Aliza Mehlman was 7 going on 8 when her mom, Marla, told her she was diagnosed with early stage breast cancer in 2009. Following surgery and treatments, Marla was given a clean bill of health. Then, as a senior preparing to graduate from Scarsdale High School, Aliza and her two older sisters, University of Michigan senior Sarah and Yale sophomore Jillian, learned on Thanksgiving 2018 that the breast cancer had come back.
Several years earlier.
Mom Marla and dad Jon decided to conceal the re-emergence of the cancer from everyone but their own parents, their siblings, a couple of doctors in Scarsdale, and some of the most innovative medical practitioners in Boston. They wanted one thing for their daughters: to live normal lives free of the burden of worrying about their mother’s condition on a daily basis.
From the original diagnosis, Marla also tested positive for BRCA, an inherited gene for breast cancer, and was given 1,000 days to live, another piece of information not shared with their daughters until late last year. A double mastectomy, ovary removal and eight rounds of chemotherapy were successful in giving Marla a clean bill of health, though the overall prognosis was not good because she had a triple-negative cancer cell, which is known as “the breast-cancer death sentence.”
The breast cancer returned two years later, but even with that thousand days to live ticking away, Marla fought in relative silence for more than 3,500 days in total. Then, just two weeks after breaking the news to Aliza, Jilly and Sarah, unexpected complications put Marla in the hospital and, 10 days later, on Dec. 19, Marla took her final breath at age 51.
Not long after the devastation of saying goodbye to their mother, Jilly and Sarah returned to college life, leaving Dad and Aliza in a big, empty house without Mom’s larger-than-life presence. Jon watched daily the toll Marla’s death took on Aliza, who lives in a constant reminder that Mom is never coming home, and it was even more apparent watching her compete in lacrosse this spring.
Because Mom wasn’t there to cheer her on, Aliza wasn’t Aliza this season.
Even through years of secret treatments and clinical trials in Boston and doctors sneaking into the house while the girls were doing homework and other activities, Marla had been there to watch her daughters compete in field hockey, track and lacrosse at Scarsdale High School. She was as much a staple in the stands at their athletic events as they were on the field.
If ever Jon had doubts about not telling his daughters eight years ago or sooner, those second guesses vanished watching Aliza grieve. Imagine that bereavement for the majority of the formative years of her life.
In a decade full of hard medical choices, the choice not to say a word was the one Mom and Dad never wavered on.
“She wanted to preserve the childhoods of my kids,” Jon said. “That was a decision that she and I made to ensure that they could enjoy these types of things and enjoy the community and not have a pity party for her, not to have this cloud over the kids.”
Two days after Aliza’s eighth birthday in April 2009, her mom had her first surgery. Aliza called it “a pretty pivotal time in my life.” Her parents could tell.
“When I was 8 or 9 years old I may not have been able to cope with the reality of the situation, but now I’m a lot more in touch with who we are as a family and her condition,” Aliza said. “I’m just grateful for the life she was able to provide us. It was as carefree as it could have been.”
Sarah was in middle school for the initial diagnosis. She called it a “strange experience” as she didn’t know of any peers who had a mother going through the same battle. The unknown made it difficult to process at the time, but she does recall, “It was very scary to us.”
The clean bill of health that followed lifted the load off everyone’s shoulders. Life returned to normal.
Between diagnoses, the Mehlman family had gotten involved in the mission to find a cure and help with research through various events. In that respect so much positive had come from Marla’s illness, but unbeknownst to them they hadn’t seen anything yet.
Then again, neither did the nasty disease trying to take over Marla’s body.
She fought back, this time with a contained group, as she watched her daughters grow into the young women they were meant to be.
“They concealed it in order for us to have and live a normal childhood and to not constantly be thinking about the experience she was going through and the pain she was suffering,” Sarah said. “She really wanted us to develop in our own unique ways. She wanted us to live these beautiful lives that she sought out and helped us grow into. It’s an amazing gift we were given and I can’t thank her enough for that, but it’s definitely been a multiple grieving process. Not just her passing, but learning about it so close to the end.”
Sarah saw changes in her mom beginning in March of 2018, but they weren’t significant enough for her to think anything more than things being “a little bit off.” In November they found out about the secret life their mom had been living. Mom and Dad felt it was time to tell the kids, not because they had any fear regarding Marla’s immediate condition, but because the chemotherapy — something Marla never really had much of a break from — was about to intensify as her body was no longer responding as well to the groundbreaking experimental treatments for which she was a test subject.
Marla had been taking day trips to the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston for years. The girls knew she was going to help with cancer research that might help others. What they didn’t know was she was also going there in a fight to save her own life.
Marla led an active lifestyle through running and skiing, which she continued as long as she could. The former graphic designer was on the board of Sharsheret and worked closely with the Breast Cancer Research Foundation. “She was really leading research,” Sarah said with great pride.
Sarah and Jilly weren’t at school long before they were called back during finals to spend what would be the final days of Marla’s life by her side in the hospital. “We never thought we would get a phone call that we needed to come home from school,” Sarah said.
Marla went to the hospital for an IV to battle what she thought was dehydration. “She never left,” Sarah said.
Given three days to live, Marla fought her way to 10 days, just as the original 1,000 days had turned into 3,500.
“It was really an incredible time as a family,” Sarah said. “They were special days. We called them ‘lucky days’ because we didn’t think we would have as many and we ended up having so many more.”
If friends suspected Marla was sick over the years — it’s hard to hide wigs and a hoarse throat was always passed off as laryngitis — they didn’t say anything, respecting the privacy of the family. “In the end she didn’t look so great and people started to wonder,” Jon said.
“We’ve always been very close and in the hospital she put up a fight to the very end,” Aliza said. “It’s tough to see the deterioration. That’s one of the worst things to see. It was definitely tough, but every day she did her best to smile. Some days you didn’t want to be there.”
Jon gave a 50-minute eulogy at Marla’s funeral and wrote an in-depth article that ran in The Atlantic.
“No one knew her story,” Sarah said. “My mom said to my dad in the hospital, ‘You need to tell my story, you need to tell people what I have been experiencing and enduring the past 10 years.’”
Jon fully expected Marla to be there by his side for Sarah’s college graduation and Aliza’s high school graduation this spring. “She just lived for these things,” Jon said.
In his Atlantic article, Jon listed three devastating things that made him “numb.” They were:
“Zero college graduations.
Another ‘lucky day’
What no one knew over the years was that all the events the Mehlman family were involved in, including the Scarsdale girls lacrosse team’s annual Pink Game in which the team raised money and awareness for breast cancer research, were for Marla. So when the news of her passing shocked the Scarsdale community, the immediate reaction from Aliza’s teammates was to make this spring’s Pink Game the most meaningful on record.
The girls achieved that and then some. “We needed to amplify it,” senior captain Emmeline Berridge said.
With specially designed shirts sporting the initials MRM and students and adults alike doing their part, you couldn’t even tell Scarsdale’s colors were maroon and white on Wednesday, May 8, at home against rival White Plains.
There were pink shirts in the hallways. On the tennis courts. Running around the track. On the field. In the bleachers. Everywhere.
For the months leading up to the Pink Game, Berridge watched shirt sales soar beyond expectations. In addition to honoring Mrs. Mehlman and supporting the Mehlman Family Research Fund at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, the Raiders were giving back to their classmate.
“Aliza is one of the strongest people we know,” Berridge said. “It takes a village. People can’t handle this type of stuff alone and I think that it’s more important than ever that in a team environment we all rally behind Aliza because she’s such an incredible leader and she gives so much to us. She deserves it back.”
“It has been inspiring watching them come together and really bond around this cause,” Berridge’s mom Melissa said. “Aliza is so important to each and every one of them. It’s been a wonderful experience having an extra motivation for this fund and this horrible disease. It gives them a little perspective on what’s important.”
Speaking to the crowd before the game, athletic director Ray Pappalardi noted Marla’s “strength and courage,” adding, “Luckily she passed these traits on to her three daughters, all of whom proudly displayed and continue to display their talents on the Scarsdale turf. We know Marla will be forever rooting for the Raiders.”
“I think the whole school has come out to support the team, but more to support Aliza,” Pappalardi said afterwards. “My guess is it has been a tough year. I think you’ll see Scarsdale at its best here. When one person is down people really come together to support them and let them know they care about them.”
Sarah drove nine hours from Michigan to be there for the Pink Game, while Jilly still had finals to take.
“I played lacrosse here for four years and for me that was so special to always be involved in the Pink Games,” Sarah said. “At the time we were doing it in honor of my mom, but not having known really what was going on. It’s amazing to come back and see this kind of support and to see that we’ve made so much money from the shirts and the bake sale.”
The unofficial theme of the day was legacy. “All these people are here for our family and it’s the best gift we could ask for,” Sarah said. “For Aliza to play with my mom’s energy and in honor of her — there’s nothing better than that, especially when you’re doing something you love.”
Looking into the bleachers full of pink shirts was a dream come true for Aliza, though having a moment of silence before her final home game in her mom’s honor flanked by teammate Chessy Greenwald and Sarah was something Aliza never considered would happen.
“When we were spreading the word we said we wanted to see a sea of pink shirts and that’s exactly what we saw,” Aliza said. “It was so encouraging. Even though we had a tough loss in the last three seconds, at the end of the day we came together as a team.”
Losing 11-10 on a shot with three seconds to go after rallying from being down 10-7 to tie the game, the girls showed grit.
“Today was a great success in terms of the way we honored her and came together as a senior class,” Aliza said. “It’s just not the outcome we wanted. It’s nothing that we really had in our control, but we put up a fight, just as she would have wanted us to.”
Art Bonifati is in his first year coaching football and girls lacrosse at Scarsdale, and the story of the Mehlmans put everything in perspective.
“This is what it’s about, coming together as a community, rallying for a cause, raising money, being there for each other, being there for Aliza,” he said. “The score doesn’t really matter — I mean, it does — but this is more important than any game. They’ll keep this from now until whenever. They’ll always remember the Pink Game. That stuff will never be forgotten.”
And the Raiders would remember the next game, too, as Aliza scored in overtime for a big win against New Rochelle. Just as her mom lived a life where when one thing knocks you down you knock it right back, Aliza found the same fortitude on and off the field.
The spunky Mehlman sisters will forever carry on their mother’s unbreakable spirit. The way they describe her they might as well be looking in a mirror.
“She was just one of those people who walked in and lit up the room,” Sarah said. “Everyone always says her smile, her laugh were infectious and I can attest to that. For so many people she was a glimmer of hope for them. She was always energetic, smiling and happy to see everyone. She was so friendly and personable. She was spunky. We always say she was a badass — I don’t know if you can use that word — but we’d always say she was the sweetest badass because she didn’t care what anyone thought. She did what made her happy, made us happy.”
Said Aliza, “She was fearless, tough. She always pushed us. My dad always said she was the real athlete, so I guess we got the genes from her. It was tough love. She was always there for us, but she always pushed us to be more and fight every day like she did, even though we didn’t know what her situation was. She kind of imbued that energy back onto us.”
All three sisters were an important part of Scarsdale’s athletic program in field hockey, track and field and lacrosse. They had that experience without the burden of their mother’s grim diagnosis.
“Our kids were prolific high school athletes here and for them to have that experience with the teams and with the families and with the coaches, I don’t think we could have replicated that,” Jon said. “Aliza this year has had a tough season compared to the other 11 seasons we had because the person she wanted in the stands was not there this time. Her bereavement could have been a situation where that could have been all eight years for the kids had they known. She spared them this potential situation and that gave them an ability to live and breathe like normal teenagers.”
The fact that Marla lived beyond expectation can be credited to many things, No. 1 being Marla’s “badass” attitude. She was “strong as an ox and determined,” Jon said.
Drawing inspiration from her favorite singer, Bruce Springsteen, there was certainly no surrender as Marla proved she was tougher than the rest.
“From a father’s perspective, emotionally nourishing these kids is hard because they want their mother,” Jon said. “They love me, but kids want their mothers, especially daughters, especially teenage daughters.”
And with a mom like Marla Mehlman, who could blame them?