Inspired by her own battle with breast cancer, Marquina Iliev-Piselli has collected the work of 37 inspiring women with the guts to share moments from their cancer fight—the joys and triumphs, but also the dark times, marked by fear and isolation. “Tough,” now available for purchase on Iliev-Piselli’s website Share Triumph, Amazon, and Barnes & Noble, is a testament to the strength and fortitude of the 37 women whose stories offer a place to escape when alienation hits, insight into the world of cancer treatment, words of wisdom, and, sometimes, even a good laugh.
The women of “Tough,” most of whom are under 40, have been diagnosed with a wide range of cancers, from breast to colorectal to head and neck cancer. With careful consideration of maintaining diversity in socio-economic background, race, and age, Iliev-Piselli scavenged for stories from coast to coast. (She continues to collect stories to share on the Share Triumph website.)
Like no two stories are alike, so are no two cancers and treatment regimens—the latter of which are largely dependent on the opinion of the oncologist. That cancer treatment is often the result of guesswork is best understood in Gina Marie Cortese’s essay “Saved by a Second Opinion.” Diagnosed with giant-cell glioblastoma at just 20 years old, Gina underwent surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation—successful treatment that led to clean MRIs for almost a year. But then the cancer came back. At least that’s what doctors thought—after receiving a second opinion, Gina was saved from surgery that could have led to lifelong paralysis.
There’s also the story of Francesca Elizabeth Dials, who was diagnosed with osteosarcoma at just 25 years old. Francesca received a bone marrow transplant from her younger brother—during the painful, month-long recovery process, when Francesca was covered in “chemo burn” from head to toe, her boyfriend at the time proposed. “Cancer helped me open up a more vulnerable side of myself, which I was really fearful of letting people see. Extremely fearful, actually. To let that wall down and be able to show such a vulnerable side of me was something I had to work on. Still, to this day.”
But “Tough” doesn’t shy away from the starker realities of cancer. Nichole Wouters, a beloved high school English teacher, was diagnosed with stage IV lung cancer at 27 years old. “Because I’m already stage IV,” Nichole writes, “I will have to be on treatment all the time. If I take a break, it would be for quality of life.” Nichole passed away Sept. 16, 2019, leaving “Tough” readers with this: “[W]hat I wish I’d known at the beginning, is that the unknown doesn’t always need to be scary,” Nichole writes. “It’s OK to have those emotions, but it’s not OK to let them cripple you.”
If “Tough” leaves you wanting more, Iliev-Piselli’s website Share Triumph hosts a virtual conference with many of the women featured in the collection, sharing their stories on camera. The website also features resources for women faced with cancer, and highlights advocacy and support groups from around the country.
In her introduction to the collection, Iliev-Piselli asks, “What can light you up, even in the worst times?” And “Tough” answers that question. Cancer treatment can leave patients debilitated and homebound, but stories from others in similar situations, highlighting the ways they found light in the dark, will lift anyone’s spirit to help them greet another day.
Tough: Women Who Survived Cancer
Edited by Marquine Iliev-Piselli