Marnie Spencer’s body has been ravaged by cancer for the past eleven years. But in a world where women are told that beauty is an indication of their worth, this mother of seven has found a different source of confidence: her knowledge that she is a beautiful spirit in the eyes of God.
Can you guide us through the health problems you have encountered?
I had been healthy all my life, and had seven successful, easy pregnancies. But in 2002, when I was 36 and my youngest child was ten months old, I had a stroke. I spent a day in the hospital, where specialists ran a battery of tests to find out why the stroke had happened, but they couldn’t find any reason. A year and a half later, in spring of 2004, I found a lump in my breast, which turned out to be cancer. My doctor told me that the lump had probably been there for years, and suggested that the tumor had likely caused the stroke.
I had a lumpectomy, then a mastectomy, and then I began chemotherapy and radiation. After nearly two years, from 2004 to 2006, I seemed to be in remission and was able to stop the chemotherapy treatments.
Almost immediately, I started to have some strange symptoms. I was thirsty all the time, and I started losing weight, which was nice for a while, but before long I had lost too much. I started zigzagging when I walked and was really tired all the time. One morning I got out of bed and was so exhausted I went back to bed an hour later. I basically slept for three weeks. I rarely got up. People kept waking me up, trying to talk to me, and I just kept falling back to sleep. My husband would try to feed me but I didn’t want anything. I would drink water but I wouldn’t do much else.
After a couple of weeks, my husband Wes started to give me sweetened drinks, and after several days I was able to eat a little. As soon as I could get up Wes took me to the doctor. Clearly something was wrong, but no one knew what it was. Besides my family doctor, I saw an endocrinologist, a gynecologist, an oncologist,, and a chiropractor. Everyone ran tests – blood tests, x-rays, an MRI – but found no explanation for my symptoms.
During this time, my home teacher gave me a priesthood blessing in which he blessed me that I would be inspired to know which doctor could help me. After he left I found myself thinking “Dr. Wood! Dr. Wood. Dr. Wood, Dr. Wood, Dr. Wood.” I had never met Dr. Wood, but I remembered that a friend of mine had called me a couple of weeks earlier, and had mentioned his name. She said he was ear, nose, and throat doctor. An ENT was something I hadn’t considered, but I made an appointment to see him right away.
Dr. Wood asked me some questions and pulled up my MRI films on his computer. Right away he saw a tumor on a facial nerve near my brain. Dr. Wood made an appointment for me with a doctor in Salt Lake, who told me that the tumor was cancerous and needed to be removed right away. That month, March 2008, he operated, removing the tumor through my right ear. This left me deaf in that ear and also paralyzed half of my face.
Following the operation, I had to do brain radiation, which is a terrible, terrible thing. I did that for three weeks. In order to kill the tumor, they have to fry all of your brain cells, and when I was finished, I was not myself at all. I didn’t understand a lot of what people said to me. I couldn’t read well. A neighbor came over and said that my kids needed lunch money, and that she would take it to school if I could write the check. But I couldn’t remember how to write a check. I was just not myself. That was a scary experience, as I knew that I was not the person I used to be. They couldn’t tell me whether or not I would ever be normal again. I am still not quite where I used to be, but the brain is an amazing organ. It has mostly healed and rebuilt, but the experience really gave me compassion for those who have intellectual disabilities, who can’t understand what’s going on a lot of the time.
The doctors also found that I had tumors in my ribs, so following radiation on my ribs, I went back into chemotherapy. The chemotherapy was making me sick and was reducing my immune system, making me very vulnerable to infection.
Several months after the surgery to remove the tumor from my head, I went to my family doctor because I had a urinary tract infection which was caused by a catheter I had during the surgery. I expected to get some antibiotics, but the doctor tested me and sent me right to the hospital, where they immediately started me on an antibiotic IV. I felt okay, but an hour my doctor came in and said, “I need to be really honest with you. You’re very sick. The infection has spread into your blood and is moving throughout your body. There is a very good chance that you will not live through the night.” The doctor explained that he was going to call my husband, with my permission, and tell him what he had just told me. It happened to be a Monday, and after the doctor spoke to Wes, I got on the phone and told him to bring all the kids to the hospital so we could have Family Home Evening.
My bishop got there first and said, “You know, you’ve lived a good life, you’ve had your children; when it’s your time to go, it’s time to go. The Lord must have work for you on the other side.” I knew that he was right, but I wasn’t ready to accept that my life was about to end. Wes arrived with the kids shortly afterward and he and our home teacher gave me a blessing. They didn’t say anything about me being cured, but blessed me that the Lord’s will would be done concerning my life. As soon as I got the blessing, I knew that I would be fine.
My whole family of nine squeezed into that little room, and we had nice Family Home Evening. I felt the Spirit strongly as I bore my testimony to my children. We read from 3 Nephi about the Lord’s visit to the Nephites, and reminded the kids that the Lord can heal any affliction, and that He could heal me if that would be best for us. I gave everyone a hug and told them all I loved them before they left.
The doctor had told me that if my blood pressure fell below 80, they were going to put me in intensive care and try to save me, but that they probably wouldn’t be able to. At that point, my blood pressure was at about 91. I did not dare go to sleep. I felt fine, but I wouldn’t go to sleep because I was worried that if I did, I would never wake up again. So I just sat there, all night, and watched that blood pressure number.
89…88…86… It was just falling and falling…83…82…81…81…81….82….83
It never did go below 80.
Having someone tell you that in perhaps only a few hours you will be gone really puts things into perspective. Because I didn’t go to sleep, I spent a lot of that night praying, and it was really one of the most spiritual nights of my life. I had experiences that I won’t share but they were really dear to me.
I returned to the hospital twice more with infections. Last March I spent 16 days there when an ear infection became septic. I was underweight and malnourished, and needed to stay in the hospital to be fed through a tube. Dr. Wood operated on my ear and nose, and that left me with very impaired hearing in the left ear. So I’m deaf in my right ear, and have a hearing impairment in my left year.
My oncologist decided that the chemotherapy program I was on was too harsh for me in my weakened condition, and changed my to a maintenance dose. I still visit the cancer clinic every week to receive cancer-fighting drugs through a port in my chest. Half of my face is still paralyzed, which makes me goofy looking. And I’m pretty much bald. The chemotherapy that I was taking has affected my eyesight, so I can’t see very well. I have lost my vision, my hearing, my breast, my energy, and my hair to cancer. But I have not lost myself. I have not lost my family. I have a great husband, really neat kids. I have really great friends. I have the gospel! I really have a great life, I do. I could hardly be more grateful for what I have. The things that aren’t so great in my life have taught me an awful lot. So I really can’t complain. I do sometimes, but I shouldn’t.
My quality of life is much better now than it was on the strong chemo, but I will probably be on weekly maintenance drugs for the rest of my life. Because my cancer has spread from its original site, it is fourth stage, metastatic cancer, and considered incurable. I assume I’ll die of cancer, unless something else gets me first.
After the surgery to remove the tumor in my head, doctors said that I had weeks or months left to live. That was two years ago. Several doctors have used the word “miracle” to describe the fact that I’m still here, given my prognosis. I’m just grateful for any time that I have. I’m not afraid to die, because I know it’s not a bad thing, but I don’t feel ready. I feel like there are things I need to do. I have seven children who are still fairly young. I don’t feel like I’m ready to give them up, to leave them without me. Still, if that’s what the Lord wants, I have seen enough to know that He is smarter than me, and when I want something that’s wrong, it doesn’t work out. When He wants something that looks wrong to me, He turns out to be right. I am doing everything I can to stay alive for my kids, but if it were best for them, or best for me, or best for anybody that I go, I guess I go.
How have these health obstacles affected your seven children?
My kids are good kids. My oldest son, Sam, was thirteen when I was first diagnosed with cancer. He has always been a good kid, but he was kind of selfish, self-absorbed, and a little worldly. He always worried about what other people thought of him. He tested the limits, so we worried about him a little bit. It was after I was diagnosed with cancer that he started to take life a little bit more seriously. He started to realize that people can die, you don’t know when, and you have to live your life right. There is no time for goofing around. He is on a mission now. He will be home in December and he has been an excellent missionary. He has done so many great things and has really been privileged to hold positions of leadership. He was talking like he wasn’t going to go on a mission when he was in his early teens. I don’t know if my cancer made a difference. It may have. We have a lot of fun as a family, but I think most of my kids are a little bit more responsible, a little more thoughtful, and a little more serious about life.
If someone had come to me and said, “Your kids are looking like they are going to waver off the path a little, and you might lose some of them to Satan. Would you be willing to go through a big trial like cancer if it would bring them back?” I think almost any mother would be willing to go through anything to help their children. That is one thing for which I have always been grateful – that it was me. Not my husband, and not my children. If someone has to go through this, it’s better me than anybody else.
It is impressive to see how you have been able to relay on your faith, but are there ever moments where you waver?
There are still times when I think, “This isn’t fair! How come I have to do this? Others seem to happy and I’m stuck with this miserable body.” But these times are rare now. When I was six, I got lost and I prayed that Heavenly Father would send somebody, and He did. When I was in sixth grade, I prayed that He would switch me to another teacher in my school, and He did. When I was in high school, I prayed that my chemistry teacher would trade my lab partner with the boy that I had a crush on, and He did. When I was in high school, I didn’t have any tennis shoes, and I prayed for the exact shoes I wanted. Size 7, Nikes, dark blue with the light blue swish, and they showed up in my P.E. locker! I never knew who put them there. They were used, but they were exactly what I wanted. How can I ever doubt that He loves me? How can I ever doubt that He is looking out for me, if He will do the little things like that? Giving me the shoes I wanted, the teacher I wanted, the lab partner that I wanted. If He will give me those little things, how could He ignore me when I needed a big thing? And I just have to believe that if I don’t get the answer I want, it’s not because He can’t do it or He doesn’t care. It’s because He knows what’s better for me. My faith has not always been strong, and it still slips sometimes. It’s a growing process, and the trials that I’ve been through have helped me along. They have strengthened my faith.
You have told us how cancer has ravaged your body. In a world where women are often taught that our beauty is an indication of our worth. What have these experiences taught you about your worth as a daughter of God?
A couple of years ago, I had lost most of my hair, my face was half-paralyzed, I had patchy skin, and I had an eye infection that was making the area around my eye swollen and my eye puffy and runny. I looked awful. I was getting ready for a Church meeting and I was feeling really uncomfortable. I thought make-up might help, but it just made me look worse. I was alone in the house and I was just very discouraged with my appearance. I knelt to pray and just called out, “Father?” and I waited. Sometimes when I do that, I can hear Him say, “Yes, my daughter?” It’s just such a good feeling to know that He is there. I said “Father?” and the voice I heard this time instead said, “Yes, my princess.” It was such a contrast to how I felt. I felt because I was ugly, that I was not worth a lot at that moment. I said out loud, “Ha! I don’t look much like a princess.” The voice I heard after that said, “You will always look like a princess to me.” I started to cry (which didn’t do much for appearance, by the way, but I didn’t care anymore.)
If the whole world could hear that message! He loves us and we look like royal Daughters of a King to Him. I’m not saying that beauty is not important. Beauty is a gift that can open doors for people. Esther, because of her looks, was able to save all of her people. Perhaps beauty is a gift like musical ability, or physical strength. But it’s not everything, like the world tells you it is. It’s just one little thing. If you don’t happen to have that one little thing, you are not any less valuable than anyone else. That’s the Lord’s message, not the world’s message. For me to hear that, I knew it didn’t really matter how I looked.
The doctor who removed the tumor from my facial nerve told me that after a year my face would be moving again. It’s been three years and it hasn’t improved much. That’s been a disappointment, and is something I have prayed about. I told Heavenly Father that I thought I’d learned all I could from my strange appearance, and that it might be time to have my face healed. The thought that came to my mind was, “What makes you think it’s for you?” So I haven’t really pleaded again for that gift, because there may be others who need to see this.
At one point, I had not been to the temple in a while. I finally had been feeling pretty good for a while and I felt like I could go to the temple. I prayed fervently before I left that I would be able to do everything I needed to do in the session and that I would be attentive and have a good session. As soon as I got into the session, I just messed up everything! I dropped my things while dressing. People had to keep coming to help me. Even when I was sicker I did better than that. I was a mess. There were very kind people sitting near me who helped me, and it wasn’t a big deal. I just wondered why I felt like I could go that day, that I would be fine, and that instead I was a mess. I sat in the Celestial Room for a few minutes, just soaking up that peace, and then I went downstairs to change. As I entered the locker room, a woman that I did not know grabbed me and hugged me. She started crying and said, “Thank you so much for coming to the temple today. I really needed to see you here.” I still don’t know why she needed that experience, but it shows us that the Lord can use us in little ways if we are willing to be His servants. He can find ways to use us no matter what our situation is.
Health trials take an immense amount of courage to get through. Where do you find that strength?
I never thought of myself to be a courageous person. I’ve usually been quite shy, even timid. I never would have used the word “courage” to describe myself. As I was diagnosed with cancer, people would say, “You are so brave.” I thought, “Brave? I have cancer and I’m scared! How can I be brave?” However, as I went through it, I realized that there is a different kind of courage. There is an everyday practical courage of facing what we have to face, doing what we have to do. The pioneers put one foot in front of the other, which might not have seemed courageous at the time, but when you look back at the journey they made, it was certainly courageous! Maybe someday we will see the same thing in our life. We may say we never felt courageous, but look what we did! I think most people, in some way or another, exhibit that kind of practical, simple courage every single day.
What other lessons have you learned through these experiences?
After the doctor’s appointment where I learned I had a very aggressive type of breast cancer, Wes and I went straight to the grocery store. There was a clearance bin and I was kind of digging through it with another woman. We were talking, and I made a little joke with the cashier, and I thought, “All these people are treating me so normally, like they can’t even tell that I’ve had this terrible news.” It occurred to me that maybe someone there had just gotten divorce papers, or had learned that morning that her child was addicted to drugs. There may have been many people there whose hearts were aching and yet they looked perfectly normal like I did. It really taught me to give people a little slack. You never know what people are going through. I learned just to treat people with a little extra kindness, just in case it is one of those days.
We often look around and think we have all the trials, nobody else seems to have trials, and that’s just not true. We all may have different trials, but everybody has some, and I think we have what’s right for us. We have the trials we need to help us grow and to strengthen others. It’s easy to see it sometimes, but harder other times. I can remember after I found out that I had cancer the second time, doctors assured me I wouldn’t live long. Heavenly Father really helped me with a gift of clear sight at that point. I could see so clearly that in this life, what we think is hard is really not that hard. He sends us here, He tells us what to do, He helps us do it, and if we don’t do it, He allows us to repent and gives us another chance. It is a very merciful and loving plan of salvation. The plan of salvation is a plan of mercy, of happiness. It really is. We learn from our mistakes, we learn from our good choices, and we come out better most of the time.
How has the role of your Heavenly Father evolved over the past ten years?
During the worst of the chemotherapy treatments, I had an experience where in my mind I saw an old-fashioned scale. On one side, there were beautiful gold coins that dropped when there was good that came from the cancer. On the other side were these heavy chunks of wood, which represented the negative outcome of the trial. At first the negative side was much heavier, but I saw that eventually the scale would balance and tip toward the positive. I shared that experience with a friend, who then asked what the wood looked like. I explained it was almost like pieces of railroad tracks, but kind of rough and broken. She said, “Like pieces of the cross?” That thought hadn’t occurred to me before, but I thought that was interesting. I know that all of our trials, all of our burdens, our sins, our pains, our embarrassment, and shame is covered by our Savior because of that cross, because of what He did for us. The wood pieces are falling less frequently now, but the gold pieces are still coming.
The other day a friend took me out to a buffet and I was stuffed afterwards. I made a comment that I didn’t think I could cook dinner that night and that I would never be hungry again. We talked about how when you’re really stuffed, you can never imagine being hungry. When you are really cold, you can’t think of being warm again. When you are in pain, you can’t imagine ever feeling good again. But you do, you can. Those kinds of things are fairly temporary. I was miserable for a while, and it didn’t last. I can hardly remember being that sick. It’s hard sometimes to have an eternal perspective, but when we do, life makes more sense.
I couldn’t always see this as a blessing, but I’ve gotten to the point now where I can really see that the gold side of the scale is heavier than the wood side of the scale. I’ve been very blessed, and I’m happy. I have a great life.
At A Glance
Marital status: Married 23 years
Children: 7 children: 20, 17, 16, 14, 12, 11, 9
Occupation: Mom and free-lance writer
Schools Attended: BYU
Languages Spoken at Home: English
Favorite Hymn: “Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing”
Interview by Amy Doxey. Photos used with permission.