persons, places and things: Finding blessings in cancer


By Barb Arland-Fye

Ovarian cancer isn’t a challenge Marjean O’Brien of St. Anthony Parish in Davenport chose to take on, but with the grace of God she’s counting her blessings.

Diagnosed in November 2007, O’Brien — who will serve as Irish Mother of the Year in this weekend’s St. Patrick Society Grand Parade — is in the last month of new treatments and says “it’s going very well.”

A writer who’s worked in marketing and community relations for years, O’Brien e-mails what she calls a “Holy Water Update” to friends and relatives about her health progress.

Marjean’s sister, Laurie Bribriesco, forwarded one of the Holy Water Updates with a request that people who know Marjean nominate her for Irish Mother of the Year.


Laurie contributed her own nomination for Marjean, who married into her Irish heritage nearly 46 years ago.  Laurie wrote: “My mother used to say she didn’t know how a good German girl (Marguerite Heidgerken) got such an Irish daughter! Marjean has truly embraced the Irish heritage of her husband, Tom, even owning an Irish shop at one point.” Laurie noted that Marjean “has never known a stranger, just friends she hasn’t met.” And, “she is fluent in blarney.”

Deb Thomford wrote: “The truth is she is an Irish blessing to all who know and love her. Each day Marjean brings a sparkle to all the lives she touches. She enjoys dancing an Irish jig an’ singing ‘Danny Boy.”  Laughter is a part of her infectious charm and she can talk to anyone and make them feel welcome in an instant.”

Marjean and Tom were involved with the St. Patrick Society in the early years. She was the first editor of its Irish Spirit newsletter. “During the very first Gathering of the Clan, I had the honor of giving the first Irish Mother of the Year her bouquet,” Marjean recalls.

She’s been involved in plenty of volunteer efforts over the years — including helping out at the Catholic schools her six children attended — St. Paul the Apostle and Assumption High School in Davenport. “You can’t have kids in Catholic schools without being a volunteer,” she quipped.

Among the organizations she supports is the Alzheimer’s Association. Marjean also works at The Fountains Senior Living Community in Bettendorf.

“My job is marketing and helping people moving in. I’ve worked in senior housing for 15 years and specialize in assisted living, especially with people who have some cognitive decline.”

 She’s working a part-time schedule so she and Tom  can do some of the fun things they want to do.

“My cancer journey, as much as I would never have wished this on anyone or myself, it’s amazing the blessing it can be. I can’t say it without getting emotional. The world we create — when somebody has something like this — you have so much help and so much love just coming to you. It just blows my mind away.”

Cancer also “brings into your life how important every day is.” She looks forward to celebrating her 46th wedding anniversary with Tom next month. “Life is about faith and attitude,” she says. “You know that when you breathe in and breathe out you do that with the help of God.”

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