Written By: Robert Cocuzzo | Photography By: Katie Kaizer
Nantucket resident Caitlin Marcoux is being honored at Mass General Cancer Center’s The 100 Everyday Amazing Gala this May
Caitlin Marcoux was diagnosed with cancer on a Friday. What would have been shocking news for most people was of little surprise to her. As a longtime yogi deeply in tune with her body, Caitlin “knew something was amiss for quite some time.” Through self-examinations, she found a hardening in her right breast that doctors told her was nothing to worry about. Calcification, they said. Still, Caitlin’s body was telling her otherwise — and it was right. On March 15, 2013, doctors discovered that Caitlin had stage IIB breast cancer. The tumor in her right breast was an alarming grade 3 in size, and the cancer had metastasized to her chest. Doctors told her that they were going to do everything they could to save her life.
“I never figured at thirty-four I would hear somebody say those words to me,” Caitlin says today. “Things went from zero to 150 miles per hour.” A team of doctors comprising a breast surgeon, an oncologist, and a plastic surgeon put together a sixteen-month treatment plan for Caitlin that included thirty-one rounds of chemotherapy, a major double-mastectomy, and reconstructive plastic surgery. Caitlin was intimately aware of the painful rigors of fighting cancer. Just over a decade earlier, she watched as lung cancer claimed the life of her thirty-four-year-old husband, Aaron. Caitlin was his caregiver. Now with a three-year-old son at home, she was committed to fighting the disease with everything she had. But Caitlin’s fight would go beyond saving her own life — she would become a warrior for cancer patients on Nantucket and around the world.
Once news broke of her illness, the Nantucket community rallied around her. Friends immediately set up a charitable foundation in her name to help offset the costs of travel and treatments. Donations flooded in, along with hundreds of cards and gifts of encouragement that eventually adorned Caitlin’s bedroom in a colorful mural. On days when she was receiving treatment and was too sick to cook, friends volunteered to prepare meals for her and her family. “I’ve never seen anything like it before in my life,” she says. “I’ve never felt more loved and sup- ported and nurtured.”
But fighting cancer put Caitlin’s strong sense of self to the test. As a yoga instructor, a stand-up paddle racer, a cyclist, and all-around athlete, the thirty-four-year-old took great pride in being a force of nature. “A lot of my identity is wrapped up in being strong and physically fit,” she says, “and that was one of the first things that I found frustrating was when my energy started to tank.” With chemotherapy causing extreme nausea, vomiting, and excruciating joint pain, Caitlin was unable to continue teaching her extensive class schedule at the Yoga Room, where she serves as manager. There was one yoga class, however, that she flat out refused to give up.
Five years earlier, Caitlin started Strong Girls Yoga, a class designed to teach young girls about self-esteem and confidence. “I felt I really needed to put my money where my mouth was and show them that you can continue to be strong in the face of adversity,” she says. No matter how sick she got, no matter if her hair was falling out or if her body ached, Caitlin taught the class. “I knew then, watching their reaction with what I was going through that — if I made it — I wanted to continue to show people that cancer wasn’t necessarily a death sentence. If you continue to show up, and practice gratitude and gratefulness, and put others first, then it could carry you through your own struggles and challenges.”
Caitlin took her inspiring message beyond the walls of her yoga studio. She wrote lyrically about her trials with cancer and quickly drew a legion of “cancer warriors” from around the world reading her insights online. “When you’re diagnosed and you decide to write about the process of your illness and your treatment, people reach out to you, and they begin to share their own personal stories with you, whether they were a patient or a caregiver,” says Caitlin. “It put me in touch with a lot of people who were looking for the tools that I felt I had already been given and I knew that I wanted to share with them.”
Soon Caitlin began sharing these tools directly with her fellow cancer patients on Nantucket by teaching free yoga classes at the Nantucket Cottage Hospital and the Yoga Room. “It started small, only three or four people would show up, and then it started to get actually quite crowded,” she says. “And that was heartwarming and heartbreaking all at the same time, because I didn’t realize how many people on Nantucket specifically were struggling with cancer…and that’s how Tasha found me.”
Nantucket High School graduate Natasha Grosshans was nineteen when she was diagnosed with stage IV duodenal carcinoma that had metastasized to her lungs. Tasha’s mother heard about Caitlin’s work with cancer patients on Nantucket, and asked if she would teach her daughter. “I knew right from the second I met her that we were kindred spirits,” Caitlin says. “I saw so much of myself in her and she was by far the youngest person that I had personal friendship with that had cancer.”
Caitlin and Tasha practiced breathing exercises to combat the cancer’s impact on her respiratory system. They meditated and practiced positive visualization. But perhaps most importantly, Caitlin and Tasha spent time together and shared a unique bond that few could understand. “We would get together and talk about everything from what it felt like to have your mortality challenged, to the most comfortable cap to wear when your hair is falling out,” Caitlin says. When the disease forced Tasha into a hospital bed, Caitlin became a frequent visitor.
As Tasha’s condition continued to deteriorate, Caitlin organized a large yoga event at the Dreamland’s Studio Theater in her honor. Over 120 people attended. In fact, so many people came that some ended up rolling out their yoga mats in the hallways. And it wasn’t just yogis attending. People who’d never struck a pose were there, all channeling their positive energy to Tasha. Caitlin had hoped that Tasha would be able to attend the event, but her condition had worsened so rapidly that she was confined to a bed on Cape Cod. Instead, Caitlin’s partner, Burr Tupper, carried around a laptop with a camera that beamed the whole event to Tasha’s bedside where the young girl was in and out of consciousness. “I know in her heart, she knew what we were doing,” Caitlin says. “Her hospice nurse said her eyes may not be open but I know she can feel all this love.” Four hours later, Natasha Grosshans passed away. It was two months after her twentieth birthday.
“Tasha reaffirmed my belief that every second counts, and that no matter how much time you’re given here, the time that you have is extremely precious,” Caitlin says. “I don’t think that she ever felt really sorry for herself. When you spoke with her, she never made you feel like she herself felt like she was being shortchanged. And it was inspiring to watch her navigate her illness with so much grace.”
Last year, Caitlin attended Mass General Cancer Center’s 100 Everyday Amazing Gala, which honors one hundred people from around the world who are fighting cancer and raising awareness as either patients, volunteers, caregivers, or medical professionals. Caitlin sat in the audience in awe as she listened to each of them tell their stories of fighting this disease in their own unique ways. Two months ago, Caitlin got a call from Mass General to see if she’d return for this year’s event — except this time as an honoree. “I was shocked. I was overwhelmed and extremely flattered,” she says. “I didn’t quite understand why I was being honored.” Yet for anyone who has watched Caitlin carry herself through her treatment and beyond, the fact that she’s being honored is hardly a surprise. So many inspiring people illuminate the Nantucket community, but Caitlin Marcoux’s spirit burns among the brightest.