Life is terminal
How a cancer diagnosis changed Molly Marco’s perspective on life.
In July of 2016, Molly was at a local coffee shop in Detroit when she began to feel dizzy and nauseous. Minutes later, she came-to on the floor with an EMS crew asking her questions. They immediately took her to a Detroit-based hospital where several tests were performed – including an MRI.
Molly learned that she had a brain tumor. The tumor was approximately the size of an avocado pit located deep in her left temporal lobe. While Molly was in the MRI she had a profound feeling. “It wasn’t the devastating state of fear as one would expect,” she said. “In that 40 minute-or-so-journey in a tunnel, nothing I used to stress over or obsess about before that moment was important. I remember thinking, ‘I love life. I love life so much.’”
One thing that Molly Marco, of Royal Oak, never thought that she would hear in her life (especially at age 36) was, “you have brain cancer.”
Finding the right team
Molly was given the opportunity to shop around for a health system and surgeon who specialize in deep left temporal lobe surgery. Molly chose the Hermelin Brain Tumor Center, as part of the Henry Ford Cancer Institute, for her care. Ellen Air, MD, a neurosurgeon, was the right surgeon for the job.
The craniotomy took place in early October 2016 at Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit. Dr. Air was able to safely remove what she could of the tumor without causing permanent damage to Molly’s speech or short-term memory. Molly underwent specialized medical imaging and testing to ensure that she could undergo her brain tumor surgery safely asleep as to preserve her speech.
“Surgery went well,” Molly said. “I was confident that the test results would be ‘peachy’ and everything would go back to ‘normal.’”
Molly never expected what would come next. About 10 days after the surgery, Molly received a phone call that changed everything. The biopsy results had come in.
“That phone call…that is the day that my world crashed around me. It was easily the worst day of my life,” she claimed.
The week prior to the call, Molly was introduced to her neuro oncologist, James Snyder, DO but at that time the diagnosis was not yet finalized. “Dr. Snyder sounded perfectly calm and not at all sad or scary when he discussed the diagnosis,” she claimed. Molly was diagnosed with grade 3 anaplastic astrocytoma. “My tumor discovery was scary. But the world didn’t end,” she said.
Dr. Snyder offered her the opportunity to visit him at Henry Ford West Bloomfield Hospital that same day to discuss more in person, which Molly greatly appreciated.
“I was absolutely terrified,” she explained. “Cancer happens to other people. Sick people. Old people. But not me. I was really healthy, and I worked hard to be healthy,” she added.
Molly quickly moved into the max treatment, radiation over 6 weeks targeted to the area of the brain where the tumor had resided with chemotherapy followed by cycles of chemotherapy every month for about a year. Her care team consisted of Vijay Donthireddy, M.D., a medical oncologist, and Mirah Shah, M.D., a radiation oncologist who specializes in the care of brain tumors. Molly was screened for therapeutic clinical trials, an area of expertise and focus for the Hermelin Brain Tumor Center and Dr. Snyder; however, there were no available trials that were a good fit for her at the time.
Flash forward to today, Molly takes daily antiseizure medications and has a brain MRI every 4 months. The MRI studies have not shown any further tumor activity.
“Molly has made me a better doctor,” Dr. Snyder said. “She has driven me to advocate nationally for brain tumor resources, illuminated the real-life challenges one faces when living with a brain tumor, inspired my team to procure funding for brain tumor patients and caregivers to attend national brain tumor awareness events in Washington, and most of all to live every day with purpose and compassion.”
Grade 3 Anaplastic Astrocytoma is a terminal illness. “I am not cured. I am not in remission. The cancer is expected to return as itself OR, as glioblastoma – which is grade 4,” she said. “Life is terminal,” Molly adds. “Let’s not delay life with the assumption that we have time. NOW is the time. I got that lesson hard and fast,” said Molly.
“I have found that for me, the best way to tackle challenges, fear and grief is to ALLOW myself to feel those feelings. I can thank my diagnosis for that perspective,” she said.
“Molly continues to share her experience with others in a very open and constructive way, which has helped many overcome the isolation of this diagnosis,” said Dr. Snyder. “She helps people make sense of their feelings and empowers the community by providing a voice, locally and nationally; either through taking the time to sit down with someone newly diagnosed, connecting them with the brain tumor community, or sharing her experience on social media.”
Molly’s world started new after her diagnosis. She claims that her life is filled with purpose and meaning. “I am BLESSED with a terrible diagnosis,” she exclaimed. Molly finds power in speaking and writing about her story – and she does so in complete honesty.
“Molly has been a beacon for many,” said Dr. Snyder. “She shares her story and experiences in public forums with candor illuminating her struggle, pursuits for everyone to see while allowing her extremely kind-hearted nature to shine through, motivating people far beyond the many that she has personally connected with, including me.”
In 2019, Molly Marco joined Dr. Snyder and other Hermelin Brain Tumor patients at the annual Head to the Hill advocacy in Washington, D.C., to persuade elected officials to delegate more funding to brain cancer research.