By John Joyce
Published in News on May 4, 2014 1:50 AM
Michelle Marks and her husband hold up a photograph taken the day she shaved her head -- a decision she made to avoid losing her hair as a result of chemotherapy.
Michelle Marks and her husband, Lovenzo, tie a purple ribbon to the light post outside of their home. Mrs. Marks used to attend Relay for Life to honor her grandmothers, but this year, she will attend the event -- and serve as her team's captain -- to mark her own battle with cancer.
Members of Team M&M pose inside the Wayne County Courthouse.
For years she has walked for those cancer has stolen from her -- for each grandmother taken by the disease.
But this year, when Michelle Marks and the members of her Relay for Life team, Team M&M, take their laps, it will be for the breast she sacrificed to the disease -- for her daughters the illness might one day threaten and the fight she continues to win one Relay at a time.
"I wasn't ready to take on being the captain of a team until five years," Ms. Marks said. "I wasn't mentally ready."
Last year, the supervisor of the Superior Court section inside the Wayne County Clerk of Courts celebrated five years free of cancer.
She said the amount of support she received was amazing.
Her family of clerks all wore pink.
The lawyers wore pink ties.
The bailiffs, with special permission from the late Wayne County Sheriff Carey Winders to modify their uniforms, wore pink ribbons in her honor.
It had been a long fight, she said.
And they had all been there with her every step of the way.
Their journey began six years ago.
Ms. Marks received her diagnosis in November 2007 after returning from Jamaica with her husband, Lovenzo, an Air Force master sergeant.
"He had just come home from his third tour in Iraq," she said.
Due to his 27 years of service, the Markses have spent a great deal of time apart.
With two daughters, Mrs. Marks had to contend, on her own, with holidays, birthdays and graduations.
The couple were apart on their 20th wedding anniversary.
Wishing to renew their vows, the two slipped off to a Sandals resort in Jamaica for a few days during the court's 2007 Thanksgiving hiatus.
They had a wonderful time, she said. The trip was all she had imagined and more.
Waiting for the couple at home, however, a blinking light on their answering machine signified the end of their second honeymoon.
"There was a message from my doctor telling me she needed to speak to me," Mrs. Marks said. "So I called and asked her when she wanted me to come in. She said, 'Now.'"
Mrs. Marks has had regular mammograms since her 20s.
Knowing what she knew of her family history, she never wanted to leave anything to chance.
Her last mammogram had come just days before their trip.
This time, however, she would not receive the clean bill of health she'd gotten each of the previous years.
"I had four biopsies before they determined it was cancer," she said.
She was told she would need a lumpectomy.
For the procedure, she went to the Leo W. Jenkins Cancer Center at Vidant Medical Center in Greenville.
Once there, the cancer dealt Mrs. Marks another blow.
"The reports reflected more than what I was told," she said.
The cancer had spread to her lymph nodes.
Doctors scratched the lumpectomy and scheduled her, instead, for a mastectomy.
First, though, she would have to tell her daughters.
They were 13 and 17 years old at the time.
And it was two weeks before Christmas.
The surgery took place the first week of January 2008.
Following the procedure were months of chemo, with sessions scheduled every three weeks.
Having already lost a breast, Mrs. Marks prepared herself, now, to also lose her hair as well as her strength.
Not one to wait around, Mrs. Marks schedule an appoint with a friend who is a masseuse and also cuts hair.
"I didn't want it to be a long drawn out thing. I didn't want to be brushing my hair and have clumps coming out in the brush," she said.
She, Lovenzo and her two daughters went to her friend's shop.
Mrs. Marks took the chair and the clippers clicked on.
Her youngest had to leave the room.
After the shaving, Mrs. Marks wrapped a scarf around her head.
Lovenzo put one on, too.
The photo still hangs on her bedroom mirror.
The journey from Sandals to head scarfs had been a long one.
After the surgery came the chemotherapy.
"She kept coming to work, she never complained" said Shirril Worrel, works under Marks in the Superior Court section of the clerk's office.
"If it had been me, they would have known I was hurting," she said.
Mrs. Marks was hurting.
She was tired.
She was unable to taste food.
"I would take my 15-minute breaks, line up three chairs in the break room and take a 14-minute nap," she said.
But she said she knew she was going to get better -- that she had not been delivered a death sentence.
After the months of chemo, she was forced to endure weeks of radiation therapy, then reconstructive surgery.
Doctors used skin from her back to create a flap where her breast once was. They would then inflate it little by little over time.
"I had bottles hanging off of me for drainage. My husband was my caretaker -- changing my bottles and bandages, making sure I had what I needed," she said.
During each phase of her treatment, her friends -- the clerks, lawyers, probation officers, even the judges from the courthouse -- would send her flowers, cards and food.
They visited when they could.
And after each procedure, she came back to work sooner than expected and worked harder than she was asked.
In 2011, Mrs. Marks received a promotion. She became supervisor of the Superior Court section, leading the team that had been by her side throughout her battle with cancer.
Doctors had told her that without the mastectomy she would not live past 49.
When she turned 50, there was a huge celebration. Some thought she was simply celebrating a milestone birthday.
"Inside I knew what I was celebrating meant so much more than that," she said.
Team M&M has more than 30 members.
It is comprised of the Superior Court section -- the ladies Mrs. Marks credits with being there for her throughout her fight, including past supervisor Rita Pate, Shirril Worrel, Connie Vasquez, Karrie Mondell and newcomer Kassie Rapp, as well as just about every clerk in the entire office, including Wayne County Clerk of Courts Pam Minshew.
Most have walked in the Relay for Life event before, each wishing to raise money and awareness to battle the disease they say touches everyone.
This year, however, they are doing it for one of their own.
Mrs. Marks said each year she has been asked who she was walking for.
"I would always stop and tell them I was walking for my grandmothers," she said.
This year, her answer will be different.
"This year I don't mind telling them I am doing it for me."