Center Grove breast cancer survivor to receive Susan G. Komen’s Lifetime Achievement Award
Writer / Christy Heitger-Ewing
Photographer / Brian Brosmer
Thirty years ago, when Marilyn Freeman was just 32 years old, she discovered a lump in her breast.
“Don’t worry about it,” the doctor told her. “You’re young with no risk factors and no family history of breast cancer. You’re fine.”
But months passed and the lump didn’t go away so she got a second opinion.
“Young women have dense breasts,” he said. “You’re fine.”
Despite repeated confirmations that she was fine, Freeman, a Center Grove resident, had a hunch that she wasn’t. Finally, a third doc said simply, “Let’s see what the darned thing is.”
A mammogram revealed unfavorable results. She had a biopsy the following week and within 30 minutes of getting those results was admitted to St. Vincent for a mastectomy.
Diagnosed with an aggressive form of stage 2 breast cancer, Freeman was told she had a 35 percent chance of survival if she just had the surgery. With chemotherapy treatments, her survival chance increased to 70 percent. Following surgery, she endured twice-a-month chemo treatments for six months — usually scheduling them for late Friday afternoon to not interfere with her work as a first-grade teacher.
“I was adamant that I’d be there for my students. I wasn’t going to have any child not learn to read because they had a sick teacher,” says Freeman, who despite nausea, exhaustion and hair loss only missed five days of school the entire year. Her supportive husband, Dan, made her days brighter by giving her flowers following each chemo treatment and making sure she ate a high-protein diet to strengthen her immune system.
“Chemo is different these days,” she says. “Back then, the toxic drugs killed everything off, compromising healthy cells as well as cancer cells.”
Nevertheless, she was willing to do whatever it took to survive. She recalls reading a book that talked about “quality of life.”
“I thought, ‘Forget quality. I want quantity!’ I want to live a whole lot longer so that I can become a mom,” says Freeman, who later adopted her daughter, Maggie, from China in 1993. “I never thought of myself as a victim. Nor did I see my ordeal as a fight. If we tell cancer patients to fight and they lose, it’s implied that they didn’t fight hard enough. It’s not a battle. It’s a journey.”
And because Freeman knew, firsthand, what that journey was like, in 1995 she began volunteering at the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation. The idea was planted after meeting another young survivor at a Komen race who confided that she felt intensely alone.
“You’ve got to remember that years ago, cancer was a taboo subject,” Freeman says. “When I was diagnosed, there were no support groups. People didn’t talk about it. I didn’t know a single woman who’d had breast cancer. So, when I met this scared, lonely woman, I made a commitment to be more of an advocate in order to encourage others. I wanted folks to see that it was possible to go through it and come out the other side.”
Freeman, who calls herself a worker bee — “just give me a job!” — is the person the foundation calls when they need a volunteer to represent the Komen Central Indiana group. Through the years, she’s distributed educational materials at events, folded t-shirts for races and helped with preparations for the Pink Tie Ball (their annual formal fundraiser). Freeman, currently in her 44th year of teaching (kindergarten kiddos now), has even gotten her students involved by selling tulip bulbs and donating the proceeds to Komen.
Next month Freeman will receive the Lifetime Achievement Award at Circle of Hope for her years of service to the Komen Foundation.
“I’m honored that they’ve chosen to recognize me for doing what we all do there — be a cheerleader for others,” Freeman says.
The biggest message Freeman wants women to absorb is to always stand up for themselves medically. When she first found her lump, she told the doctor that she had a friend who died of colon cancer after a year of being told repeatedly by professionals that she had irritable bowel syndrome. Freeman didn’t want to suffer the same fate.
“I learned to be my own health advocate because I know my body better than anyone else,” Freeman says. “If you have a feeling that something isn’t right, keep looking until you find someone who will listen to you.”