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When Marilyn Lemke picked up a harp at age 10, she had no idea that it would become her lifeline almost 60 years later.
With a diagnosis of stage IV metastatic breast cancer, Marilyn finds peace by playing for herself and her fellow patients and caregivers during her weekly treatments at Fox Chase Cancer Center. And they are grateful to Marilyn for sharing her gift.
Recently retired from teaching in the Philadelphia area, Marilyn realized she wanted to do more with her harp. In 2002 she became a certified Harp Therapist. Since then she has played at the bedside in local hospitals and hospice units.
First diagnosed with breast cancer in 2003, Marilyn had surgery at a large Philadelphia teaching hospital, but elected to have her chemotherapy and radiation closer to her home at her local hospital.
“I knew I wanted to be treated at Fox Chase if I had a recurrence.”
Marilyn didn’t think of a recurrence as an “if” but rather a “when” since she had lost her sister to breast cancer in 1987. “I knew I wanted to be treated at Fox Chase Cancer Center if I had a recurrence.”
In the summer of 2011 at the age of 68, Marilyn’s breast cancer returned. This time it was stage IV – and had spread to her liver, lung and bones. Because she was already in the Fox Chase system, her treatment could move quickly to control her disease.
Her oncologist is Dr. Paula Ryan, who joined Fox Chase in 2010 after a decade at Massachusetts General Hospital Cancer Center and the Dana Farber/Harvard Cancer Center. Dr. Ryan specializes in treating patients with advanced metastatic breast cancer.
“I am thrilled to have Dr. Ryan as my oncologist."
“I am thrilled to have Dr. Ryan as my oncologist. She is extremely knowledgeable and resourceful. Her experience and expertise coupled with her straightforward and calm demeanor has put me at ease and has given me confidence. I never feel rushed or that I am asking too many questions.”
“I also can’t say enough about the wonderful nursing staff at Fox Chase – from those who take my blood to those who give me my infusions. Each one is friendly, knowledgeable, and a great source of comfort.”
“When I was initially diagnosed in 2003, I thought I had to be at ‘war’ with the cancer. Today I envision my treatments differently. I have chosen to call Fridays my ‘Spa Day’ since I’m getting ‘cleansed’. I envision the drugs as effervescent angels – like tiny Glindas from the Wizard of Oz – coming into me via the IV. They each have their assigned cell to approach and escort peacefully away. I’m so grateful I can feel this way. It makes the day so much calmer and more peaceful.”
"I truly feel like queen for a day when I’m at Fox Chase.”
Marilyn has been impressed with the atmosphere at Fox Chase. “It feels more like a campus than a hospital. Everyone is friendly and supportive. I appreciate all the amenities – mostly the beeper - that allows me to wander to other areas while I wait for my treatment.” She also enjoys the courtyard and outdoor areas, coffee cart and dining selections, fireplace, complimentary reading materials and computer access. “I appreciate that there are some lounges with TV and some without for when I want quiet time. I truly feel like queen for a day when I’m at Fox Chase,” she said.
Marilyn is grateful to have a huge support system of family and friends – especially her significant other, Jerry, with whom she has spent the past 26 years. “Jerry is not only my ‘harp schlepper’ but my best friend.” Her harp student and good friend, Nancy, has also been an amazing source of support. Nancy, also a harp therapist, comes weekly to the treatments, soothing Marilyn with music when she would rather listen than play during her infusion.
For Marilyn, playing the harp takes her away from the stresses of being treated for cancer. Some patients have requested to have their chemotherapy on Fridays so they can enjoy her music.
“Crazy as it sounds - all I can say about Fox Chase is that I leave feeling better than when I arrived.”
"Crazy as it sounds – all I can say about Fox Chase is that I leave feeling better than when I arrived," admitted Marilyn. “It's a combination of the surroundings, the caregivers, the camaraderie of fellow patients and families, and of course being allowed to play my little harp – which seems to be magical.”