For the longest time, Marcus Burrier couldn’t understand why his mother was part of a support group. He was the one, after all, with the cancer. Not her. He was 14 years old when he was diagnosed with Embryonal Rhabdomyosarcoma – ‘Rhabdo,’ for short – and 15 the year he endured 48 doses of chemotherapy and 29 rounds of radiation treatment. Caring for a life had to be a cakewalk compared to physically fighting for one.
Marcus started out high school wanting nothing more than to be a normal kid – what most of us crave during those years – yet his extracurricular adversity was anything but. His parents faced a different challenge. Always the desire to help, yet often the feel of helpless.
Marcus’ father, David, a self-declared, un-ordained minister of Evangelical Christian faith, had the immediate insight to gather his family together and tell his wife, Karen, and children that this journey would either bring them together or tear them apart depending upon how they approached the struggles. As difficult as it was for them, Marcus’s parents allowed their sick son to sleep over at his best friend’s house three to four times per week during his early high school years in attempt to achieve some sense of normalcy for their teenager. In his mind, as long as they could swing by sometime each evening, find a private spot to administer injections to raise his white blood cell count following chemo, and not embarrass him too much in front of his peers, they were doing all they needed to do. He didn’t know, how could he possibly have known, what it was like for them.
The treatment worked and worked well. A fourth of the way into the chemotherapy, his doctor observed a 90-percent reduction of the soft-tissue tumor, stating that Marcus’s story changed the way he looked at a lot of things both medically and spiritually. The cancer all but vanished to the point that doctors told him later that his chances of it recurring were the same as any other person without a cancer background being diagnosed.
He attended the University of Northern Iowa, discovering a passion for outdoor recreation. He met a girl named Kelli, who he married within six months of their first meeting. Life was good, and he learned to joke about things in a therapeutic way that has stuck to this day. It’s what he called, ‘sick humor,’ referring to being able to laugh in the face of disease.
The only further medical adversity he faced during his young adulthood was learning that due to the radiation, he was left sterile. He was in the midst of a blossoming relationship with Kelli when he was made aware of this news. He learned how to drive a stick shift in the same day he borrowed a car to visit her at school and discuss what this meant for their future. He gave her an out, saying that if it was her dream to have children and start a family, he wasn’t the guy who could promise that to her. She looked him in the eye and said they would continue down their path together, no matter what was in store. They’ve been married for 10 years now, and thanks to the miracles of modern science, are the proud parents of three girls – a 3-year-old and pair of 15-month-old twins.
In January of this year, Marcus had open-heart surgery to remove life-threatening, benign tumors from his heart. It was only because his dad had gotten him involved in a healthy-living initiative for cancer survivors, that Marcus went to have some routine tests done as part of the program. Doctors discovered an unidentified mass on his right atrium. He was told the tumor had the potential to dislodge at anytime, meaning if that occurred, it would stop his heart without any notice.
But his heart never stopped. The diagnosis was made in time. Amazingly, Marcus is presently in Peru, ready to embark on a hike to Machu Picchu along the Inca Trail just eight months after his heart operation. He’s been training hard to get back to himself physically: To be able to do a pushup again, to be able to lift his beautiful babies. He’s here, both on this endeavor in South America and here on this planet because of his cancer. “It’s only because of cancer that I’m alive,” he says frankly.
After the births of his second and third children, Marcus roamed the halls of the neonatal intensive care unit, the smells and overall atmosphere of the hospital were too reminiscent of his cancer treatment as a teen. He remembered all the times he would chug gallons of water to avoid the dry heaves following chemo, because vomiting up something was much better than nothing. But this time, Marcus was playing the other role one does when spending time in a hospital. The role of caregiver.
His twin daughters were born 10 weeks premature, meaning that they lacked the ability to switch between breathing and eating without assistance. What the nurses called “spells,” referred to the periods of time the babies’ faces would turn blue due to lack of oxygen. The young parents became fully trained to resuscitate their youngest twin daughters when necessary.
Marcus recalls looking down at his little girls while he cared for them, noticing the resilience, the courage to try to figure out how to eat and breathe on their own in order to survive despite being three-and-a-half pounds light and coming into the world a bit too soon. It was then, for the first time, he understood.