RIP

AS THE WORLD TURNS Alum Passes Away At 37

Marnie Schulenburg, who played Alison Stewart on AS THE WORLD TURNS from 2007-10 and Jo Sullivan on the 2013 ONE LIFE TO LIVE reboot, passed away a few days shy of her 38th birthday. The actress had been battling Stage 4 metastatic breast cancer since 2020 and shared her inspiring story with Digest below. She is survived by husband Zack Robidas and their daughter, Coda, 2.

This interview originally appeared in the July 20, 2020 issue

With the arrival of her daughter, Coda, last December, Marnie Schulenburg felt 2019 was ending on a high note. “She was a week early and she came pretty fast,” the actress recalls of the special delivery, which also involved husband Zack Robidas. “I wanted to labor a lot at home, so I was using this app to keep track of my contractions and I lost track! By the time we got to the hospital, I was already seven centimeters dilated at 9 p.m. and she came at 12:36 a.m. It was only four hours of active labor, and really just an hour of pushing. I didn’t have time to get any drugs. The last nine months of helping her grow and feeling her move inside of me to actually getting to hold her was most beautiful thing I’ve ever experienced.”

With acting jobs coming down the pike for the new parents and plans to buy their first home, it seemed that 2020 was on track for a banner year, but trouble loomed on the horizon. “I started noticing pain in my left breast,” Schulenburg shares. “It wasn’t until Coda was about 2 months old that I realized I couldn’t fully lay down on one side. I was trying a lot of home remedies, but by the end of February, I called my ob-gyn and I said, ‘I’m really concerned. This hasn’t been clearing up.’ ”

In the first week of March, Schulenburg was checked out by her physician, who initially suspected a common breastfeeding inflammation called mastitis. “She didn’t know for sure, so she scheduled an ultrasound for two days later,” Schulenburg recalls. “I went in on a Monday, which also happened to be the mandate for shelter in place, and I found out that she also ordered a mammogram, but I didn’t know this. I showed up without a breast pump and I wasn’t allowed to get the mammogram because I needed to fully pump and drain my breasts before getting it.”

Without the mammogram, Schulenburg was diagnosed with mastitis and started a round of antibiotics. When the symptoms didn’t abate, she was given a second, then a third course of the drugs over the next five weeks. “There are cases of mastitis where it sometimes does take a long time to kill it off,” she points out. “Nobody is jumping to inflammatory breast cancer because it’s so rare. It’s even more rare in a breastfeeding, postpartum mother. It’s just not the default. One other actress, I won’t share her name, who had worked on soaps, reached out to me and said she had to be hospitalized and her mastitis drained because it was so backed up. It’s also normal not to get another ultra-sound for two months to wait for the infection to resolve itself.”

A mammogram showed suspicious activity (“There were abnormal cells and tissue going on”), so a biopsy followed in early May, at which time cancer was confirmed. “I was immediately hooked up with a breast surgeon, who I saw on a televisit because of the pandemic,” Shulenburg recounts. “That next Wednesday, I went in for all of my blood work and genetic testing. I also met a fertility doctor, because at the time we thought I could harvest my eggs for the possibility of having another baby after I go through chemo. I had been going since 9 a.m. and by the time I got to the oncologist, it was 3:30. I was exhausted.”

Schulenburg received tough news at the visit: She wasn’t in the beginning stages of breast cancer but already at Stage 3. “I felt like it was a death sentence,” she sighs. “I just broke down in front of her. I said, ‘What do I tell my husband? How long do I have?’ And she said, ‘Have hope. There’s still a lot we don’t know.’ She was so supportive and amazing.”

Since the disease had progressed, treatment was scheduled to start in two weeks, which was another blow for Schulenburg because there wasn’t any time to extract eggs. “I’d like to say that I had the perspective that I was grateful for the one child I have, but no, I mourned — hardcore,” she admits. “I almost mourned just as much as I did about the cancer. I gave away my maternity clothes to a friend and I just sobbed while holding them. I’ve given so many of Coda’s clothes to other moms in my life. I’m still keeping some favorite pieces just in case there’s a miracle.”

Thankfully, Schulenburg has her husband to lean on. “The poor guy,” she laments. “He’s amazing. He’s a rock. For a couple of weeks, we took turns openly sobbing, and then you work through it. You have to refocus yourself and put on your game face. There’s no room for us to repress any emotions and not be completely honest with the scariness of this situation. There’s also no time or energy or space for us to try to be strong. I think it’s stronger that we are sharing a good cry basically every day.”

Although Schulenburg would eventually learn that her cancer was at Stage 4 and had invaded her bones, she was determined to maintain an upbeat attitude. “This is not something that has to take my life,” she declares. “This is something that’s going to be a chronic disease and I have to keep treating it. There are women who have been living with this from five years to 30 years, and they didn’t even have half the medicine and technology that we have now. My agent, who is very vocal about her cancer, has been Stage 4 for the last five years. She just got another clear CAT scan and it’s NED, no evidence of disease. And that’s the goal: NED.”

While currently undergoing a combination of chemotherapy and immunotherapy medications, Schulenburg remains proactive about her condition. “I’m getting a second and even possibly a third opinion, not because I don’t trust my doctor, but because she recommended to do it,” she explains. “It’s my life. If I didn’t take all the steps to ensure that I’m getting the best possible care and on the right path, then I would forever regret it. I have a televisit with Memorial Sloan Kettering and I’m reaching out to Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston. I’m also on two different drugs; one is still a clinical trial and the other one I think is only a year old. A lot of the women on my Facebook group aren’t even on this set of drugs.”

Since her diagnosis, “We’ve completely fine-tuned my diet. I’m not eating bagels and cream cheese every morning. I’m eating healthy pizzas, I’m having immune-boosting foods, greens, fruits, healthy grains like quinoa, oats. I’m practicing yoga and Tigon. I mean, I’ll take anything that’s going to help me. I’m doing it all. I already feel 10 times better, which is a weird dichotomy because I’m getting chemotherapy. It’s in some ways the healthiest I’ve felt in the last four months.”

Giving up is not an option. “I have a 6-month-old and I need to be here for her,” Schulenburg concludes. “Nothing good comes from being negative. I truly think the cancer feeds off that negative energy, so I’m staying positive. I’m not necessarily an incredibly religious person. It’s not something that’s been a part of my life up until now, but I’m much more spiritual. I have faith. I have much more faith in myself than I realized.”

Top Tips If you’re battling cancer or have a loved one who is, Schulenburg has advice.

Accept Help: “If people want to offer you food or blankets or coloring books or whatever, let them. People want to help when something this stupid happens to you.”

Research Prudently: “People say stay away from the Internet because there are certain sites that have information not always completely up-to-date. The first thing I did was go online and read the statistics. It made me think that I was going to die and it was only an amount of time. Find the right sources, like pubmed.gov, which is the National Library of Medicine, and find those articles that have legitimate information that you can gain knowledge and empower yourself off of.”

Take Care Of Yourself: “Listen to your body. If it’s somebody else, make sure you’re advocating for them and that they’re taking care of themselves. You only get one body and it’s really easy to take it for granted. My diagnosis was a reminder that I need to treat my body with respect.”

Build Community: “Find a group. You’re so much more than a statistic. You can find a Facebook group for whatever cancer you have. I’m in two. I’m in Young Survivor Coalition For Metastatic Stage 4 Cancer and also the Inflammatory Breast Cancer groups. Every day I’m talking with survivors who are fighting and have been living with it. So to have a concrete example, somebody not being dead from this disease, is what’s given me hope every day. It only serves you knowing that you’re not alone.”

Don’t Lose Hope: “There are things happening right now in the medical community and science community that are going to be the next new treatment for you. The two drugs I’m on weren’t even in existence two years ago. Who knows where we’ll be years from now?”

Just The Facts

Birthday: May 21

Birthplace: Cape Cod, MA

Restless World: Although Schulenburg took over the role of Alison on AS THE WORLD TURNS in 2007, she actually debuted the character on an online mini-soap for Y&R called DIGITAL DAYTIME: L.A. DIARIES, which co-starred Adrienne Frantz (ex-Amber, B&B/Y&R).

We Are Family: Married actor Zack Robidas on September 15, 2013; their daughter, Coda, was born on December 12, 2019.

Name Recognition: “We had a list of baby names but then I saw Koda, which is primarily an indigenous name. I felt a little inappropriate adopting a native name, but then I thought of Coda because I grew up singing in different choirs and my father was a concert trombonist, so music is very much a part of my life. Coda means bringing something to an end, to completion, so we liked that because Coda completes Zack and me.”

All Together Now: Schulenburg recently participated in an online ATWT reunion with former co-stars Alexandra Chando (ex-Maddie), Van Hansis (ex-Luke), Agim Kaba (ex-Aaron) and Jake Silbermann (ex-Noah). “That was really fun. I missed everybody.”

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