Marissa Bundy is the third of nine children; I am the oldest. As a middle child, Marissa was a peacemaker – binding older and younger siblings together as the family grew up and grew apart. She encouraged family gatherings and forced documentation of those events; shoving a dozen teenagers and adults into awkward groupings for photos to prove that the party occurred. She was sassy; her sharp sense of humor and easy laughter lighting up any room she entered. A bleach blonde with loose waves as a toddler, her hair morphed into light brown curls as she became a teenager and then an adult; perfectly fitting her light, bouncy personality. She loved vintage dresses, red shoes, and young children. Her degree was in Elementary Education, and she worked in daycares and preschools in the Upstate, becoming a beloved “Miss ‘Arisa” to her three year old friends.
Life was falling into place for Marissa in the summer of 2015. She had recently started a position as the Lead Teacher for a three year old class – her dream job. She had started seeing someone she had met and connected with. There was only one thing that threatened to disrupt everything. A lump. Large and unyielding that had grown up swiftly in her breast.
It didn’t present as typical for cancer. In fact, several of the doctors examining her said as much. It was likely some other kind of benign growth. Some odd thing that would need to be removed, but wouldn’t threaten her health in any kind of ongoing way.
And so a shock wave erupted when the biopsy results came back. It was cancer after all. I remember getting the news in the airport on my way home from a business trip. Collapsing into myself right there waiting for my flight – silently screaming and gasping for breath through the instant pain and fear that exploded through my heart. I rushed to Marissa’s side the moment I landed back in town. She was sober. Shaken. We sat around as a family, hugged one other, and cried together. By the following morning, however, Marissa’s resolve was there. Firm, unshakeable, and full of hope. She was young – twenty-four years old. She would beat this. It would be hard. Excruciating. But everyone who knew Marissa knew that she was a warrior; a fighter. This would be a difficult path, but it would only refine her; not defeat her.
However, the news from that point on would almost never be good. Her cancer was Stage Three, right from the beginning. It was Triple Negative breast cancer, meaning that the options to suppress the cancer growth were limited. They also let us know that only a small % of women with triple negative breast cancer made it to the 5 year survival mark. Genetic results revealed that her cancer originated from the BRCA1 mutation. Most of our family was also tested. Three of the four girls would have the mutation. Only I was negative. One of my brother’s had the mutation as well. I struggled deeply with survivor’s guilt. My other two sisters had to find the balance between supporting Marissa and processing their own future.
Months of intensive chemo was followed by surgery to remove the rest of the lump. “You’re cancer free!” the doctors declared. But somehow, we just knew. Knew it wasn’t going to be that easy. Within weeks, spots on Marissa’s chest brought us back to the doctor. Testing revealed the truth we were so afraid of. The cancer was still there; morphing now into an incredibly difficult presentation of breast cancer that appears on the skin.
We transferred to a hospital system further away with experts and specialists. More chemo. Radiation. And more chemo again. Marissa’s health was failing. Her body was so tired; so shattered by the necessary poisons. She was in pain, sick, and exhausted. And shortly before Christmas of 2016, it was confirmed that her cancer had continued the terrible march of progression into stage four. We celebrated that holiday quietly; processing that her death from cancer was now a question of when, not if.
But people can live for years in stage four! The fighting was not over. We explored clinical trials, and enrolled in the one that had the best chance of helping. Her health continued to decline. Her strength was fleeting. Her breathing was compromised. And scans revealed that the clinical trial treatment was not helping.
We scheduled a visit to the hospital to discuss next steps; other options. Keep fighting. Keep striving. But the day we left for the appointment, it became clear things were very wrong. Her ability to walk had almost disappeared overnight. Scans at the hospital revealed that the cancer was everywhere now. In her spinal fluid. In her brain. Her hardened, brilliant doctor told her in tears that the fight was over. She was heading home.
Four days from the time we got home, one day after her hospice bed arrived, Marissa took her last breath surrounded by her loving family and beloved one. She was twenty-six years old.
Marissa’s journey and passing is the hardest thing I have ever experienced. She was my dear sister; my closest friend; my soul mate. It is easy to ask why. To believe she was taken too soon. To cry out in anguished protest in the way her story ended.
But through that story, and the years since, I have learned to rest on the solid rock of my faith. The faith I shared with my sister. Some of her favorite verses were Habakkuk 3:17-19: “Although the fig tree shall not blossom, Neither shall fruit be in the vines; The labour of the olive shall fail, And the fields shall yield no meat; The flock shall be cut off from the fold, And there shall be no herd in the stalls: Yet I will rejoice in the LORD, I will joy in the God of my salvation. The LORD God is my strength, And he will make my feet like hinds’ feet, And he will make me to walk upon mine high places.” God said no to us so many times; to so many prayers. And yet we saw His grace and His love every step of the way. Marissa’s faith never faltered. Never shifted.
To those who are still facing this journey, throw yourself in to God’s loving arms. Advocate for yourself; find the doctors that will fight for you. Be aware of your family history and how it could impact you, and pursue genetic testing if you want to. The BRCA1 mutation makes the chance of breast cancer up to 80% in women, and the chance of ovarian cancer up to 46%. Surgery can take that potential down to close to 0%.
For right now, I continue to support my sisters as they navigate their genetic makeup and future. And I look forward to the day when we are all reunited again and all sickness and pain is gone forever. Because right now, Marissa is forever healed, and experiencing the best part of her story. And I can’t wait to join her.
“All their life in this world and all their adventures had only been the cover and the title page: now at last they were beginning Chapter One of the Great Story which no one on earth has read: which goes on for ever: in which every chapter is better than the one before.”
― C.S. Lewis, The Last Battle
Story by Cassie Thompson
Photo by Patrick Cox