Her hands found the corners of her mat, and as she sat back on her heels, stretching her arms out under the hot morning sun, Marisa Gefen exhaled.
The 39-year-old physician from Wynnewood had driven to the Philadelphia Museum of Art early Sunday and unrolled her yoga mat on its steps alongside nearly 2,000 other breast cancer survivors and their friends and family members.
The goal was to raise $400,000 for Living Beyond Breast Cancer, a Bala Cynwyd-based nonprofit focused on providing information and resources for women battling the disease.
The money went to a good cause, and Marisa was happy to help. She and her family had raised thousands themselves.
But it wasn’t the main reason she came to the steps Sunday morning, wearing a flamingo-pink shirt that said “Believe.”
Five years ago last month, Marisa was sunk in the cushions of her couch doing work when she reached into her shirt and found an unmistakable lump. “Either I’m crazy,” she thought as she sat up, “or I have breast cancer.”
Crazy seemed possible as she looked around her living room, finding little context for the mass in her left breast. Marisa was 34, too young to undergo a routine screening for breast cancer. She had four children under the age of 4, including 10-month-old twins, asleep in side-by-side cribs in the next room.
But by the end of the following day, Marisa was diagnosed with Stage 3 cancer, a 10-centimeter tumor intruding on her chest wall. She started chemotherapy on her daughter Violet’s third birthday. “Mommy has a boo-boo on her breast,” she and her husband, Jon, tried to explain.
Down at the Shore over Memorial Day, Marisa’s hair started to fall out. She sat with her sisters on the back steps of their Margate beach house as her husband shaved it off. They said every positive thing they could think of — “This is empowering!” and “You look beautiful!” — but her youngest sister, Ashley Nechemia, remembers how all they really thought was, “This sucks.”
It did. Six months of chemotherapy were followed by a double mastectomy, radiation treatments, injections, blockers and finally, the removal of Marisa’s ovaries.
They all tried to keep her spirits up. Marisa’s kids picked out her wigs, a blond bob, even a purple one. Her grandmother, Leona Lubinietski Kleiner, called her every day to make sure she was eating.
Marisa forced herself to find one hopeful thing, one silver lining each day. Sometimes it was: “I didn’t throw up.”
Then, in January 2015, after the worst year of her life, the doctors told her she was done. “You’re free to be normal,” they said.
But Marisa didn’t feel normal. She had no hair, didn’t recognize her own body. “I felt like the world didn’t understand,” she says. One day, her sisters bought her a bracelet that said “Believe.”
And she tried to.
A few weeks later, Marisa saw the flyer for Yoga on the Steps. She had done yoga in the past — “It got me through med school,” she says — so she went to a kickoff event at Ardmore Toyota with her sister Carly Cohen. Surrounded by other survivors, Marisa thought, “These are my people.”
That year, so many friends had reached out to ask Marisa how they could support her. Now she knew what to say. She tacked up a sign in her exam room. She started a fund-raising team: “The Believe Team.” Her team raised close to $10,000.
“There’s something different about this event, because when you do most fund-raisers, you’re together in the beginning, but then you all go run or walk," said Jean Sachs, CEO of Living Beyond Breast Cancer. “With this, you’re together the whole time. You’re connected to everybody.”
The crowds of mostly women moving up and down the steps Sunday wore shirts that said “Treasure the Chests," “New Moonies,” and “Fight Like a Girl.” They took selfies with Rocky and scream-hugged the friends they hadn’t seen since last year’s event. They stared at framed photos of those who had died.
Now Marisa lifted her hips in the air, coming out of child’s pose and into downward dog. Behind her, her son Caleb, now 5, grinned as he slapped his stomach like a bongo drum, his face painted like a shark.
Nearby, 8-year-old Violet mimicked her mother’s movements. Marisa pulled 5-year-old Estella into her arms, and lifted their arms together toward the sky.
A few months ago, Marisa’s grandmother died at the age of 92. She had survived the Warsaw Ghetto during the Holocaust, had come to the U.S. to start a family. She would always say, “You’re my life.” She only ever wanted to live to see the next birthday, wedding, or bar mitzvah.
Marisa renamed the team “Bubby’s Believers.” There was so much to believe in now, she said. There was no way to feel alone.
And so Marisa put her arm on her sister Carly’s shoulder, and the other arm around her 9-year-old son, Sam, and they repeated after the instructor:
“I am courageous!”
“I am stunningly beautiful!”
“I am open to living my dreams!”