his death.
The bone survey showed considerable cancer in his bones. It was determined that was the cause of his right arm and shoulder pain. He chose to have his right scapula radiated. After five or six radiation treatments on the scapula, his pain disappeared totally. This was such a blessing!!
The brain MRI showed Marlyn had eight tumors in his brain. Some were very minute in size. However, one on his orbital bone was about 2 cm in size and worried the Oncologist that it may affect his vision. A second tumor of measurable size was located on his brain stem. He underwent five radiation treatments to his brain as they targeted seven of the tumors. The eighth tumor, the one on his brain stem, was not targeted at the time. A second MRI was ordered after his third chemo treatment, but Marlyn did not give consent to have it done. He was extremely claustrophobic and requested to be put under sedation. In his current condition, he would likely have been intubated if he went under sedation and it was likely he would then be on a ventilator the rest of his life. He did not want that. Therefore the tumor on his brain stem was never treated.
He had a power port inserted and began taking chemo on January 5th, 2017. He was to have chemo once every three weeks. After only two treatments, his chemo was temporarily stopped due to complications that sent him to the hospital for the second time. That hospital stay was the beginning of a downward spiral for him. He was given a sleeping pill that caused him to hallucinate far into the next day. I had requested that particular med not be given to him as it seemed too strong for him the night before. Unfortunately, the night nurse not only gave him one pill, but two when he wouldn’t settle down for her. He also went into A-Fib and ended up on oxygen while he was there. He was extremely agitated and wanted out of the hospital. He told his Oncologist he would rather die than ever go back to that hospital. As I said, I believe that was the beginning of a downward spiral for him.
Marlyn lived only five months after diagnosis. He died May 26, 2017. During those five months, he was in the hospital four different times. His third trip to the hospital (at a different location) lasted 34 days. I spent 31 nights at the hospital with him so I could tend to him during the night. He developed severe anxiety if I wasn’t close by. When I took him into the hospital this time, he was supposed to be on 2.5L of oxygen. However, we could not keep his oxygen levels over 75 or 80. At the time he finally consented to going to the hospital, his Pulse/Ox was 55. They wanted him to stay between 88-92. His lungs were so badly damaged from years of nicotine abuse, they couldn’t help him to process the oxygen. At one point, he was on so much oxygen while in the hospital, we were told he could only be transported by ambulance if we were to move him anywhere else. We had checked on moving him to a nursing home or a facility until he could get strong enough to come home. That was not to be. Those we investigated refused to take him due to his oxygen needs, his medication needs, and his desire to start back on chemotherapy.
The only medical knowledge I had was as a Certified Nursing Assistant. Thanks to that experience though, I felt confident bringing Marlyn home and tending to him here. We had our ups and downs, but managed to get along fairly well, all things considered.
Our lives revolved around doctor appointments, Home Health Care appointments, oxygen deliveries, setting up meds and taking meds, LOTS of meds! At one time, Marlyn was taking over thirty prescriptions a day. My heart broke for him that he was fighting so hard to win this losing battle.
The one thing that really surprised both of us was the number of family and friends that came to see him saying they had never heard of a man getting breast cancer. These were educated people like Marlyn. People that were worldly and wise. Throughout this process, we discovered there just isn’t very much information out there available to John Q. Public that talks about men possibly getting breast cancer.
I might be wrong, but after giving considerable thought to Marlyn’s last week in the hospital, I am convinced there are many cases of breast cancer in men that are just not diagnosed properly. The only way to determine where a cancer starts is by having a biopsy performed. His last week in the hospital consisted of one CT scan. That scan revealed that his lungs were filled with cancer. The Pulmonologist showed me the scan and stated he feared the cancer had eaten through the wall of the lung, thus causing it to collapse and causing the pain in his chest that brought us to the Emergency Room. I believe, at that point, that without the previous knowledge that he had breast cancer, it would have been very easy to assume he was dealing with a very extensive lung cancer. He died three days later. I am convinced his Death Certificate could have said the primary cause of death was “Lung Cancer”.
A year before Marlyn was even diagnosed, he and I had made our funeral arrangements. We had a lot in a cemetery next to his family, and we had a special headstone made. I needed to have a hip replaced and told him I wanted this much done before my surgery. Things happen during surgery, and I didn’t want him to have to make these decisions under duress. At first, he balked at the idea. He finally did agree and we had the most beautiful commemorative stone made for ourselves. His side depicts a golfer and mine depicts my signature “smiley face” as well as a hummingbird. Our children’s names are all listed on the back. It’s perfect! We both got to see it placed in the cemetery and were very pleased. He even wrote his own obituary. To this day, I still don’t have mine written, but he was very particular about what he wanted his to say.
Without going into a lot of detail, I will say the Visitation and the Memorial Service were the most touching services I have ever attended. His youngest son is a pastor up in Michigan and he officiated at both services. They were so personal, so heartfelt, exactly as Marlyn had envisioned. Stories were shared and there were as many laughs as there were tears. So many wonderful, amazing memories of this man! He only lived for 66 years, but they were full of memorable moments! I feel so blessed to have spent his last 23 years with him!!
Marlyn and I always laughed about the fact I do my best thinking in the shower. If I got stuck on an idea for a quilt, he would ask if I needed a shower. Shortly after he died I was in the shower thinking of all the people that were surprised to find out that he had breast cancer and then actually died from it. I decided to make a banner to carry in the Making Strides Cancer Walk in October in Lincoln. I spoke with my nephew asking for his help in getting one ordered. We went back and forth with ideas. I told him I wanted it to let people know that men can get breast cancer. We finally decided on two different sized banners. Both declared, “Breast Cancer Does not Discriminate…MEN TOO”, and both have a picture of Marlyn holding his Breast Cancer Awareness license plate personalized with “MEN 2”.
One thought led to another and soon I came up with a flyer we could distribute. It carried the same heading telling that breast cancer does not discriminate, and then has a picture of Marlyn and his daughter, Barbara. I felt that was the most appropriate photo since both father and daughter were diagnosed with breast cancer. The inside of the flyer has a little of our personal fight, but mainly discusses what men should watch for. Also, that they need to see a doctor right away if they notice anything strange with their breasts. The back side of the flyer has a picture of Marlyn, Barbara and me on one of the days we were Barbara’s “Chemo Buddies” during her treatment. It also has a brief “Thank you” from me as well as contact information on Facebook and via email. To date, November 2, 2017, I have distributed about 10,000 flyers and have just picked up my most recent order of an additional 5,000 flyers. I have them with me at all times and hand them out every opportunity I got. Recently I was in New York and spoke to three men standing in line waiting to board our aircraft. One day before I even had the flyers printed, I was having my car serviced and had to bring the shuttle home. There were five men and a woman in the shuttle with me. I asked if they were aware men could get breast cancer. One man was particularly interested and asked a lot of questions. He said he had a lump and his wife had been to on him about seeing a doctor. I really encouraged him to listen to his wife. He picked up his cell phone and tried to call the doctor as we sat in the shuttle. The office was still closed, but he said he would try again as soon as they opened. As we dropped him off at his home, he assured me he would try to get in yet that morning. As he was opening his garage door, he was on his cell phone again. I have no idea how that turned out for him, and I hope it was “nothing”, but I am happy he at least knows he needs to be aware of his body. He said he did not know men could get breast cancer.
I also got the idea one day to put a wrap on Marlyn’s 2014 Dodge Dart. Yes, I was in the shower again! I contacted Revolution Wrap here in Omaha and sent them a rough drawing of what I wanted. I decided I wanted a moving billboard telling people about breast cancer in men. It turned out beautifully! I requested ribbons that were pink/blue to represent breast cancer/men. I was told by a well-known cancer society that I should only use pink ribbons because blue meant something different. As I told that person, in my household, pink/blue represents male breast cancer. I have two pink lights and one blue light on the front of my garage that burn 24 hours a day.
Marlyn and I talked and cried about why this was happening to him. I believe everything happens for a reason, and I told him maybe it was to let our kids/grandkids/great grandkids know that this can happen to men, and therefore our kids needed to be extra aware of their bodies. I still believe that, but I also believe God had a purpose for me, too. I truly believe he wanted me to help get the word out about men’s breast cancer. He knew the love Marlyn and I had for each other, and He knew I would do whatever was necessary to spread the word. I do not want Marlyn’s death to have been in vain, and I want his legacy to live on forever. I would love to figure out how to get either his picture or a picture of his car on a billboard exclaiming “Breast Cancer Does not Discriminate…MEN TOO”!!! I probably need a few more “showers” to figure that one out though! J
In February, I started seeing a therapist. Being the primary caregiver for this man whom I loved so dearly, and knew I was going to lose, was more than I could handle on my own. I was very fortunate to connect with a wonderful therapist. She guided me through some extremely low times. She has also been very encouraging with my ideas and plans to help educate the world about men’s breast cancer. I encourage anyone going through a difficult time in their lives to consider finding a therapist to talk to. It’s nothing to be ashamed of. Sometimes we need someone to help us think outside the box.
It is so important to have the support of family and friends when going through a disease such as this. You still have to make up your own mind on decisions, but it helps to have others around that you can at least discuss things with. Shortly before Marlyn died, I had convinced him to talk to a counselor. He originally had told me he didn’t want to, but eventually said, “yes”. She only visited with him a few times, but I think he felt better after she had gone.
I tried hard to keep all of our children in the loop. Each day I would send them texts to let them know of any events that were new or different. I know most of the kids appreciated the updates even though at times they weren’t full of good news.
I have shared our story in several newspapers across Nebraska (Grand Island Independent, Columbus Telegraph, Norfolk Daily News, Osmond Republican) and Iowa (Moville Record, Sioux City Journal, Dubuque Telegraph Herald). The Grand Island Independent story has been picked up by the AP and has been republished in The Seattle Times (Washington), The Washington Times (D.C.), The Charlotte Observer (North Carolina), The Tri-City Herald (Kennewick, Washington), The Lexington Herald-Leader (Lexington, Kentucky), The News & Observer (Raleigh, North Carolina), as well as publications in Hungary and Kenya!!
We also have had some television coverage. Omaha Channel 3 News had our story on the air early in October. Sioux City KTIV Channel 4 had our story on the air around October 19th, 2017 and that story has been rebroadcast by WPSD in Paducah, Kentucky; WNYT in Albany, New York; and WSAV in Savannah, Georgia. I am currently working out details to interview with Channel 7 News in Omaha.
Although I have not yet been on the radio yet, I am scheduled to do my first on-air interview on the Spirit Catholic Radio Network. I was at Home Depot recently and their van was parked next to me when I came out of the store. I waited until the driver came out of the store, then introduced myself and told him I was looking at every avenue to spread the word about men’s breast cancer. I gave him one of my flyers and asked that he share it with the owner/manager of the station. A week later I got a phone call asking me to share our story. That will air November 17, 2017 at 7:50 a.m.
We passed out 600-800 flyers in the Septemberfest Parade held in Omaha on Labor Day. The Union Pacific building downtown dedicated one of their window displays to us during their Breast Cancer Awareness Promotion. All other windows had a black background with pink displays. Ours had a BLUE background with pink displays. It was striking! I attended a Volleyball Pink Out at my High School in Battle Creek, Nebraska. We distributed about 200 flyers to attendees. The Nebraska Furniture Mart was promoting 10,000 pink cupcakes for breast cancer awareness thanks to KitchenAid. After calling in to the store and requesting “just a few blue cupcakes” and being told everything was already ordered in pink, I asked if I could distribute flyers and have my car parked out front. There was more to the conversation that I won’t get in to here, but I showed up the night of their promotion and was allowed to park the car by the front door. I also distributed 200-300 flyers and spoke to everyone I gave them to. I find it very important to have that personal contact with people to get my point across.
Our most recent help in promoting awareness has come from Casey’s General Stores in the Lincoln and Omaha area. My sister is a general manager of one of the stores and she got the okay from her District Manager to set my flyers on the counter at over 35 stores in our area! There is a video on our page that expresses our thanks to Casey’s General Stores.
Finally, I have to thank Peggy Miller for contacting me about my desire to get the word out there about men’s breast cancer. Peggy is the one that makes all the videos look wonderful. Peggy is the one that has put together this entire site and is so encouraging to all of us. Her son, Bret, is a breast cancer survivor!