Sunday, October 20, 2013

Interview With Kenna P. Marriott, Author Of COULDA, SHOULDA, WOULDA

"Breast cancer is the most common form of cancer in women; every 3 minutes, another woman is diagnosed; every 11 minutes, another woman dies." The statistics published by the  American Breast Cancer Association paint a frightening picture, but one we all need to look at and be aware of during a month-long prevention campaign as well as any other time of the year. In her courageous and heart-grabbing memoirs COULDA, SHOULDA, WOULDA (read my review), Kenna P. Marriott brings up challenges and situations that are often not openly discussed between cancer patients and their families. Kenna's insights and lessons learned during her daughter's lost battle with breast cancer will hopefully inspire and help patients and their families to get through the minefield of obstacles and emotions that come with a life-threatening illness. She has graciously agreed to answer my questions, very personal questions. Kenna, thank you for baring your heart to me. I know it hasn't been easy and for this reason I'll treasure this conversation as a precious gift from a friend.

Q. COULDA, SHOULDA, WOULDA was very hard to put down, despite the mournful topic and the heart-shattering emotions it evoked. I cannot even imagine how difficult it must have been for you to write it. What gave you the strength to go through that journey all over again?

A. My strength came from Jeannine actually. When we talked about doing a book together for breast cancer survivors, she was so excited about helping other women, especially urging them to get mammograms at age 40 and using herself as an example of someone who had beaten breast cancer. She wanted to help others discovering they had breast cancer to have hope and to fight like hell to beat it! She was infectious in her excitement. This was of course when she had survived the breast cancer and been cancer free for a year. This was before the breast cancer metastasized in her back bone as bone cancer. We were shocked to learn that breast cancer can metastasize anywhere and still be referred to as breast cancer. As it continued they began to call it what it was, incurable bone cancer.

After her fight with cancer ended I knew she would want me to continue our dream and enlarge it to include her entire struggle with cancer. But I couldn’t even think about it.  About a year after her death I began to journal my thoughts as a way to release the pain and re-think what had happened. I wrote and wrote and wrote, several hundred and eventually thousands of pages. What amazed me was that the random ramblings, about anything I was thinking of that particular day, started to form what would later become chapters. Nothing was in order of course, they hadn’t been written as a book, and they were simply the outpourings of my heart on any given day.

There was one day in particular that I was napping and I swear Jeannine was in the house, tapped me on the shoulder and talking to me, telling me to get going and pull all those random thoughts together, sort them out and get going on a book. She clearly told me and that she was going to do this with me. From that day forward I felt as if her fingers were on the keyboard with mine. I often glanced behind me, thinking I would see her standing there. Over the next two years the book took shape. I believe it is her legacy to people who are suffering. I believe it is her legacy to her children. I also believe it was her way of saving me. She was one of my inspirations in life and in death.  Jeannine was-is-my hero!

Q. If you could paint a picture of your daughter Jeannine and capture one particular moment of her life, how would you paint her?

A. I would paint her as I saw her when she was in her late teens. I would paint it like the one picture of her that she felt was her favorite one ever, before or after that day. She loved that picture. She thought it caught the essence of who she was. She was in a mash t-shirt, her hair was curly and shoulder length and she had what I refer to as her "Jeannine smile". I believe she liked that because it was indicative of her personality...always smiling and looking for the bright side of things. The sun shone through her hair as if it was gold and that was something she was proud of. She had no makeup on and she loved the fact that she was happy with herself just as she was. The mash t-shirt was indicative also of her personality, unassuming and down to earth. I have that picture several places in my home and when I am sad, look at it and try to smile.  

Q. What do you miss most about your daughter?

A. Everything! She was my best friend. I lost two people when I lost her. I miss the way she said "I love you too!" when we hung up the phone or parted after a meeting. The words had a lilt that was all her own. They went up in tone and had a sort of southern accent (I don't know why). I would give anything to hear her say it just once more. At her funeral I stood beside her and whispered it over and over, as if to make her say it for herself. People do strange but poignant things at a funeral. I miss her laugh, it was a warm laugh, not loud or odd, just warm sounding, drawing you into it and causing you to laugh with her, even if you didn't know quite why.
I also miss seeing her with her children, Alex and Anthony. She was a wonderful mother and they had such a good time together. She could make cleaning off the table after dinner and putting the dishes in the dishwasher a fun experience. She would dance around the kitchen to music the kids liked on the radio and then grab a plate, rinse it off, and place it in the dishwasher...being sure to tell all of us exactly where it was to go so the kids could learn to do it without her as part of their chores. She would lie in bed with them every single morning before school. They got up 1/2 hour early so that the three of them could watch cartoons together while everyone woke up. This was a ritual; even their two cats Spike and Tiny would join them at the foot of the bed. They let me crowd in when I was at their home. It was sure crowded in that bed, but no one seemed to mind. I miss talking with her on the phone least once and often more than that.  We talked about everything and nothing. Just talked…and laughed…and shared our secret thoughts. Sometimes when something great happens I go to the phone instinctively to call her… and realize I can’t. I miss her love for me and everyone in her life. I miss everything.

Q. How did Jeannine react to the devastating news when she was diagnosed with breast cancer? In your experience, was her reaction the most common response among cancer patients?

A. I wasn't with her but know that she was devastated and cried at the oncologist’s office. I am aware that when she got home she wanted to be by herself and told her husband she needed time alone. She later told me she cried for quite awhile and felt as if her stomach had been blasted by a bomb along with her head.  She also said she shook all over. Then, when she heard the kids hollering down stairs, she got herself together before she went downstairs to get them their afternoon snack. She didn't want them to know anything was wrong. They were only two and six when she was diagnosed. She told me that she got onto the computer that night and the next day and did a lot of research on breast cancer, mastectomies (single and double) and reconstruction. She wanted to have answers when she came to see me the next evening (not having told me why she was making the two hour drive to Erie that night). I did not have a clue.

When she arrived at my house, after hugs and kisses she immediately said she wanted to talk with me and headed toward my bedroom. When she shut the door she was calm and composed but taking deep breaths. I knew this was one time I should not ask questions. She started to cry and at the same time blurted out" I have breast cancer! It’s aggressive and I will have to have a mastectomy!" at that point we just held each other and cried. She was shaking all over and crying as I had never heard her cry before. The sobs that burst from her were heartbreaking. We didn't talk for what seemed like an eternity (probably one-half hour). We just held each other and cried.

Q. All the most important people in Jeannine’s life seem to have been in denial at some point. Jeannine herself, with her strong will and optimism, went through it. But it sounds to me like her husband, Scott, might be the person who, more than anybody else, couldn't deal with Jeannine’s cancer. How dangerous can denial be in such tragic circumstances, during the illness and after the loss?

A. You are right about all of us being in denial, but that didn’t happen until she got the bone cancer.  When she had breast cancer, I believe we all faced it head on and with a lot of optimism. I truly believe that we were all very optimistic with the breast cancer and the remission for one year after the mastectomy, chemo, radiation and reconstruction. It was a good year.  We had been told by her doctor’s that the breast cancer could come back but none of us believed it would.  It was only after she got the diagnosis of bone cancer that the denial began to set in.  We knew right away it was incurable, so there was never a chance to hope for a recovery and remission.  It is terrible to have that diagnosis as it takes some of the fight out of you…when there is no long term hope of recovery it does take a toll on your ability to think positively. Jeannine however did believe that she would be one person in a thousand that would have a very slow growing bone cancer and that she would live a full life for many, many years.

Denial is a terrible thing for anyone to go through. Kidding one’s self is not only a fallacy but harmful to the person when reality hits home. Denial is one of the five stages of Grief:  the first one to be exact. You have denial, anger, bargaining, depression, reconciliation (not acceptance).  People actually start through these stages when they first hear someone is diagnosed with a serious disease, like breast cancer, and they move through them or quite often, back and forth between them; denial, anger, grief and depression then back to denial and so on.  Some people get stuck in one of the stages however and it takes the emotional upper hand.  If they get stuck there, the other emotions related to grief don’t play out in the way they should normally and manifest themselves in other ways that are often destructive to themselves or others.  For example, since Scott didn’t accept Jeannine’s bone cancer prognosis, his anger came out toward her and also toward others around him (such as me) and at times even the kids.   Scott’s being in denial made it more difficult for the kids when she passed.  They were confused as they had been told Jeannine would get better every time she went to the hospital so when she died and they saw her for the first time, they recoiled in horror at the way she looked and backed out of the room.  They did not go into that room for two days!  This was all due to denial on Scott’s part.

Denial unaccepted during the illness hits hard after the loss.  While those of us who had some idea of what was happening and accepted it as much as we allowed ourselves had better grasp of dealing with her passing, those who were in total denial did much more second guessing and coulda, shoulda, woulda than the rest of us. They did more blaming themselves for not-accepting the truth. I do know of cases from talking with psychologists after Jeannine’s passing, where the denial caused an emotional breakdown of a man due to his self-loathing for things he did to his wife (and didn’t do). Denial can make a person sick of body and mind.

Q. I still cannot wrap my head around the idea that Jeannine’s kids have been kept in the dark about their mother's destiny almost to the very end. What would your advice be to someone who needs to break such grave news to a child? Why is it so important to keep cancer patients' children informed with honesty?

A. I could not wrap my head around it and I was living with the fact that Jeannine’s kids were in the dark.  And their not knowing wasn’t as you state, “almost till the end”, it was at the very end… when she was in the hospital dying.  The closest thing they ever heard about their mother’s condition is when I talked to them in the weeks before she passed. As I told in the book, I never came right out and said their mother was dying, but I did tell more about cancer, how very sick their Mom was and that one day she would go to the hospital and not come home.  As fate would have it, that did happen the next and last time, she went to the hospital. I detailed the conversation in my book and have never been sorry I had that conversation with them.  Someday, they will remember it and possibly say “Thank You Grandma”.

In Jeannine’s defense as to why she had never told them herself or used my conversation with them as a springboard for such a conversation I can only say this.  She tried on several occasions, just her alone, not with Scott. What she found is that she was unable to do it. She could not look her children in the eye and say I’m dying.   As far as talking Scott into it, she was so weak and sick in the last several months that I am sure she did not have the energy to argue with him about it…and it would have been a fight.  He was determined they not be told.  To this day, I, as you say, cannot wrap my head around it. I tried to talk to Jeannine about it after I had my talk with the kids and suggested they use the questions the kids asked me to start the conversation. But, Jeannine she said it was between her and Scott at this point and asked me to not bring it up to him.

My advice to others is this.  If the condition is breast cancer and there is hope and a good resolution is probable, talk to them in an age appropriate manner and tell them what breast cancer is, explain as much as you can about what has transpired and assure them that Mom will get better.  Remind them of that when she is going for chemotherapy and radiation and has lost all of her hair.

However when Jeannine got bone cancer and time went by over the years, (being 9 and 13 when she passed), they were old enough at many points to understand more and should have been made aware of how serious her condition was.  I am not advocating they should have been told she was going to die until later on in the illness but, they should have been made aware of the seriousness of it.

Q. Besides the serious health issues related to the stages of the illness and the recovery, self-esteem has a fundamental role in the way a cancer patient copes with the disease. How can we, as relatives, spouses, and friends, help our loved ones regain confidence and improve their life quality?

A. It is important to treat them as you have always treated them, no different.  If you have always joked and kidded with the person (daughter, mother, friend, etc), continue to do the same. If you have always told them when they look pretty, continue it and if you haven’t, start!  Women like to be told they look good. It is critical that when they go bald that you help them feel alright about themselves, whether they get a wig, or wear a cap or scarf, they can still look good.  If they wear makeup encourage them to do so even then.  If they like to wear the newest fashions, go shopping with them and encourage them to stay looking their best. Fashion can be had on a shoe string budget! Take them on special trips, vacations that they have always wanted (even if it’s camping), build memories by taking pictures at family gatherings or bowling.  Take them to a Spa Day or even to the department store for a fee makeover (go to all the department stores…who would know). When they go to treatments go with them, go to lunch afterward if they feel up to it.  If they are having chemo go with them and play board games or just talk…don’t let them do these things by themselves.  If you have ever visited a room where numerous people are sitting in single chairs one by one in a long row, it can be terribly overwhelming and impactful to them. If they have always had a hobby such as painting, encourage them to paint…to express themselves in something they have (or had) a passion for. Have their kids write a short story about what they like best about their mom or grandma, etc. Get them interested in volunteering for a hospital or group that helps other people, we always feel good about ourselves when we do things for others. Don’t feel sorry for them…they feel that and don’t like it! Take them to lunch, even if it is a McDonalds.  It isn’t the cost of the lunch that is important; it’s the pleasure of your company. Get them out of the house and away from their surroundings (especially if they are getting worse).  They see enough of their house, coach and bed!

Q. Life is a miracle from the moment we were born and we shouldn't wait for a catastrophe to value and celebrate it. Do you think Jeannine was given the opportunity to live her life to the fullest?

A. First let me say that your thought is so true.  This applies to the previous question about making someone feel good and the thought about making memories.  We never know when something catastrophic might happen and take someone we love away.  I heard this morning on Good Morning America that a six year old boy drowned on a cruise ship. Can you imagine how his parents felt? A year ago a good friend of mine suddenly died of a heart attack…he had been healthy up till that day.  My advice is to cherish every moment with everyone you love and don’t take time with them for granted.

As to your question however. With her outgoing personality and her ability to make wonderful friends, I believe Jeannine did live much of her life to the fullest. She enjoyed life and tried to do her best at anything she did.  She had a good sense of self-esteem, which helps you feel better about your life.  She took pleasure in even the simple things. She and I enjoyed a wonderful relationship that neither of us would have traded for anything in the world. We had it from the time she was little, even through the terrible teens and into adulthood.  It spanned the space when we were miles apart.  I can honestly say her life was full and she enjoyed it to the fullest until she married Scott.  With his domineering personality and the way he tried to detach her from her family and friends, she was unhappy a lot.  However, when her children were born, she again began to enjoy life, seeing it through their eyes and being able to relate to them in that way.  She truly enjoyed her kids and cherished every moment that she spent with them.

Q. I have experienced a full range of emotions while reading COULDA, SHOULDA, WOULDA: extreme sadness, disbelief, fear, compassion, even rage at some point...What have you been going through, emotionally, from the moment you learned about your daughter's illness to the moment you wrote the last word of your memoir?

A. My emotions were much the same as yours only I was living them and not reading something that brought them out in me. I think the greatest emotion I felt is love. I had so much love for my daughter that it would be hard to put into words…they would be inadequate to explain the depth and breadth of my love and emotion for her.  Strength. I didn’t know I could be as strong as I had to be for her, not only when she was ill and going through all of the stages of her cancer. But at the end, I pulled strength from someplace else or someone else while she was at the hospital…possibly my deceased mother, possibly my late husband; I just know I got added strength from somewhere. It takes a strong person to watch their child pass away and keep talking to them soothingly and stroking their hair until the end. They say the last of the senses that go when a person is dying is their sense of hearing.  I couldn’t let her hear me cry and I couldn’t leave her side except to go the bathroom. I hope the last thing her unconscious mind heard was me telling her how much I loved her and that she was a wonderful daughter and mother. It also took courage and strength to go through her funeral and keep it together (which I am glad I did).

Looking back at the time of her illness, I would sum up the emotions with all those that you say you felt reading the book; sadness, disbelief, fear, compassion, and rage. I would add guilt and frustration as well. I will leave it to say I felt love for her and loved by her, which is more important than any other emotion.

Q. Who should read COULDA, SHOULDA, WOULDA and why?

A. I believe the family, relatives and friends of any person with cancer or any life threatening illness are the first on the list of target readers. The situations we lived are the same type of situations they will face.  The emotions we went through are the ones they should get ready to expect and handle with grace, dignity and strength. Others who should read this are anyone in the caretaker side of medicine…nurses and doctors.  They have to understand what the patient will feel and how to best treat not only their illness but their emotional needs as well. Too often they seem too distant…while I realize why, it does not help the patient at all. You may find it interesting that I have been asked by the Plastic Surgery Journal to write an article for their surgeons to read telling them what Jeannine felt when she heard she had breast cancer through her mastectomy, chemotherapy and radiation.  I was also asked to explain how the diagnosis impacted her family.  The story was accepted by them and I believe it will be published in a two page article in their October issue. I understand that both pages will have pink ribbons around the borders of the story. I was honored and agreed that this group truly needs to read some of Jeannine’s story.  Who else? I believe that anyone who has gone through a loss of a loved one should read it especially for the ending chapters on losing a loved one, grieving and the difficulty of moving on with life as they now know it. Psychologists, psychiatrists and ministers could learn a great deal from the book.  These people have to counsel those who are going through a life-threatening disease or the family members of someone who might be dying.  How better to learn something to relate to their counseling than to hear the true story of what Jeannine and I went through.  While they read a lot of technical and clinical books, the technical side of a situation like this is not going to get a patient or family through this terrible time in their lives.  Hospice workers.  I suggest it for the same reason as I recommend it for nurses and those in the health field, especially anyone involved in care giving. An unlikely person to read this would be someone who has lost a loved one.  I say this because a friend of mine who had just lost her husband read the book and called to thank me saying “Before I read your book, I thought my behaviors were unthinkable and that I was losing my mind.  Now I know that I was grieving in the manner I should be allowed to grieve in, I understand it better now.”  I put cancer patients or someone dying of a catastrophic disease last only because it would take a strong person to read this book while they are suffering from cancer and unless I knew the person, I would hesitate to recommend it.  There might be too much honesty and reality in it for them.

Q. Kenna, is there a charity or philanthropic work you're actively involved with? If so, how did your involvement with a cause impact and change your life?

A. Yes. All three organizations listed below were a result of Jeannine’s passing. Two of them (NAMI and the Dawn Center) were recommended by my psychologist, Ms. Barbara Ghen.  She felt I had a lot to give to people in need from both my “heart” and business experience.  She also believed that I needed to get back into the process of living by utilizing the interpersonal skills I have been honing my entire career. Lastly, she knew I missed organizational training/teaching a great deal.  She knew me and what I needed. Others may have a different personal need or reason for reaching out to some organization or cause, but I can say from firsthand experience, it will help them to help others.

I am currently working to develop support group(s) in our area for the family, friends, relatives or caregivers of anyone with cancer or any life-threatening disease. I believe I can make a great impact on this group of people because I have been where they are and probably “their person” is where Jeannine was at one time. There are numerous support groups for the patients but none for their families.  I believe forming this group(s) will fill a void for so many people who are going through all of the emotions that you mentioned in question 9. In addition to my personal experiences with Jeannine, I have also been a professional organization development trainer for over 25 years and have taught classes on change management, control, problem solving, empowerment, motivation, coaching, mediation, and mentoring, teaming, win-win problem solving, Myers Briggs personality analysis, and communications among others.  I have also held positions with major corporations as a Human Resource Manager for over 15 years. I believe I have the professional and personal qualifications to facilitate these groups and can give a lot to participants.

NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness) - Board of Directors (Working Board)
Although I didn’t have a family member with a mental illness, I have been dealing with a lot of the things they go through.  Depression and the other four Stages of Grieving are common in the mentally ill and their families. Learning to deal with conflict, anger management, communications skills, mediation, problem resolution, human resource counseling and so many of the skills I teach, are critical in building the self-esteem of the mentally ill. NAMI also works with the families of those with a mental illness and I have found my presence there to be meaningful. We also need to build the NAMI presence with law enforcement and the community in general, as people often don’t know about NAMI until they need them. I do their press releases and contacts and I’m also helping them develop a Strategic Plan to set a strong direction for growing the organization and its range of free classes for the mentally ill and their families.

Again, although I have not been a victim of domestic or sexual violence, I saw first-hand the impact mental abuse had on my daughter from her husband. I saw the fear it can cause concerning a woman’s actions. I knew that any abuse rips apart the person’s soul and self-esteem.  Although I didn’t recognize it as such growing up, my father who was an alcoholic could have been the poster boy for domestic violence. I can relate to why women don’t, or can’t,  leave their husbands and the impact abuse of any kind has on their self-esteem as well as the long lasting impact it has on the children of the abuser. Again, my business skills fit their needs and I am currently also working on developing a Strategic Plan with some of the board members as well as staff. It seems that in small town with worthy causes, there is a need for solid business skills, leadership and a lot of heart. I believe I have all three.

About Kenna P. Marriott
Kenna is president and owner of Linking To Success. With more than thirty-five years of business experience, she is a pioneer in the fields of self-managed teams and breakthrough thinking. Since Jeannine's passing, Marriott has devoted herself to cancer patients and their families. She is on the Board of Directors of the National Alliance On Mental Illness and the Dawn Center For Victims Of Domestic & Sexual Violence in Hernando County, Florida. To know more about her and her journey, please visit her website  


  1. Amazing and intimate interview. Thank you both for sharing.

    1. I cannot thank Ms. Marriott enough for her generosity!

  2. This is one of the best blog interviews that I have ever read. Bravo Mina!

  3. Thank you, Monica! CSW is a deeply touching book and ,in many ways, a wake-up call...