Marlise Fein - Cancer Survivor & Life Wrangler


I was born in late 1963 to dairy farmers near Wausau, Wisconsin. I am a descendant from a long line of dairy farmers who came to this country from England in the 1600s and from Germany in the 1840s. My community was politically conservative, and there were many farms that had been in families for two or more generations. Like most farm kids, my three brothers, sister, and I were responsible for more than just taking out the trash and cleaning our rooms.  Our chores included cleaning calf pens (quite the odoriferous job), feeding cows, climbing a very high silo to pitch out haylage (cut hay that’s smells likes it’s been fermenting), picking rocks from fields in the Spring, bailing hay to store in the barn, fixing and building new fences, hoeing the garden, and picking vegetables for freezing and canning in the Summer. Around the time I turned 16 I was up at 4:30 AM in the morning doing chores before high school. I would wake up early on the weekends to milk forty cows. A dairy farm is an operation that runs seven days a week.  Farmers have no sick days, vacation days, or holidays off from work.  However, the reward is being able to see first-hand the results of all that effort and hard work. It was also great to spend so much time outdoors instead of being stuck behind a desk for so many hours of the day!  

Despite all of the hard work I did on the farm, I never quite fit the mold of traditional farmer’s daughter. My mother was not the traditional farm wife either, and I looked up to her as a role model. In addition to her farm chores and cooking, cleaning, and parenting, she is a talented artist. She would stencil tin containers and trays with lacquer and gold leafing. My sister and I inherited some of our mother’s artistic talent. I also loved to read. When I was in third grade, my teacher challenged the class to read one hundred books that year. I happily accepted that challenge! I also loved watching horror movies with my younger brother. I had to give a presentation to my Lutheran church youth group, and those horror movies inspired me to choose the topic of ghosts. Boy, did I get some strange looks from my peers in the youth group!

Despite growing up in American Gothic and in a tight-knit community, where my parents and family had a good reputation and I was surrounded by great friends and extended family, I found my life going sideways at the age of twenty. I went away to school several hours from home.  I was enrolled in a two-year commercial art program. My life changing experience happened on a cold night in January. I went to a local club with several of my roommates and we had several beers. I met a guy. He and his friends came to our apartment for an after party.  He and I then dated occasionally.  However, I started getting severe morning sickness and soon confirmed that I was pregnant. While that was traumatic enough for a single 20 year old far away from home, I then found out that the guy was actually engaged to his high school sweet heart. He ditched me as soon as he found out about the pregnancy. I ended up failing the majority of my classes that semester. I had told a few friends about my predicament and they were very supportive.  My parents, on the other hand, were in stages of shock.

I decided that I was going to have the baby and put it up for adoption. Through my rock-solid upbringing, I was able to find the courage to call the father. By this time, he was living in a faraway city with his first job lined up after his graduation. I threatened to call his fiancée if he didn’t keep in touch, pay for my counseling, and show up to court for terminating parental rights. I was receiving support from an agency which found me a job as a live-in nanny. I could live with the family until I gave birth to my child. The family was wonderful and helped me keep my head together. I was an emotional wreck after the birth of my son and at several times before the court date, I had thought about backing out of the already contracted adoption. In the end though, it was about my son and not about me. I wanted him to have a solid upbringing like I did.  To this day, giving up my son for adoption is one of the hardest decisions I have ever made. But it also still stands as one of my smartest decisions.  I picked a wonderful family. I found out years later that they were sending me, via the adoption agency, Mother’s Day cards with letters and pictures every year. One day when I was in my late 20’s, the agency sent me a fat Federal Express envelope with all of the letters and pictures.

Fast forward to my late 30’s.  By this time I had been living in Chicago over fifteen years. I had been going to school on and off for about eight years.  In 2001, I met a wonderful guy named Paul Fein. We got married just two years later in 2003.  In the early years of our marriage, we both agreed that I should go to college to obtain a bachelor’s degree.  I picked Roosevelt University since it was the only university where I could go to night school for a BA in history and a minor in secondary education.  It was tough going to school part-time and working full-time.  On top of this, we decided we also wanted to start a family and we went through 3 ½ years of fertility treatments. This included 7 rounds of IVF that were unsuccessful.  We did try to go the adoption route, but that was also a heartache.  Luckily we have our therapy chocolate lab puppy named Belle who is now 12 years old.

I thought I had aced the test of life! I had overcome a mountain of sad and depressing times. I had a wonderful husband, I finished college and got my BA, graduating with honors, I lost seventy-five pounds, and I got a great job in another department at the company where I had been employed for over ten years. And then boom! I felt a lump.  It turned out to be Stage 1 breast cancer.

When diagnosed with Stage 1 breast cancer, I decided that I had to be in control of my attitude. I wanted to be as positive as possible! I sent an email to my friends and family, telling them that even though I had Stage 1 breast cancer, I was going to be okay.  After sending the email I realized that in order to mentally deal with cancer and to show that I was really okay, I had to conquer something scarier than cancer.  What can possibly be scarier than cancer?  Answer:  Running my first marathon at 52 years old and running my first Spartan Super Race!  After all of the setbacks, comebacks, and emotional BS, I decided that when the going gets tough, the tough get going! And I had to be tough because my first 20 days of radiation coincided with my first 4 weeks of marathon training and Spartan training. I was also just starting rapier fencing!

So what are the "blessons" in all of my setbacks, comebacks, and emotional BS?

I have learned that I am mentally tough and flexible. My dairy farm roots provided a strong foundation. I learned that not always fitting the mold gives me the flexibility to deal with a lot of situations that are grey.  My life experience has cemented my mental toughness.

I have learned over the years that feeling sorry for myself is the worst option when there’s always someone that is in a worse situation than I am.  

I’ve learned that it’s dangerous to go down rabbit holes of despair and that it’s healthy to get professional counseling.  Who doesn’t want to improve their emotional wellbeing?  It might even save your life.

I have learned that I am in the right place at the right time.  On more than one occasion in recent years I have felt like I have been helpful to complete strangers, by telling them about my breast cancer, my cancer treatment, or just listening to them.       

I know the best way that I can take care of myself and help others is to stay physically and mentally strong. I will continue to run marathons and continue to challenge myself with new activities as well. My husband and I scuba dive whenever we get the chance.  I’ve also started participating in Revolutionary War Reenactments as a soldier in the Continental Marines, Dean’s Unit.

A lot of what I do to stay mentally and physically strong could not happen without the support of my wonderful spouse. He understands that I need to do these things to be in a good place and that it allows me, in turn, to support him, our dog, and our families.

I have been incredibly blessed to have had wonderful people in my life over the years that have helped me get through the tough times with their friendship and selflessness.  I feel that it’s now my time to give back to others that need help. It is so important to me to help women succeed through education at a time when they have been kicked to the curb and their outlook is grim.  Since I have personally been in this situation, I know what it feels like to hit rock bottom.  Education is the key to provide hope and help women rise above their circumstances. It is the key to their success!

- Marlise Fein