Cancer patient pushes through post-treatment side effects to run with Dana-Farber’s team

Each Marathon Monday, Marlene Fronske has stood in front of her apartment in Brookline cheering on runners making the 26.2-mile journey from Hopkinton to Boston in the world-renowned Boston Marathon®. This April will be different for her, as she will be on the course herself for the 128th Boston Marathon. Marlene was inspired to apply to join the 2024 Dana-Farber Marathon Challenge (DFMC) team after experiencing Dana-Farber Cancer Institute’s lifesaving care as a patient herself. She was diagnosed with head and neck cancer in 2018 and feels lucky to be in remission today, thanks to the top-notch care that she received.  

Marlene’s initial symptoms presented as fatigue, exhaustion, and generally feeling “off.” In April 2018, she felt a lump on the side of her neck, which she dismissed as a clogged lymph node. It was clear to her that there was a larger issue by the end of May, when she was struggling to walk upstairs, could no longer attend her routine workout classes, and was experiencing sweating and pain. “I saw a doctor in my practice who told me it was a sinus infection,” Marlene shares. “My primary care physician, who was on vacation during my initial visit, took one look at me at a follow-up appointment and sent me for an ultrasound the next day. Two days later I was scheduled for a biopsy. I knew it was cancer, I just had no idea what it all meant and where it was going to show up in my body. It started to set in that the 18-inch biopsy needle was going to be the least terrifying thing that was going to happen to me in the next few weeks and months.” 

Marlene recalls the fear and anxiety that she felt in the week between her biopsy and diagnosis. “I had so many thoughts running through my head,” she says. “Am I going to die? How will I be able to take care of my son and myself during treatment as a single parent in my home?”   

On July 9, Marlene received the lifechanging call with her diagnosis and was referred to a head and neck specialist and surgeon at a local Boston hospital. She shared the news with her parents and close friends immediately, but decided to wait to tell her 13-year-old son until she had more information from her follow-up appointments. As Marlene was looking ahead toward treatment, her family suggested that she visit Dana-Farber for a second opinion. “After all of the scans at Dana-Farber, I was connected with Glenn Hanna, MD, who diagnosed me with head and neck cancer caused by human papilloma virus (HPV),” Marlene shares. “I had four tumors, but the good news was that it was a viral cancer, with a 95% chance of remission. I looked at Dr. Hanna and told him that I would do anything necessary to come out on the other side of this. After this meeting, I knew that Dana-Farber was the right place. They were going to do everything to save my life.”

Marlene (right) on a hike with her son. 

Marlene’s treatment included cisplatin chemotherapy and 36 rounds of radiation oncology. She also enrolled in a 13-month immunology study, which was focused on exploring the effects of infusions on head and neck cancer specifically. “A mask was created for me to wear during radiation, due to the nature of my cancer. It had to be bolted to the radiation table. I screamed for them to take it off the first time I went in for radiation” she recalls. “It was scary, but I started to focus on my meditation practice and the music that the team played to get through it.” As treatment went on, Marlene experienced many side effects including blisters; painful, raw skin; nausea; and weight loss. “The radiation and chemo combo caused me to lose 20 pounds very quickly,” she shares. “Dr. Hanna recommended a feeding tube when I was struggling to eat and keep food down, which was caused by my chemo drugs, the mouth sores, and a burning feeling in my mouth and face from radiation. I was admitted to inpatient care when I lost even more weight, and my team was concerned with my blood counts. I had transfusions in the hospital and continued to be wheeled to Dana-Farber for radiation. Those were my sickest days. I couldn’t do anything for myself and simple tasks, like using the bathroom, felt like running a marathon.” 

By the time Marlene reached four years post-diagnosis, she was informed that she no longer needed frequent scans. Hanna shared that there was a new blood test that could detect HPV in her system, and scans were no longer necessary unless there was a specific concern. Though this was the case, she knew that there were many side effects that needed to be managed. Since diagnosis, she had lost over 40 pounds, and experienced side effects including tinnitus, a ringing in her ear; hearing loss; adrenal insufficiency; neuropathy, a numbing and tingling in her hands and feet; difficulty eating due to mouth sores; and peeling and dryness on her lips and neck due to the burns from radiation. At times, her neuropathy was so bad that she could barely walk, but her care team has prescribed drugs to manage the pain. “Treatment also left me with damage all around my mouth, neck, and collar bone,” Marlene shares. “I have extreme loss of collagen that looks like deep lines and there is a sizable scar from radiation damage on my neck. These are all superficial, but they are daily reminders of my cancer journey when I look in the mirror.” 

Though this journey has been difficult, Marlene credits her care team for getting her through it. “Dr. Hanna and everyone on my Dana-Farber team took such unbelievable care of me. Each member of the team made such a difference in my treatment. There were times that I felt alone in this journey, but the support provided at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute goes way beyond physical care.” She considers herself lucky that she reached a positive outcome, and statistics show that her chances of recurrence are low at five percent. “Cancer was the worst thing I have ever gone through, but it brought of a strength in me that I didn’t know was there,” she says. “It has shifted my perspective and helped me to focus on what I really wanted for the rest of my life. I started to make room for a new life for me and found the ability to put myself first, prioritizing my health and recovery.” 

Marlene has built up her strength and endurance slowly, continuing to manage the ongoing numbness, tingling, and pain in her hands and feet from neuropathy. “Running has been my way of saying thank you to my body for getting me through this journey,” she shares. “I started by running a half mile, building up my stamina slowly, then trained for a 5K, 10K, and half marathon. I was one of the last runners that came in for the half marathon, but who cares? I finished and then realized I could run a marathon. I ran one local marathon, but applying and being accepted to Dana-Farber’s Boston Marathon team truly felt like the full circle moment.” 

Training for the marathon through the cold winter months has taken a toll on Marlene physically, but she feels privileged to be running on behalf of Dana-Farber, the place that saved her life. “My body has been to hell and back,” she says. “Now that I’m back, I am living for the opportunities that push me and give me the chance to say thank you to my body. Being on the DFMC team has created a sense of pride and an inclusive learning space. I am not a fast runner, but I do the hard work and chase my dreams, because I am able to thanks to Dana-Farber.” 

Support Dana-Farber Marathon Challenge runners, like Marlene, by making a donation to support the 2024 Boston Marathon® team today. Your donation will support The Dana-Farber Campaign, our ambitious, multi-year fundraising effort to prevent, treat, and defy cancer. The Dana-Farber Campaign will accelerate the Institute’s strategic priorities by supporting revolutionary science, extraordinary care, and exceptional expertise. As a community, we have the power to create a more hopeful, cancer-free future—in Boston and around the world. Together, we can defy cancer at every turn. Learn more about The Dana-Farber Campaign and how you can get involved at DefyCancer.org.