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A Shared Passion for Breast Cancer Awareness

Breast Cancer survivor, Marlene Gaston, and her daughter, Heather Wilkerson, CIVCO Radiotherapy Product Manager, share their story.

Back in 1983 when Marlene Gaston was teaching 5th and 6 th grade, the school required an annual $25 physical. It was then that her general practitioner found a lump. Marlene was surprised by this as there was no history of breast cancer in her family. Fast forward 35 years and Marlene is one of the two oldest breast cancer survivors that participate every year at the annual Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure in Moline, Illinois. Marlene and Barb Dickinson meet for a photo at the June race, even if they don’t run. Other participants seek out Marlene and Barb to get a photo with them, you could say they’re celebrities at the race. “That’s true. I’ve never felt so important!” said Marlene. There are a lot of survivors involved at Susan G. Komen, the majority in remission for 5–10 years, some battling breast cancer twice.

Marlene decided to join the Susan G. Komen family because of her daughter’s (Heather Wilkerson) involvement with the cause. When Marlene was diagnosed with breast cancer back in 1983, Susan G. Komen didn’t exist. People didn’t talk about breast cancer. It was almost taboo. People didn’t tell others they had it–no one explained it, it was very hush hush. Marlene stepped up to help other people who were diagnosed. It was a time when there wasn’t support but Marlene wanted to help others by talking about it. As Marlene says, “I’m a typical helper. You need to be a helper to succeed as a teacher. You find someone who needs positive reinforcement. I just do it automatically. Now that breast cancer is so prevalent, I find people to talk with and to help all the time.”

Heather and Marlene now fundraise for Susan G. Komen year-round. Heather’s background is in radiology and after leaving the clinical setting full-time as a technologist, she still enjoyed picking up hours on a part-time basis. Every October the hospital she worked at set a goal to do as many mammograms as they could. In the evenings and on weekends, Heather would volunteer her time to support this effort. Marlene would drop off meals and do anything she could to support the staff to ensure as many mammograms as possible were performed. A certain amount of those were free through grants or individual opportunities. When Heather moved closer to her parent’s home in Davenport, Iowa she and her mother became even more involved with Susan G. Komen. Heather and Marlene became committee members and reviewed grants. Currently Marlene and Heather are on a team called Baseline, ran by their good friend Teri. Throughout the year they raise money for the June race, stretching their imaginations and getting creative in doing so. They’ve held raffles, auctions, garage sales, puzzle contests, and have even partnered with the Isabel Bloom company. Heather puts together annual Facebook fundraisers, communicating her passion for Susan G. Komen. As Heather says regarding the post in honor of her mother, “Who can look at that face and not give five dollars?”

Asked how her volunteer activities affect/influence her work at CIVCO, Heather replied “Overall, always take a patient’s approach. It’s just my nature. Always think of the patient first and foremost. Recent projects such as the Chabner XRT® Radiation Bra are very important to me.” When it comes to developing products, Heather turns to people who have experienced cancer treatments (Marlene being one) to test prototypes. “It’s important to get firsthand feedback and to let people know that we’re (CIVCO) working on patient comfort and improving treatments. When it hits home, it’s even more important.”

When asked what message as a breast cancer survivor Marlene would like to provide to women in the community, she replied that “Breast cancer is not necessarily a death sentence but you have to keep watch, have the tests, have them diligently, and expect that every time your body doesn’t feel right, the word cancer will come to mind. It’s always back there. Thankfully, after 35 years, it’s not back there that often. It’s natural to worry. You need to do your job, get mammograms and watch your lifestyle. Do a monthly breast check. Life is still going on and life is good!”

To learn more about how you can get involved with Susan G. Komen Greater Iowa, visit

Marlene (right) with Barb Dickinson (left)
at the June 2018 Susan G. Komen
Annual Race in Moline, Illinois

Marlene and her daughter Heather Wilkerson at the
Quad City Mallard's 2017 Paint the Ice Pink event

Marlene painting the ice for the
2017 Paint the Ice Pink event