‘Toot’ Marthaler uses humor to battle terminal diagnosis and enjoy the beauty of lifeAll you have to do is take a look at Toot Marthaler’s wedding picture to know she’s a nut. Rather than a soft focus shot of her with husband Scott looking deep into each other’s eyes, Toot’s favorite wedding photo shows the two of them holding hands and jumping into a lake – in their wedding clothes.
By: Tracy Briggs, INFORUM
Our congratulations to October’s other finalists: Shannon Flammond and Holly Novacek. Thank you to all of you who submitted nominations for Beautiful Women.
All you have to do is take a look at Toot Marthaler’s wedding picture to know she’s a nut.
Rather than a soft focus shot of her with husband Scott looking deep into each other’s eyes, Toot’s favorite wedding photo shows the two of them holding hands and jumping into a lake – in their wedding clothes.
“We just wanted to do something that was us! And that’s totally us!” she says with a big smile.
Toot’s laugh and smile fill her home in Breckenridge, Minn., despite doctor’s predictions that she has little time left to live. Her enthusiasm and love of life makes her our Beautiful Woman for October.
Diane “Toot” Marthaler, 41, knew she was at risk for breast cancer. Her grandmother died at age 42 in 1950, and her mother faced suspicious cells while still in her 30s. So, this mother of two, stepmother of two and step grandmother of two was diligent about getting herself checked. In 2008, she noticed a painful lump in her breast, and the news to follow wasn’t good. Doctors told her on a scale of 1 to 9, with 9 being the most aggressive type of cancer, Toot’s tumor was an 8.
“I really didn’t think too much about it. I thought, ‘That’s okay. We’ll get it. It’s 2008, not 1950,’” she says.
And by the next year, it was looking like Marthaler was right. After treatment and a double mastectomy, the cancer was gone, which made for an extra happy wedding day as she married her longtime friend Scott Marthaler.
“We were so excited! We had a great day. We thought we had it all!” she says.
But by 2010 the cancer came back with a vengeance. Toot remembers getting winded while walking to the photography studio that she and Scott own.
“It’s only about a mile and half from here and I’d be like ‘no way. I can’t do it.’”
Doctors initially told her not to be concerned but later she pushed them to do a chest x-ray. They found she had inflammation and fluid buildup around her lungs. They drained two liters of fluid out of her body.
“I said to them. See! I told you I was sick,” she says.
The cancer has now spread to the tissue around the heart.
“I remember my oncologist coming to me, holding my hand and saying, ‘it’s your heart honey. One day it’ll just stop,’” she says.
But Toot (a nickname given to her by her dad) set off to fight. She tried chemotherapy, a visit to a renowned cancer clinic in Texas, and a clinical trial at the Mayo Clinic. But she wasn’t improving.
Scott says “At one point, I said to the doctor, ‘we’re not going to outrun this thing are we?’ And the doctor said, ‘no.’”
On Aug. 27 of this year, Marthaler was told her cancer was terminal. Doctors guessed she had two or three weeks to live.
But Toot had other plans.
Since her terminal diagnosis, Marthaler’s condition has improved. She’s breathing without an oxygen tank, she’s walking and she’s off her pain medication. She smiles when she talks about her 9-year-old son Logan’s reaction to her improvement, “Mom, you’re off your oxygen! Good job! I wonder if God would take a raincheck.”
Marthaler is defying the odds, and she gives all the credit to God and her friends who are praying for her.
“When people say praying is the least thing they can do for you… no, it’s the most they can do for you.”
Still she’s not sure what to think.
“You don’t know if you should cling to this – do you hope or are you just getting a little extra time? All I know is I don’t feel like I’m done yet. I still have work to do!” she says.
Among her work these days is writing letters to her children Ashlyn, 13, and Logan for them to open on their birthdays and other significant days like graduations and weddings. But don’t count on them being sappy.
“I want them to feel like I was really there on those days. What would I say if I was there? I don’t want to make them sad,” she says.
That’s why her advice is very Tootlike. To her daughter on her 21st birthday, she advises her to wear tight jeans and high-heel boots if she goes on a date with her boyfriend, otherwise sweatpants are fine. For her son: “No smoking, no girls and no texting in the car!”
Humor has been Toot’s weapon through her cancer fight just like it’s been a constant companion all her life. High school classmates tell her what they remember most about her is her laughter in the hallways.
“Well, I just think life is way too serious as it is,” she says.
But not if Toot is around. Among her hijinks lately: putting on a fake mustache and walking to work, putting on jeans several sizes too small and asking her kids “Do these jeans make me look fat?” And her plan for pranking a hairdresser.
“During chemo, I always know the approximate day when my hair will start to fall out. I figured the day before it happens I could go to a salon school and ask the student to color my hair platinum blond. Then the next day when it falls out, I can go storming in there , “Look what you’ve done to me!” she says with a big laugh.
She didn’t do it. But she and Scott have a belly laugh when they think about it.
“We’re soulmates. We laugh at everything!” she says.
She even smiles when she talks about the funeral she’s planning for herself, something she says should be a big party.
“I want it to be pink everywhere. Candy bars, strawberry lemonade cake and me wearing my new pink tennis shoes. I want people to walk out and be like ‘Woo Hoo!’ I want them to celebrate my life and not mourn because I’m gone,” she says.
Marthaler says she does have her sad days – days when she reads the cards people have sent her and reflects on leaving her husband and children. But other days, she refuses to cry.
“That’s when I think ‘I’m wasting time! I have some kick butt things to do,” she says.
Among them, a trip this month to New York City with her family.
When she returns from the trip, she’ll resume chemotherapy and taking it all one day at a time. She’s learned not to look too far down the road, but appreciate every day. Both Scott and Toot say while they would never wish a terminal illness on anyone, it has come with an incredible gift.
“We had to be stripped of everything before we knew to put everything it God’s hands. We now realize what’s important. Our priorities have shifted. What’s the point of working 60 hours a week for a little extra money, when you can’t enjoy time with your family? It took us getting clubbed over the head to see that,” says Scott.
Toot says another gift she’s received through all of this is getting to witness the lives she’s touched.
“You just have no idea the affect you have on people. I’ve gotten to hear from people who say I made a difference in their lives. That’s amazing to me,” she says.
Pam Knapper, the friend who nominated Toot, says she’s not surprised, “You can know her for five days or five minutes and she’ll leave you with a lasting impression.”
Toot says she’s at peace with her life as it is right now. She’s cherishing her children and her husband, crying a little, laughing a lot and maybe even cooking up another prank.
“I’m in a good place. I know where I’m going. It’s paradise. I’m good about that. I don’t worry about me,” she says.
Scott adds, “There is a greater purpose in all of this. More than we can ever hope to understand. It’s been a privilege to be a part of something bigger than ourselves and watch it unfold.”
Toot says maybe her life’s purpose these past couple of years has been to help spread the message that God loves you and always has your back.
“We turned our lives over to God. We no longer believe in coincidences – we don’t believe in luck. God keeps you where he wants you,” she says.
And now, fortunately for the many people who love her, that’s right here on Earth. But then again maybe God knows heaven isn’t quite yet ready for Toot.
Tracy Briggs is the digital content development director for Forum Communications.