After losing three sisters to cancer, Bethesda firefighter turns to advocacy

Vicky, the oldest sister, discovered a lump in her breast and tested positive for cancer. Two weeks later, her sister Valessa got the same results. And two weeks after that, Penny got word from her doctor.

In the span of one month in 2006, each of Marshall Moneymaker’s three older sisters — all in their 50s — learned that they had the disease that would later kill them. The diagnosis was as grim as it was improbable.

“It’s so rare, I can’t even find the odds on it,” said Moneymaker, a Montgomery County firefighter.

Moneymaker had rarely spoken with the three over the previous five years, the legacy, in part, of a dysfunctional family. But through three simultaneous rounds of chemotherapy, three reports that the disease was incurable and, finally, three funerals, Moneymaker and his sisters drew closer again.

They are no longer with him, but Vicky Higgins, Valessa Baumgardner and Penny Zeller and their disease have become the focus of his life. Moneymaker has transformed himself into a crusader for a cure — a burly dude on a Harley with an infectious sense of humor who goes around wearing all pink.

“Marshall’s story is that of a simple man faced with an enormous tragedy that he turned into something good,” said his wife, Shannon. “Marshall is a meat-and-potatoes kind of guy. He’s a firefighter, but he’s confronted these really complicated emotions.”

Cancer hits home

Moneymaker, 44, said he carried on after the call about Vicky’s cancer. The second about Valessa shocked him, but the third about Penny was the blow that sent him reeling.

Growing up, Penny, who was more than a decade older, often functioned as Marshall’s mom. She dressed him for school and let him tag along on dates. His best memory of childhood was a day spent at Great Falls with Penny and her boyfriend, who was shipping out for Vietnam the next day.

During his tour, the boyfriend dutifully sent money home so he and Penny could build a life together. Marshall said his mother took it and donated it to a televangelist. Penny and the boyfriend’s relationship eventually disintegrated.

Life was rarely easy for Marshall and his sisters growing up in Damascus. His father was an alcoholic. His mother worked long hours as a waitress. They were often strapped for money.

Those early years took a toll on the siblings’ relationship and they drifted apart. Moneymaker’s father, who had non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, is deceased. His mother is in a nursing home.

When Penny was sick and simultaneously going through a divorce, she had no place to live. Marshall and Shannon said they had one option: Invite her into their home.

Over the course of a year, they helped nurse Penny back to health in their Martinsburg, W.Va., home, but it was a short-lived victory. In the meantime, Vicky had gone downhill. A mastectomy could not stem the spread of her cancer. She lost her battle on Feb. 5, 2008. She was 60.

Penny’s fight

Moneymaker is an imposing man. He stands 6-2. His head is shaved. Once, during a call, he tilted a ladder up against a burning building and rescued a man trapped on a roof, said his captain, Marc Worton.

“I am of a generation of firefighters [who] are tough and strong; we are the ones who come and help in times of need. Whether it is for you or for one another, we carry the entire load; no one carries us,” Moneymaker wrote on his Web site.

But when Penny’s cancer came back around the start of 2009, he said he couldn’t carry the entire load anymore. Tests showed the cancer in Penny’s lungs, brain, liver and bones. Moneymaker had burned up nearly all of his leave caring for Valessa and Penny. He broke down and asked for help. He called it “horrifying.”

“You could tell it was eating him up,” Worton said.

Moneymaker’s fellow firefighters at Station 6 in Bethesda covered three months of his shifts so he could spend time tending to his sisters. He shuttled Penny to treatment after treatment, but she eventually reached her limit.

“If I have to do one more round of chemo without a few weeks’ break, I can’t do it, marshmallow,” Moneymaker recalled Penny telling him. He moved her back into his home.

Toward the end, Penny slept propped up on Moneymaker’s couch because the tumors in her lungs were too large to allow her to lie down comfortably. She was constantly in pain.

A funny thing happened along the way, though. With each treatment and long night spent on the couch together, the family was slowly knitted back together.

“As I was getting closer to my sisters, they were slipping away,” Moneymaker said.

Penny died on June 9, 2010; Valessa followed her in September.

Moneymaker said he spread Penny’s ashes in the same spot at Great Falls where he had spent the day with her and her boyfriend so many years ago. Penny had told him she had always loved the boyfriend, right up until the end.

Moneymaker was exhausted. He had buried three sisters in two years. Shannon said there was only one word to describe him: empty.

“I’ve never seen him so low before,” his wife said.

The healing

One Friday about a month after Valessa died, volunteers were setting up a pit stop for the Susan G. Komen 3-Day for the Cure walk outside Moneymaker’s Bethesda firehouse. Moneymaker wandered out to help them. He set up some cones. He directed the ice delivery. He swapped cancer stories with other volunteers, including Mollie Simpkins.

They invited him back, not sure whether he would return. They were in for a surprise.

“We were sitting in the parking lot on Saturday morning and all of the sudden Marshall rolls up on his Harley all dressed up in pink,” Simpkins recalled with a laugh. “We cracked up.”

Moneymaker had gone home the night before and sobbed as he told Shannon what had transpired during the day. Something had clicked. He had worked to help his sisters for so long, he had forgotten about himself.

“I didn’t know I was broken,” Moneymaker said.

He and Shannon went to Wal-Mart and spent nearly $100 on pink gear, the color of solidarity for Komen walkers. The finishing touch: Pepto-Bismol-colored, XXXL leopard-print pajama pants from the women’s section.

“We live in Martinsburg,” Shannon said. “There’s not a lot of pink for dudes, so this 270-pound bald guy goes looking for anything pink in the women’s section. You should have seen the look on the associates’ faces.”

That Saturday, he parked his Harley in an intersection with the radio blasting Rick James. He danced around, yelled and egged on the walkers. They hugged and kissed him and snapped photos of themselves with the big guy in pink.

Moneymaker added a sash with his sister’s names on it — the kind featured in beauty contests — to his ridiculous outfit and took his show on the road. He has cheered on participants at cancer walks in Boston, Tampa and Philadelphia. He raises money. He tells his story at cancer awareness events. He’s starting a nonprofit organization with his wife that will offer a database of resources on the disease. And Komen has named him a national “Co-Survivor of the Year,” for someone that goes “above and beyond” to support a breast cancer survivor. The Komen Race for the Cure will be held in the District on Saturday.

Moneymaker figures if he was unlucky enough to lose three sisters to cancer, he might just get lucky enough to see a cure.

Simpkins said she sees a kindred spirit in Moneymaker.

“After you lose someone to cancer, you’re not sure if you’re grieving or honoring the dead properly,” Simpkins said. “Everybody has their own way. There are those that grieve in silence, and then there’s us.”

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