From Impoverished Distress to Cancer to Multi-Millionaire - Marion Brem's story

by Al Siebert, PhD

THRIVEnet Story of the Month - February 2001

This story of resiliency has two messages. One is to show what a determined woman can do when she chooses to overcome life's adversities. The other is to emphasize how many times people who develop cancer have worked at an exhausting pace without let up.

In 1982, at age 30, Marion Luna Brem was a very busy woman. Married, with two sons, she was a full-time mother and homemaker, worked part-time as a switch-board operator for an auto dealership, and was taking college classes in Dallas, Texas.

When Marion discovered a lump in her left breast, she went for a medical examination. She was told it was benign, but in the months that followed the lump kept getting larger.

Marion went to a different doctor who gave her shocking news. She had a very aggressive form of cancer in her breast and had cervical cancer as well. She had an emergency hysterectomy, a radical mastectomy, and started daily chemotherapy treatments. Even so, the doctor told her she had only a few short years to live.

The strain on her family increased when her husband's medical insurance ran out. Their medical bills soared and they went deeply into debt. Then she was hit with another devastating blow. Her 14 year marriage ended.

She says she doesn't blame her husband for leaving. She'd lost all her hair, was emaciated, and they had huge debts. The strain of it all was too much for him.

It has been found that three factors contribute to a person developing cancer. One is genetic predisposition. Second, people who develop cancer tend to be "pleasers." They exhaust themselves doing things for others while rarely acting in "selfish" ways. Third, cancer is more common in people who work without stopping, eat poor diets, and sustain themselves with coffee when tired instead of resting.

We can do little about genetic predisposition, but we can about the other two. People raised to be "pleasers" have to learn how to say "No" to some requests and handle their fear of what others may think. Patti Breitman and Connie Hatch, for example, state in an article in the Feb. 1, 2001 issue of Bottom line/Personal to practice saying no in non-threatening encounters, keep it simple without elaborate explanations, and postpone your answer to buy time to decide what is best for you.

In workshops about emotional health and longevity I sometimes ask people what they would do if they were to purposefully try to shorten their lives. The lists they come up with describe what many people do all the time. (See page 159 in The Survivor Personality.) In today's hectic, rapidly changing world it is essential to have a plan that lets you alternate the strain of intense work with periods of detachment and relaxation. Dealing with pressures and deadlines stimulates the sympathetic nervous system, which in turn suppresses immune system functions. Periods of rest with relaxed deep breathing allows the parasympathetic system to repair and heal overworked cells. Alternating strain with rest sustains health and builds strength.

Impoverished and with her energy depleted by chemotherapy, Marion wondered what she could do to support herself and her sons. A low paying hourly job wouldn't be enough. Her experience working at an auto dealership led her to believe she could be successful selling cars. Wearing a wig to cover her bald head, she went to auto dealerships asking to be hired into the sales department. Partly because she was a woman and partly because she is Hispanic, she was turned down sixteen times. But she didn't stop trying. At the seventeenth dealership the sales manager felt that she was "nervy" enough to succeed and hired her.

Her determination paid off. A year later she won the "Salesman of the Year" award. (The award says "salesman.") Becoming the top person in sales was not enough for her, however. She wanted to own her own dealership. She had some ideas about how to make an auto dealership an outstanding place for employees and customers. She sold her idea to an investor and soon opened her own dealership.

7 Truths About Successful Women cover

Her fast pace was not good for her health, however. In 1984 she needed surgery to remove a lump in her other breast. She says she had to tell herself to slow down. "Anytime you take a tiny peak at death like I did," she says, "you live your life with more urgency. That was a special challenge for me because I tended to run my business with my urgency." She finally learned that she had to pace herself better and rest at times, and her cancer has been in remission since 1993.

Now 48, Marion Brem, with the help of her two grown sons, runs two very successful auto dealerships, has an advertising agency, and has real estate holdings that combine to generate $45 million in annual revenue. She is also part owner of a bank that helps minority women start businesses.

(Marion's book The 7 Greatest Truths About Successful Women has now been published.)

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