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Park bench conversation
In Loving Memory of Marsha Rivkin

A Legacy of Hope

Beloved wife and mother of five

by Saul Rivkin, MD
Founder and Chairman of the Rivkin Center

In the summer of 1989, my late wife Marsha and I were vacationing in southern California. Little did we know that insidious ovarian cancer cells were taking up residence throughout Marsha’s body. We were happy, relaxed, and feeling confident about the future. One daughter had graduated from college, married, and “flown the coop.” Four more to go! Our baby was entering second grade.

As we diligently slathered SPF 45 sunscreen all over our bodies, we basked in the glow of the California sun and our life’s successes. Our future was bright. The irony of the SPF 45 to stave off the years was compelling. Marsha would succumb to her cancer within four years. She died three weeks before her 50th birthday.

Her diagnosis came a month after that vacation, less than six months after a clean bill of health from her annual check up. Her enlarged ovary was attributed to the fact that she had borne five children. But Marsha faced this challenge as she had faced many others in her life—privately, and with great courage.

Immediately after her diagnosis, Marsha underwent a total abdominal hysterectomy at Swedish Medical Center, during which her doctors discovered that the cancer had spread beyond her ovaries. We kept this awful news between ourselves. As an oncologist, I was well aware of the battle that lay before us. Her chances of surviving five years were slim, but we were determined to fight, and we did so unrelentingly.

After two surgeries and a series of chemotherapy treatments, things appeared to be improving, and 1990 was a year of promise. Then, at the end of that year, a routine blood test detected tumor cells. The chemotherapy hadn’t been able to kill the cancer, and drastic measures were needed. In February, 1991, a few days after our youngest daughter’s seventh birthday, Marsha underwent a bone marrow transplant. Although she was kept for 30 days in an isolation room, we were able to see her through a plexiglass wall and touch her with plastic gloves in the middle of the wall. As always, the face she showed her children was both bold and brave.

After the transplant, Marsha’s prognosis was good. By the summer of 1991, she was back into the hectic life of raising five daughters. Although she continued taking chemotherapy treatments, she still headed up carpools, arranged dance and singing lessons, entertained, and worked part-time at the children’s school. Our daughters and I urged her to pamper herself, but she only did so reluctantly.

The next two years brought several recurrences of the cancer, but chemotherapy seemed to bring it under control each time. Marsha was strong and happy, and she and I traveled to Israel and England. The future looked bright, and Marsha began making long-range plans, seriously considering entering an English-as-a-Second-Language certification program for the fall of 1993 so she could teach.

Then, in June of 1993, test results showed the cancer had moved into her lungs. In July she underwent a second bone-marrow transplant. She knew her chances were very slim, but she had chosen to fight all the way. She slept most of every day in the hospital, and I spent every night in her room. Marsha left the hospital in early August, and we took the three youngest girls to Hawaii to recuperate. Marsha visited the hospital in Maui every day for routine blood work and chemotherapy. It was a time of fear and strain, but also hope.

On September 23, 1994, the family got together to celebrate our daughter Melissa’s birthday. Marsha wouldn’t hear of postponing the celebration-perhaps she knew time was rapidly running out. We met at Canlis, the restaurant that had been the site of my marriage proposal, our engagement party, and countless celebrations since. It was a sad but fitting location for Marsha’s last meal out.

A few days later, Marsha checked into Swedish for the last time, for surgery to remove growths on her windpipe. After the procedure, a breathing tube was inserted down her throat and tape covered her mouth; she couldn’t speak.

She wrote me a note asking: Am I dying now? I told her we are all dying, and nobody can predict exactly when.

On October 4, the tube was removed. Marsha could breathe on her own, and chatted with everyone. She had such a good day on October 7—so alert and cheerful—that we had some hope she’d be able to come home one more time. But the next day, the nurses could barely rouse her. It was time to say good-bye. Two of our daughters, Rebecca and Heidi, were at school in California and caught the first flight home.

Around noon that day, a rabbi entered the room to lead everyone in prayer. Although she couldn’t speak, Marsha was quite aware of what was happening. A tear rolled down her cheek as the rabbi, our family, and many friends held hands and encircled her bed in prayer.

By 3 p.m. she had fallen into a deep sleep. We talked to her, whispering messages of love and prayer. We stroked and hugged her.

Her two youngest girls, Aimee and Jessica, sat to her left, holding her hand and crying. They were 11 and 15 years old. Their mother had been in and out of hospitals for the last four years, yet had always been able to mother them.

Rebecca and Heidi entered the room at 7 p.m. We all breathed a sigh of relief as they rushed to their unconscious mother to say their good-byes amid tears and caresses. Although she died 15 minutes later without regaining consciousness, we all felt that Marsha had waited for her whole family to be with her before taking her last breath.

During Marsha’s life, her focus was on her family. She felt that the most important contribution she could make to humanity was raising our daughters to be kind, compassionate, and moral individuals.

She was warm-hearted and loving. Our door was always open, whether for newcomers to the community or kids around the block. She juggled a lot with five kids, but always had time to listen, to help, and to care for those around her.

Marsha’s death left me, and our five daughters, devastated and lost in a dark sea of grief, despair, and doubt. Her battle with ovarian cancer was over, but ours was not. Determined to turn our grief into something positive, I began to lay the groundwork for the Marsha Rivkin Center for Ovarian Cancer Research in 1994.

Meanwhile, my daughters went to work organizing the first annual Swedish SummeRun benefiting the Marsha Rivkin Center.

My daughters came up with the idea of SummeRun as a way to raise important funds for the Center. She felt it was appropriate that fundraising be at the grassroots level. The SummeRun is a wonderful opportunity for families and friends to join in the fight against ovarian cancer. We want to protect other mothers, daughters, sisters, and those who love them from experiencing what we went through due to ovarian cancer.

What better tribute is there for a woman who valued family, friendship, and community than to have a community and family-sponsored event with the purpose of helping others? However, both the Marsha Rivkin Center and the SummeRun are more than a tribute to Marsha—they are a tribute to all who are touched by stories like ours and want to help others fight cancer, promote awareness, and make the world a better place.

Marsha Rivkin
Marsha Rivkin