Cancer as creator

Artist, teacher creates beauty out of experience

Daily Republic ©
Published Feb. 19, 2006

FAIRFIELD -- Heidi Marble wakes up to breast cancer every morning.

Scars on her razed chest serve the 40-year-old Fairfield school teacher as a constant reminder of the nightmare she endured six years ago. The time her breast was punched by a large tube for a biopsy as she sat numbed by the two stinging words lingering in the stale air: breast cancer.

She recalls all too vividly the blood from her tainted breast, remnants of the biopsy, repeatedly smearing the glass plate during the mammogram and the skeletal figure she was left to nurture. She also remembers the day she was given 18 months to live.

Marble, now cancer free and having beaten the odds after a double mastectomy, still awakens to the memories of cancer she faced at 34. She wishes she could forget, but she can't. The memories seem to adorn her core of being.

For Marble, death is still a breath away. She leaves food for her husband and 9-year-old son in the freezer, buys clothes for them months ahead of time and maintains an organized household, just in case.

"I worry constantly, 'What if I die? What will happen to my child?' " she says in a soft voice as she sits inside her Green Valley home. "For me, the worry never stops. Never. I wish I knew how to stop it."

No time for sentiments

The day on April 12 in a Boston hospital went quickly for Marble, leaving little time for sentiments or reflection.

She noticed her breast was lumpy, red and swollen and believed she had an infection. But the results proved otherwise.

"The doctor showed me the film from the mammography and said, 'You're inoperable. You have Stage 3b cancer. We need to reduce the tumor,' " Marble says of the all-too-well-memorized conversation. " 'Make sure you don't get pregnant. No intercourse.'

"And that meant no brothers or sisters for my son," she says with some despair.

With hopes of reducing the tumor, Marble began four intense rounds of chemotherapy. She recalls how the dosage slowly made its way to her heart. She could feel its warmth move through her veins. She could even taste it.

As Marble remembers, she would stare at her bosom every day and wonder if the tumor and her breast were shrinking. By this point, she admits, there was no modesty, no pride. If anyone were willing to look at her breast, she was willing to ask.

"I didn't care if it was a man, woman, child or priest walking by in the hospital, I didn't care. I would ask them if my breast was shrinking. And whether they wanted to or not, they were going to see it," she says.

When the tumor reached an operable size, Marble had a double mastectomy, although it took some convincing of the surgeons.

"I don't think they understood that the other breast was now my enemy and I wanted it off. I wanted and want to live," she says.

Marble brooked another round of intense chemotherapy after the double mastectomy, enough to bring the strong-willed woman to her knees. By this time, she was worn, coughing up blood, laden with sores in her mouth and private areas.

"She had the most advanced stage of localized breast cancer," says Dr. James Long, medical director of oncology and hematology at NorthBay Cancer Center, who has been Marble's doctor since she moved to the area three years ago. "It was a very aggressive inflammatory form."

It registered to Marble that the remnants of cancer treatment would follow her home when she found herself lying on her bathroom floor naked, bald and bruised.

"I didn't want anyone to see the ravage, I didn't want anyone to worry," she reminisces, her face filled with anguish. "Then I heard someone coming up the stairs. I thought, 'Oh my God, it can't be my little boy.' I was just praying and there was not one thing I could do about it. I was too weak.

"I felt this hand on my back and it was him, my husband. He ran the bath, picked me up and carried me to the bathtub, never saying a word," Marble continues in tears. "I never felt more love for a human being like I did at that moment. For a man to still love who you are means everything."

The other half

Troy Marble, Heidi's husband, never spoke of her cancer until now.

Maybe he felt guilty because he first thought it was all a false alarm. Or perhaps he believed showing fear would make his wife feel less secure. Then again, maybe he was in denial.

Troy, now a project manager for the Benicia Bridge, never fathomed she could die or she would ever leave their young son. In this world of theirs where margaritas were once the happy hour delight and where white-sand beaches were a place to lie lazily, nothing could happen. Nothing could go wrong.

But the reality of her cancer set in slowly, painfully, as he watched her go through myriad chemotherapy treatments.

"Her hair was falling out in the back. That was bad, you know, because she had pretty hair," the 43-year-old says in a trembling voice, one hand touching the back of his head. He then pauses before continuing. "And when she had her surgery, the first time I saw that she . . . "

The image of Heidi after her double mastectomy causes Troy to lower his eyes and catch his breath for a moment.

"I didn't think it would be this hard," he finally says.

But it wasn't only the horrific journey his wife endured that affects Troy today. A look into his blue eyes shows a humble man with a morsel of guilt, like a man who couldn't buy his fiancŽ the biggest diamond in the shop.

"Sometimes I look at her and she's really down and hurting and I feel she's been through a lot," he says as the hanging kitchen lamp highlights his morose expression. "But I feel like, as a man, you're supposed to be the one who protects your family. I wasn't able to protect her from it. And I feel like I let her down."

"You never have," she reassures her husband of 21 years as she looks into his eyes and touches his hand. "You have never, ever let me down. I can say that for sure."

Stowed away pain

Sometimes pain should be locked up and thrown away.

It's been 3 1/2 years since Marble opened up her green trunk filled with painful memories. That is, various relics of the days she shared with cancer.

Inside a room behind glass doors, where sequined mannequins and art boxes garnish the small space, Marble kneels by the trunk she has spent years trying to forget. Yet, she is taking a step toward healing, the final benediction to life without cancer.

"Yeah, I remember now," she says after opening the box, the tears already flowing down her vibrant facial features. A Styrofoam wig form mirrors her image of before.

"She represented what I . . . " she begins to say, then stops to address the form with penned up anger. "You're sad and you're pale and you're so nothing and empty. That's just how I felt."

She weaves through a stack of papers and various objects before pulling out a clear bag filled with blonde hair.

"It's nightmarish," she says as a pearl-shaped tear hangs below her lucent blue eye. She opens the bag and touches the golden hair lightly. "This is from the day they shaved my head. I remember just how warm it was and I didn't know if I'd have hair again. So I kept it. Is that sick?"

Some people will let their hair fall off naturally during chemotherapy, but not Marble. She had no intentions of letting cancer win the battle.

"I called my hairdresser to my house, she told me to bend my head over, took the buzzer and cut it off," she recalls. "I made that decision to cut it off. Cancer was not going to take it from me."

She continues to meander through the rectangular vessel and finds the skull cap she wore during night sweats, the "happy" robe she donned defiantly during 35 treatments of radiation and a clay ball laced with stars she made during a cancer retreat. She wanted her star to shine on earth, she says.

Marble also laughs at some items inside the web of recollections, such as the large prosthetic "boobs" given to her the day she left the hospital. The nurse told her she could "wear them outside" if she wanted.

"No!" Marble says and starts to laugh. "They said they were sorry but they were out of size B. This is a D! Are they kidding?"

She continues looking until she pulls out a journal, one of those memory catchers that keep diverse thoughts alive, like frozen vignettes in the mind. She begins to read.

"It became clear that today would be the day to have my head shaved. I could no longer stand to feel the dead hair stagnant in my head. . . At first Blake (her son) seemed a little scared. I reassured him that it was just a silly hair cut and that I was still his mommy.

"Before I knew it we were in my closet trying on my clown, Dorothy and Rumplestilskin wigs. We ended up laughing and hugging," she says before taking a deep breath.

Waiting for wings

If nests are an expression of birth, Marble has been metamorphosed.

Marble stands in the center of her bedroom, a place that overlooks rows of carpeted hills, and points to the five shadow boxes that dot the sand-colored walls. Inside are bird's nests woven with Marble's hair and collected throughout the years.

"Before I shaved my hair off, I would toss my hair out the window to where a couple of sparrows were making a nest and they would use my hair as part of it," she says of when they lived in Boston. "The day the eggs hatched, I received a phone call from my surgeon saying my pathology report found the cancer hadn't spread. I had a chance to live. I would live longer than five years."

Six years later, defeating all odds with each passing day, Marble is now ready to spread her wings, like the babes she witnessed hatch, and is ready to spark the creative outlet that laid dormant for years.

She has written a book of poems entitled "Waiting for Wings," which was recently picked up by a publisher and has created a series of mannequins - on display at various art shows throughout the Bay Area - adorned solely of buttons and jewelry that she calls "Buttons for Dollars."

"Every mannequin has jewelry or buttons from people no longer with us that was either donated or given to me," she says of the once-naked statues now embellished with adornments. "It's my way of keeping them alive."

If Marble gets her way one day, she says with excitement of a future idea, she will have a catwalk decorated with jeweled mannequins where people could donate money toward a breast cancer fund.

For now, however, Marble has teamed with NorthBay Healthcare Foundation, where any funds donated toward the jeweled mannequins will be distributed to a breast cancer patient with a need.

"I'm here because of a miracle and I had people praying for me. But there's been a lot of people I know who haven't made it," she says.

She stands by one of the glimmering mannequins, which shoots off reflections from the afternoon sun, and comments on the vitality of its stature.

"I want to be that full of life again," she says.

Reach Andrea E. Garcia at 427-6935 or