A Survivor’s Story: Marlene Smelko Merkle

Marlene Smelko Merkle was born and raised in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, and now is CEO of the Venice Area Board of Realtors.

When were you diagnosed?

I was actually diagnosed with ductal carcinoma twice. The first time was in 1999 at age 49. The second time was in 2012 at age 62.

What treatment did you receive?

The first time, I had a left-side lumpectomy and six and a half weeks of radiation. The second time, because it was on both sides, I had no choice but to have a double mastectomy followed by seven months of reconstructive surgeries and procedures.

Did you face any obstacles? How did you overcome them?

The first time around, the biggest obstacle and annoyance was having to go to radiation five times a week for six and a half weeks.

The second time, the difficult surgery created some other issues. I could not raise my arms for weeks. I could not do a lot of the physical things I was used to doing. I had to stay out of the office for six weeks, but luckily, I was able to work from home. My younger sister came to stay with me for the first two weeks as I live alone. And my twin is right around the corner, so they were both there to help.

What was the most challenging part?

The first time my greatest challenge was to make sure my son was not upset or worried about me. He was only 12 years old and as a single mother, I raised him alone since he was seven. I didn’t want him to be scared. I tried to keep life as normal as possible.

The second time, the worst part of the experience was having expanders for seven months after the double mastectomy. Every three weeks I had to have injections into the expanders to prepare my skin for the implants. The expanders were uncomfortable. At times I felt like my skin was ready to burst open.

Where did you find the greatest support?

I have four sisters and two of them also had breast cancer, as well as my mother. And my only brother had prostate cancer. So, my family is no stranger to this epidemic. My mother had it first, then me, then my identical twin, then my younger sister and then me again.

A couple years ago I went through a whole battery of genetic tests and they all came back negative for genetics.

My family was my greatest support. And of course, my son and I are very close. We talk every day.

How did this experience affect your relationship with family and friends?

I tried not to let this experience affect my relationships or my work. Most of our Realtor members did not even know what was going on. I kept up with my work and didn’t skip a beat. I have lots of friends and a big family. The last thing I wanted to do was to make them feel uncomfortable around me.

How has this experience changed you?

I have always been a very strong and independent person. This experience validated that. I never shed one tear for either diagnosis. I learned to do what you have to in order to get through your challenges.

What advice would you share with others?

My advice is to try to make this diagnosis and treatment a non-event as best you can. Stick to your routines and schedules. Don’t feel sorry for yourself. Everyone has challenges, they just come in different forms.

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