Episode 39 - Finding Hope and Shining Your Light Through Grief with Maria Quiban WhitesellDec 15, 2021
Maria Quiban Whitesell is a powerhouse media weather anchor on Fox 11 news who has been a positive force on television for two decades. She built an-award winning reputation as a trusted go-to for weather and reporting on human interest stories and has developed a fan base that celebrates her bubbly personality on TV. While having to put a smile on her face every day in front of millions on LA’s popular morning show, Good Day LA, no one had a clue the kind of personal toll she was taking on at home.
When on the home front in 2014, Maria Quiban Whitesell's husband Sean was diagnosed with a deadly form of brain cancer known as glioblastoma (GBM), she was completely unprepared. Her first thought was how could she possibly explain what was happening to their young son, Gus? How would she manage to say goodbye to the love of her life and, ultimately, live without him? In today’s Potential to Powerhouse conversation, Maria speaks openly about her journey of finding hope and shining her light through grief after Sean’s passing. Tuning in, you’ll learn about the book she wrote describing her experience, titled You Can't Do It Alone: A Widow's Journey Through Loss, Grief, and Life After, in which she teams up with licensed therapist Lauren Schneider to provide readers with a roadmap for walking through illness, death, and grief. This is a heart-led conversation about love, resilience, and the understanding that everyone has their own challenges to overcome, despite how things may appear from the outside. Maria takes this opportunity to reach out to those who may be dealing with a traumatic loss to say, “You are not alone!” Make sure not to miss this tender-yet-powerful conversation with media powerhouse and author Maria Quiban Whitesell!
Key Points From This Episode:
- Insight into Maria’s 25 years in ‘infotainment’ and what drew her to the weather.
- How she came to work for KTTV in Los Angeles and what she loves about being live.
- Hear the fateful story of how she met her late husband Sean Whitesell at a party.
- Find out why she and Sean broke up before getting back together; and married
- Some early signs something was wrong that Maria noticed prior to Sean’s diagnosis.
- How she and Sean were blindsided by the news that he had glioblastoma.
- Why Maria believes that it was actually a blessing that Sean’s GBM was inoperable.
- Part of Maria’s purpose is to shine a light on this disease and attract funding for research.
- Advice she received from a nurse shortly after receiving Sean’s diagnosis: Be strong.
- How Maria devoted herself to spending the time they had left making memories.
- Why she decided to title her book You Can’t Do It Alone; the importance of support.
- What it was like to work with licensed therapist Lauren Schneider.
- Maria shares why she is such a strong advocate for professional mental health support.
- The crucial role that family support played and her advice to listeners: Find your village and share your story to gain support.
- The promise she made to Sean; that she and Gus would live their greatest lives possible.
- Maria shares where she is on her journey through grief and how she hopes her book will inspire and help readers.
- What this journey has taught her about herself: You are stronger than you think you are, one day at a time.
“When you think that there's just no way that you could get through the day, you really are stronger than you think you are. I remember digging so deep within myself and getting through not just each day but sometimes just getting through the hour.” — @mariasearth [0:49:39]
“There are days when I don't want to face people, face the camera, and smile, and forecast the weather for everybody, but then I remember my promise to Sean, and that was to not let him down, and to be happy, and to go out there and live my best life.” — @mariasearth [0:40:57]
“We thought part of our purpose might be that we need to shine a light on this disease. We need to say, ‘We need to put more dollars into research for this,’ because this type of cancer, this brain cancer can affect anyone.” — @mariasearth [0:30:40]
“I'm such a huge advocate for mental health. Everyone should see a counselor [or] a therapist, truly. That's what helped us get through those initial days, through the hardest part of those 18 months, that journey, and today, with my 10-year-old now.” — @mariasearth [0:34:34]
“I'm hoping that this book can help, in some way, not just inspire someone to find a cure but also hopefully help you understand what brain cancer is, and what loss and grief and getting through that [looks like].” — @mariasearth [0:46:52]
Links Mentioned in Today’s Episode:
Maria Quiban Whitesell
Maria Quiban Whitesell on Twitter
Maria Quiban Whitesell on Instagram
Maria Quiban Whitesell on Facebook
You Can’t Do It Alone
Paragon Performance Evolution
Link Strategy Group
Potential to Powerhouse
Tracy Holland on Instagram
[00:00:06] ANNOUNCER: Welcome to From Potential to Powerhouse: Success Secrets from Female Leaders, where female trailblazers share their journeys and the aha moments that made all the difference with your host, serial entrepreneur and trailblazer herself, Tracy Holland.
[00:00:23] TH: Hi, friends. It's Tracy Holland, your host on Potential to Powerhouse. Today, we're talking to Maria Quiban Whitesell. If you're someone who lives in LA, you know Maria from giving the daily Los Angeles weather forecast on Good Day LA, Fox Morning News. Maria has been doing that for 20 years, and I have to say she is pure sunshine. She gets up every day and talks about the weather, no matter what is going on behind the scenes and, as we're going to talk about today in our conversation, she's actually also an author.
Her book is called You Can't Do It Alone: A Widow's Journey Through Loss, Grief, and Life After. She co-wrote this book with Lauren Schneider, and they did this to talk about what is the heart of the conversation today, which is Maria's true journey into mad love with a man named Sean Whitesell, who she met at a party; a young son, the birth of their beautiful son, Gus; and having this incredible life together when, all of a sudden, out of left field, Sean was diagnosed with a deadly form of brain cancer called GBM.
Both of them were completely unprepared for the diagnosis and what you're going to hear not only in her book but in our conversation today is the journey from literally hell and back that she really wants no one to go through again, alone, the way she felt, and lost as she felt. So, she wrote this book in hopes that she could share her personal journey about not only what it took to say goodbye to the love of her life, and go through that grief of saying goodbye and closing that chapter with him physically as he made his transition, but also waking up in the morning with Gus on the first day of his dad's transition and sharing with her young son the fact that his father had passed away.
So, this is a heart-led conversation. Maria is pure inspiration, pure joy, and what I just felt resonated so much for me in our conversation was her resilience and her willingness to come open her heart and share this journey with each and every one of us in hopes that we come together understanding that even the from the outside, is we have to go through our day jobs and everything looks fine, there can be a lot behind the scenes that we're faced with. It's her opportunity to reach out to each and every one of you who are potentially going through grief and transition with a loved one right now to say, “You're not alone.” Welcome, Maria to Potential to Powerhouse.
[00:02:47] TH: Maria Quiban, and Whitesell is your married name, welcome to Potential to Powerhouse. You’re a media powerhouse, you're also an author. We’re going to talk about the book because the book came from a life experience that we're going to really dig into today. But I first met you through my son. Our two sons go to class. I recognized Maria right away, but I couldn't figure out where I had recognized her from. She’s on the Good Day LA, FOX11 Morning News as the meteorologist. Of course, when I put two and two together, and I realized how I knew you, it didn't surprise me that you're this huge and incredible personality, also the weatherwoman, or do we call you a weatherman?
[00:03:38] MQW: Weatherwoman is good. I answer to that. Absolutely.
[00:03:44] TH: So, let's talk a little bit because you've had this incredible career as a media personality, and you're so much more than a meteorologist or a weather person or weatherwoman. I see you as someone that is a real beacon of light. Your fan base comes to hear you talk every morning and share your stories and it's so much more about who you are as a person than just the weather. So, I think that's what makes it – and you've been with KTLA for how many years?
[00:04:13] MQW: Actually, KTTV and on FOX11. On Good Day LA, I’ve been for almost 22 years, believe it or not.
[00:04:22] TH: Oh, Good Day LA, okay yes. The LA FOX11 Morning News.
[00:04:26] MQW: That's right. I've been here at FOX11 and Good Day LA for almost 22 years. I started when I was 10.
[00:04:33] TH: Because you look like you are 30. And seriously, you're incredible.
[00:04:38] MQW: Thank you. Thank God for makeup and hair and filters and little touch up here and there on this Zoom, which is fantastic. I've been there for almost 22 years. I can't believe it. I started my career in Honolulu, which is where I grew up and started working at the NBC station there. Total in this business of news, and I guess sort of infotainment in a way, over 25 years.
[00:05:03] TH: So, that's a beautiful way to say it, because that's how I think of it, as infotainment. I've never heard that word before. So, what impassioned you in the very beginning to dive into weather?
[00:05:15] MQW: Well, I kind of took a little bit of a curve, if you will, as most of us do, I think when we find our career, and many of us have more than one these days. So, I'm excited about what else is in my future besides being an author now. But I've been in broadcasting for 25 plus years. I remember when I was a little girl, I can really honestly trace it back to when I was about five years old. I would come home and I would turn on the box, is what I would call it back then, and I would watch Sesame Street. I don't know if you remember Sesame Street. They've been around for a long time.
[00:05:53] TH: Heck, yeah.
[00:05:55] MQW: And they actually just recently, this week, introduced their first ever Asian American character, believe it or not. After all these years, but you know, when I was growing up, I watched that show, and I noticed someone that looked like me, in the sense that she was brown, she had dark hair, her name was Maria. I just loved everything that she did on television, in this box, and she made me feel so happy. All the characters on Sesame Street made me feel very special. I remember thinking, “Gosh, I want to do that. I want to be able to make people smile and make them feel happy and included and wanted.”
I think I can really trace it back to when I was five, and wanting to be able to do something like that. I kind of forgot about it, growing up, and as most parents do, they want their children to be, especially in the Filipino-American family. My family, my parents wanted me to either to be a nurse or a doctor or a lawyer. When I didn't want to go that route, they didn't really understand what it was that I wanted to do, and then eventually they got it, and I fell upon journalism and broadcasting in college. I just fell in love with doing the news.
Actually, through my first job and interning, I actually decided, you know what? I actually don't like reporting and anchoring the news because of the bad news that we would have to report every day, it got to me on a certain level. When an opportunity came up where they were looking for a weekend meteorologist, I thought, “Wow, that looks interesting.” Again, growing up in Hawaii, I was always outside, we were always – we lived outdoors, really. So, I was always in nature and loved the idea of climate and weather. That opportunity came up and I just fell into it, and I fell in love with it. I hung out with the National Weather Service and the team there, and I just learned as much as I could about meteorology and forecasting the weather.
You know what? It’s the only part of the news that looks forward in time. So, I always kind of joke about that. Whereas everyone talks about the past, they talk about the future and it’s so promising. There's something about that, I just love.
[00:08:10] TH: I love it too. I love weather, in general. So, being in Hawaii, you're getting to see a lot of that as well. I'm sure.
[00:08:19] MQW: Yeah, there's an inner meteorologist in all of us, I've come to find out.
[00:08:24] TH: I’m sure. Absolutely. When was your move to California? At what age?
[00:08:29] MQW: Well, I started my career in Hawaii, which I was so fortunate to actually start where you are from and where you live. I'd been doing it there for a number of years. My parents who I'm very close with, my stepdad had a change in his company. He had to move to California. He inherited the west coast as well as Hawaii, and so he worked for United Airlines. He worked for the airline industry. When my parents moved to Orange County here in California, I really miss them a lot. We got to see my dad because he would travel back and forth. But we never got to see my mom.
My mom would call me and say, “Hey, you're working for NBC in Hawaii, why don't you just get a job here at NBC in LA?” And I said, “Well, mom, it’s not that easy. It's a very competitive business.” She said, “Well, okay. If you can't get a job in NBC, then there's a 24-hour news channel here in Orange County. Why don’t you check to see if you can work there?” This is pre-social media, pre-smartphones, and really the internet as we know it today. I remember picking up the phone and just calling the news director at OCN. It was the Orange County News Channel, and I told him a little bit about me and he said, “Sure, send a tape.”
I did, I sent a tape and he called me back and said, “Well, I'd love to come talk to you. Are you coming up to LA?” I go, “As a matter of fact, I’m coming to visit my parents for the holidays.” So, I went in and interviewed with him and he said, “Okay, great. When can you start?”
[00:09:55] TH: So perfect.
[00:09:57] MQW: Yeah, that's where it started. So, I was there for exactly two years. They wanted a two-year contract from me. I can tell you this other long story about wanting to pursue a career that you want and some of the roadblocks, because I can tell you, a few people in Hawaii who told me that I could never make it here in LA. I wanted this particular agent, and they said, “No way, they're not going to take you.” But I started working at OCN, this little 24-hour news channel in Orange County, and I get a phone call, and it was from that agent that I wanted to represent me.
Right away, they got me interviews, and my news director at OCN said, “I really need you to stick to your contract.” So, I did. As soon as my contract is over, I moved up there to LA and worked at KTTV and I've been there ever since.
[00:10:39] TH: That's incredible. So, I'm just always curious. Is it live when you're doing TV or is it prerecorded? Is there space to make mistakes?
[00:10:50] MQW: Oh, no. I think the mistakes make it more fun, to be honest. I think that doing live television, there's nothing like it, and that's one of the reasons why I think I love what I do. It's not pre-taped. It's all live. The weather part of what we do on the news is actually all ad lib.
The news anchors, they do have a prompter, a teleprompter, and they read all the stories that are coming up but, as the meteorologists, they often go to us as a crutch for time, the producers. When especially today, when we do a lot of our interviews and stories on Zoom, a lot of the technology will go down at the last minute. So, they'll just quickly say, “Let's go to weather. Let's go to weather.” You'll just have to quickly adjust and you'll get sometimes 30 seconds to – I think one time I had three minutes and another time they said can you please fill six minutes? Can you just fill – the two interviews just went down and they're tough, went down the drain. Yeah, the live aspect of it is really exciting and it's a challenge, but we just speak extemporaneously like you do here on the podcast. So, that makes it fun.
[00:11:56] TH: Oh, my gosh, Maria, I have a whole new level – I mean, I have a ton of respect. I didn't realize it was live and it's ad-libbed.
[00:12:04] MQW: Yeah. We just have to know what's going on in the weather. So, we try to stay up on it.
[00:12:09] TH: I know that from our discussions that you're usually up at what, 4 AM?
[00:12:13] MQW: 3:45 is now my alarm clock.
[00:12:18] TH: On the weekends, how late do you sleep?
[00:12:20] MQW: I try to sleep in on Saturdays. I usually get up by 8, 8:30.
[00:12:25] TH: Okay, good. So, you get a little rest.
[00:12:28] MQW: I try.
[00:12:29] TH: You’re incredible. So, let's dive into, you know, correct me, but watching your career trajectory and just seeing how successful you've been in media. You are single, you had a son from a previous marriage, you're living in LA, you get invited to a dinner party, you were reluctant to go because you didn't want to be a third wheel, and yet were talked into going, is this is correct?
[00:12:59] MQW: This is all right, you got it.
[00:13:02] TH: Okay. So, we're going to dive in to this incredible book, which I think is such a gift that has come to the world through incredible tragedy in Maria's life personally. So, the conversation is one around the very beginning of your connection and relationship with your soulmate, Sean Whitesell. Tell me about the dinner and the invite and then what you're thinking when you were invited to that dinner?
[00:13:30] MQW: Well, like many single or divorced men and women, you always hear how it's so hard to meet great people, especially in LA. I was no different. I was in my early 30s at that time and I was living my life. I had a great career, had been working here at KTTV, at that time, I was working, actually the Fox 11 Evening News, because before I moved to the mornings, and I was perfectly content. I had an older son. He was 16 at the time, and I thought, you know, I feel good. This is the first time in my life where I really felt confident about who I was. I felt so comfortable in my own shoes and I'd learned a lot of lessons along the way. I'd made mistakes like everyone else. I really thought, this time I feel really good. I feel empowered, and very secure with who I am.
I tell you, that the universe hears you and knows when that happens because I was invited to this dinner party, and it was my colleague at the time and her boyfriend at the time, and they had kind of come out as a couple. They wanted to have this official gathering and a dinner for all of their friends. So, they invited a bunch of their couple friends and they invited me and I said, “I can't go. You guys are all couples. There's no way.” My friend said, “No, you really should go Maria, you really should go.” And I said, “Well, no, I don’t –” She said, “You should go. There's going to be somebody there that you might want to meet.” I found out later that her boyfriend's brother, and their whole family, actually, their brothers and their wives are going to come to this party at the end. Because it was also one of their other brother’s birthday, there are six brothers, mind you, in this family.
We gathered another anchor of ours who was a man and he was single at the time. I said, “John, let's go to this dinner.” He goes, “Great. Let's go, let's go.” So, we go to this dinner. At the very end of this dinner, we're about to leave, actually, we're getting ready to leave at the end. In comes the rest of the Whitesell family, and I remember hearing a very distinct, extra loud, because they're all loud, there all boys, extra loud voice, and that was Sean. He came walking right in and I remember, came right straight to me, and said, “Hello, you must be Maria. I'm Sean Whitesell.” He introduced himself, and I don't really believe in love at first sight. But it was – there was definitely something there at first sight, and we just clicked and he really was my happily ever after.
[00:16:11] TH: And so that night, you said that it took a couple of weeks for you to have your first date. I think he was trying to play it cool, right?
[00:16:20] MQW: He was trying to play cool, but he got my number from his brother and his brother advised him to wait a little while, be cool. Wait a little while before you call her. And he said, “Yeah, okay. I will. I will”. He hung up the phone and didn’t call me right away. And he called me the next day. I appreciate that about him because he didn't play those games. He was a good guy from Iowa as the rest of his family. He knew what he wanted, I think, and knew that he wanted to get to know me more. And so did I. So, we went out on our first date. Finally, a couple weeks later, we set a date. Really, we were kind of inseparable after that.
[00:16:56] TH: And you dated for a year. Isn’t that right?
[00:16:59] MQW: Yeah, we dated for almost a year. Like many relationships, there's a little bit of a hiccup. And so, we actually broke up. There were some things that he couldn't really quite grasp at the time and that was the fact that I was divorced and I had this older son. There are all these things that he needed to work out in his head. So, at that time, he wasn't ready. I said, “Fine, let's break up.” We did. We broke up for a few months, actually, it was about, I want to say, it was close to eight months or seven months. Lo and behold, Bruce Springsteen, who was playing at the party that night when we met brought us together again, one night in May, I believe, the following year, and we came together.
He called me and said, “I saw you down there at the concert covering it for the news.” And we got together because he was right down the street, long story short. We broke down the concert, got together, saw each other for the first time in a long time, and realized that we missed each other so much and got back together.
[00:18:04] TH: You had even deleted his number out of your phone?
[00:18:06] MQW: I did. I didn't recognize the number. When my phone was ringing. I had moved on. I really had moved on. Things have a way of working out.
[00:18:15] TH: So, I have to ask, during that period of time where you had broken up, like had you already said, “I love you.” Were you devastated? Or was this like casual dating, because I think a year sounds like a long time.
[00:18:27] MQW: Oh, it was definitely in the ‘I love you’ territory, for sure. It was devastating. There's no doubt it hurt really badly. By the time I was finished grieving that loss, if you will, or getting over that breakup, I had started dating someone else, actually, a few months after. So, there's a rule of thumb of the time that you see or the time that you're together, it takes about half the time to really get through that and clear your mind and your heart to open it up to something else.
After about six months or so, I was ready and I put myself out there and I met some really nice people and actually had started dating someone. It was interesting to break up with that someone, but luckily it was just a short time and he understood that there was some unfinished business that I had with Sean and he said, “Okay, go with my blessing.”
[00:19:19] TH: Oh my gosh, that's an incredible story. So, I was at the edge of my seat reading that part of the story because I did not understand that there had been this breakup period of time. I can only imagine when you think you're with someone who's the right person, and it takes so long to find that person, to then have them kind of back out and say, “I'm not sure”, and take their own time. You said, he's just the kind of guy that needed time.
[00:19:46] MQW: Also, like I was saying, I felt really good about where I was in my life and who I was. So, even though it hurt a lot, I also felt that I knew who I was and what my value was as a person individually and as a partner. I knew that if he wasn't right, then someone else would be. That was the place where I was at mentally and emotionally.
[00:20:08] TH: It's beautiful. And then you get back together. It took a couple of years. But then it said, you mentioned in the book that he proposed the day before Valentine's Day so that it wasn't cheesy.
[00:20:20] MQW: He did. He did surprise me, he really did catch me off guard. A lot of guys, Valentine's Day is not really their favorite, but he learned to love it because I was the one that was the gift giver on that holiday. He always got a surprise, with a watch or just something really, really fun. When he proposed the night before Valentine's Day, that really caught me off guard. That was a real big surprise to me.
[00:20:44] TH: And then you ended up having Gus one year later?
[00:20:47] MQW: We did. Mind you, I did not need nor even wanted to necessarily get married again. I had been married, I was divorced, and I already had an older son. So, I felt like I had ticked all the boxes as a career woman. I was in my career, I was happy doing what I was doing. I had already had a child. I had experienced love to a certain degree in marriage and divorce. So, I didn't need to be married again. But Sean had never been married, and he didn't have any children. Even though I didn't really want to have children at the time, when you fall in love with someone, you fall in love with what they want too. He wanted to have a wedding, and he wanted to have a child and children, but we weren't able to have another child, but we were so fortunate to have Gus, and it did take a little while for us to have him. Through God's blessing, we were able to have him and what a gift he was and continues to be such a joy for me.
[00:21:44] TH: He’s such a gift. So, that is all of the deliciousness of the beginning of this incredible story and journey. Then, we're going to dive into some of the specifics. I think that the book of title, so that you can take a look, it's called, You Can't Do It Alone: A Widow’s Journey Through Loss, Grief, and Life After. Mehmet Oz, Dr. Oz, as we all know him says about your book, which I think is so true. “Maria shares her path of balancing grief with the happy memories of her beloved husband. Her emotional journey will amaze you.”
The first few years of your marriage, sound like they were everything that you had anticipated. He is really athletic. He's super fit. He's a writer. He's present, and faith based, and all of the things. Then, I read that you said you started noticing some aspects of his personality in one particular incident in which he lost his temper over something that was really something that he normally would never, started to indicate to you, especially after this trip to Paris where you thought, “This doesn't seem like my guy.”
[00:22:59] MQW: Yeah, for sure. Like many families, working parents, we were both working. We were kind of ships in the night during that last year and a half before he was diagnosed, because I worked on the mornings. He was a writer, he wrote for television drama. Any working writer will tell you that sometimes they're in their office writing for days, and they never come out. But that was the life that we were living at the time. So, we were kind of crossing paths, you know, ships in the night, really, wouldn't be with each other 24/7.
There were moments of odd behavior. With Sean, he was turning 50, and so some of that odd behavior very justifiable with turning 50 years old, that can bring a lot of anxiety for people. Starting a new show and a new job, that can bring a lot of mood changes and lack of sleep. So, a lot of the odd behavior that he was displaying, we could rationalize and justify all of it. But it was really our trip to Paris that, for me, really highlighted the changes that were occurring.
It was the first time that we were going away together. By this time, a Gus was three years old, and we really hadn't gone away together alone for years, really, since we got married on our honeymoon. We thought, “Gus is three. It's time maybe you and I can finally go and take this romantic trip to Paris that we'd always been wanting to take.” We've never been both of us, and for his 50th birthday, his brothers had gifted us a really wonderful, amazing trip to Paris.
We go on this trip. My parents stay here with Gus for that week and a half and we were together 24/7. It was on this trip where I noticed that he didn't get up before I did, which he normally would. He didn't plan out our itinerary, which normally would have done that. He didn't write, he didn't go to the gym. He wanted to sleep in, which was so strange. This was not the man I married. Then, to top it all off, he would forget his phone when it was so imperative, when you're going through a museum together and you get separated, because you're looking at this and that, and I would tell him right before we walk out the door, please grab your phone, make sure you don't forget it this time. And he'd say, “Yes, okay.”
He'd go into the room to get what I thought was the phone, he would come out, and he would have no phone. It was behavior like that. Also, I remember, we needed a taxi a few times in Paris and this was a guy who lived in New York for many years, and he couldn't remember how to hail a cab. He couldn't remember that you had to go to the curb, and get kind of halfway on the street and hold your arm up and whistle. He used to be able to whistle for a cab, for anything, and he couldn't do it. He just couldn't. I knew something was wrong. I knew it. Every day we were there, it got exponentially worse, which was even more frightening.
By the time we got to the end of that trip, I was literally in tears. And I said, “Honey, please promise me that you're going to see a doctor as soon as we get back.” Even he knew something was wrong, and he said, “Yes, I will. I will definitely see a doctor.”
[00:26:08] TH: So, at that point, you mentioned that you thought maybe you had an early onset of Alzheimer's or something. You really didn't have anything other than your instinct that said – but thank goodness that you really insisted at that minute, and thank goodness, you took that trip when you did.
[00:26:26] MQW: Yeah. You hear stories about brain cancer, and tumors, and brain tumors, and I've learned so much since then, by the way. A lot of people will have a seizure. By then, it's not just too late, but you get these deficits by that time that are really debilitating. We were fortunate with Sean in that we could see – in that at least even a gift in the fact that, by the time we got home – by the way, we got home, it takes time to see your regular doctor, make an appointment, and then have him or her refer you to the next specialist. By the time we landed, and by the time he actually got brain scans, because he saw his regular doctor then a neurologist, and so on and so on, it was exactly two weeks, which actually is pretty quick, if you think about it.
Two weeks exactly from when we landed, he went to get a brain scan for depression is what the neurologist had determined at the time because he was healthy, otherwise. His blood work, everything came back normal. He took the brain scans that morning, and I remember, I was calling him and again, he was getting worse and worse each day. I remember calling and saying, “Hi, how did it go today?” And he goes, “I don't know, I just got a call from this doctor at St. John and – or my doctor, saying, get over to St. John, because you have some brain tumors in your head.” He was very casual about this conversation with me. I said, “What?” I said, “Okay, well, I'm meeting you there.” He goes, “Okay. if you want to.” I said, “Oh my god, I'm definitely going.” I rushed over there.
There it was; these big tumors in the scans that we saw up on the wall, and we were just blindsided by it. We didn't know what they were. I'd never heard of the word glioblastoma. Maybe on the periphery. At that time, I think Senator Ted Kennedy had passed away from brain cancer. But really, we didn't know much about it. So, we googled frantically and realized what a deadly disease it was. It's terminal, there was no cure. We were facing quite a monster. And with Sean, it was inoperable.
In a way that was a gift for us, because I think a lot of times when you go into the brain and actually remove the lesions, there are a lot of deficits that you can suffer from after because of the surgery. Because he never went through that surgery, we were able to do a lot in the 18 months that we were together after that diagnosis. Mind you, that day we were diagnosed, and I say we because I feel like we were on this journey together to some degree, and the doctor's prognosis at that time was, “If you do nothing, it'll be about three months. If you go through the standard of treatment, be lucky if you have 12 months or so.” We were lucky and we got 18 months.
[00:29:16] TH: Think about it. I mean, talk about one day changing the rest of your life, right? I mean, here we have a healthy, athletic, bright person, that from the outside, is the epitome of health and wellbeing, right?
[00:29:33] MQW: Yes. He did yoga every other day. He ate pretty well. He exercised and worked out. I mean, he was a great dad, a great husband, and brother, and all of it.
[00:29:46] TH: As you were researching this, I assume that it's not genetic, right? Do they know the cause?
[00:29:53] MQW: No, I wish we did. Part of my purpose, if you will, I think you know when you question why, when you question God and your faith, which we did. I still do. We're not perfect. We're humans, and my conversations with God have varied so much over the years now. But first thing we did was say, “Why? Why God, why? We tried to do everything right.” He exercised, he ate well, we go to church, we try to do good things when we can. I think we couldn't help but remember that Sean was a writer, and that I wore a microphone every day, and here we were facing a disease for which there was no cure, or there is no cure, and it gets very little attention. It gets very little funding in terms of research.
We thought, well, part of our purpose might be that we need to shine a light on this disease. We need to say, “We need to put more dollars into research for this, because this type of cancer, this brain cancer can affect anyone, from young to old, babies too. If you're white, or Black or Asian, it doesn't matter.” It will come the time when you least expect it. We really have to do our part to try to see if we can get a cure for this disease.
[00:31:11] TH: I remember in the part in your book, that was accidentally described by one of the doctors who then said, “Wait, you haven't already met with a neurologist?” As he was kind of laying out what he was seeing, and then they had him – you stepped out of the room and then came back with a nurse and the neurologist to better describe, maybe more thoughtfully lay out, right? And then, you step out into the hall and Sean wept, and then you were crying, and the nurse gave you some advice. What was that? Do you remember that part?
[00:31:50] MQW: Yeah, I remember it quite vividly. Actually, I remember Sean kind of sinking into this little alcove of St. John's, the basement there. I remember I was rushing to try to comfort him. I remember, she held me back. She said, “Listen to me, I need you to be strong now. He needs you to be very strong for him, and for your young son, and for your family.” She gave me her card. And she said call me any time if you have any questions. She basically painted a very dark picture of the road we were about to go on.
I got to tell you, in hindsight, now, she made it look easy actually, considering what we did go through. My heart goes to anyone who has to face this disease, specifically the family, and the caregiver because, at that point, when you're diagnosed with this disease, you're already in some way unable to truly comprehend what is going on. If you think about your brain as being the core of who you are, and this disease is attacking that. All cancer is bad, from lung cancer, to pancreatic cancer, to breast cancer, but there's something very different and unique about brain cancer. It's hard to describe other than that it takes the essence of who you are right away.
It's so unique that there's a support group for cancer that people can go to, but there's a specific one for brain cancer caregivers, and only for caregivers of brain cancer patients. I don't know any other support group that specifically has that for any other caregiver and for any other cancer.
[00:33:33] TH: I think the other piece of it that's so terrifying is to hear that it could be three months, three months, or –
[00:33:41] MQW: Twelve months.
[00:33:42] TH: Twelve months, right? But neither of those seem very long. Of course, you have a young son, so it sounded like you immediately kind of decided to figure out how you could take a leave of absence and spend those remaining months making memories.
[00:33:59] MQW: Yes, that's what we did. The title of our book is so appropriate, even more so today. We're in the midst of this pandemic, and how we're all isolated from each other. But I have to say that when I went through my journey as wife and caregiver and mother and still working at the same time, there's no way that I could have done that alone.
I had the help and support of not just our family, and our friends, but my TV family, our viewer family, the team of doctors, and nurses, and therapists that we had. I'm such a huge advocate for mental health. Everyone should see a counselor and a therapist, truly. That's what helped us get through those initial days, through the hardest part of those 18 months, that journey, and today, with my 10-year-old now, going through all these years and making sure that he comes out of this as a well-adjusted young man.
[00:35:00] TH: Yeah, and I mean the strength that you have, and you're exactly right, the name of this book, You Can't Do It Alone. I loved that you partnered with Lauren Schneider, the marriage and family grief counselor, to give specific suggestions at each of the junctures through your journey to say, “Hey, from a perspective of medical person, here's how you can have some practical ways to address this stage of what you're about to go through.”
[00:35:34] MQW: Yes, Lauren Schneider, thank goodness for her. She was able to extrapolate some very hard lessons that we learned through our journey and is able to really make it universal so that everyone can learn as well from what we went through, starting with having a really good therapist and a good family counselor. We couldn't have talked to our young son about cancer and disease and death. Without them, I didn't have the language. I was not equipped with the tools.
Our own family counselor, Betsy, was so integral for that. We learned to talk to him about what a cancer diagnosis is, and we never use words like, “Daddy’s sick.” That's the first thing we would do. We want to shield our child from some of the things that's going on with dad. But we learned that we couldn't do that and we shouldn't do that. Because we always wanted him to know what was happening. That's the one thing about children is that when they don't know, the unknown, brings on fear, when there's fear, there's insecurity, and that's the last thing you want to give a child.
So, when we talk to him about daddy's cancer diagnosis, we were very clear and upfront with him. Of course, in the language that he understood as a three-year-old, and that changed his time as he became four and five, we talked about what death meant. We talked about how daddy was probably going to die sooner than we wanted him to. We talked to Gus a lot about that. So, I think he matured and had a greater understanding about life, and death and loving memories than I did, certainly, as a child. I also lost my birth father, when I was just seven years old. So, I had a lot – I understood some of the fear that a child could have, and that was the last thing we didn't want him to have. I know Sean and I both wanted to make sure that Gus was not going to be in fear, and that he was always protected, and understood what was happening.
[00:37:32] TH: Thankfully, you also have the support of your family. So, luckily, you will have a close relationship with your family, and you had this incredible network and support system all around you.
[00:37:45] MQW: Yeah, we were very fortunate. I still am very, very fortunate to have not just my immediate family, but Sean's family as well, whom I love so much. Sean may not be here physically, but he's definitely here spiritually. I'll have another story about that in just a moment. But he left me, really, five brothers who are my own brothers now. He left me his parents, who are just gifts to Gus and I. My sisters in law who are here all the time. I see them and talk to them all the time to this day. We were together on Saturday. Another brother-in-law of mine was here yesterday.
I'm so lucky to have that kind of family. For those who don't have that, I tell you the technology that we have today, I encourage you to reach out and find your village. If you don't have the kind of village that I have or some people in the support group that I was involved with. By the way, a support group is so necessary and needed as well. I found my support group of core people that I still, to this day, get together with and talk not just about brain cancer, now it has evolved, but we're still together. That is so important, that you can seek out your village online. You can find those people and bring them into your life because you can't do this alone. You can't do life alone.
[00:39:06] TH: No. And it said you had Sean in the house with you all the way up until the end in his own bedroom being cared for there. Is that something you're grateful for having made that decision?
[00:39:21] MQW: Oh, yes, 100%. He was able to – really, Sean wanted to live his life on his own terms and he certainly, he wanted to die on his own terms, and it was my job to make sure that he got to do what he wanted to do. I helped him as much as I could and he really set the tone for all of us. He wasn't afraid. He wasn't afraid of dying. He wasn't even afraid of the disease. He was really most afraid for us. He wanted to make sure that his loved ones were going to be okay after he died.
I got to tell you, he was an incredible man, and I'm going to have some words with God when I get there for sure. Because here was someone that I had been waiting for, and someone who really completed my family. Again, I became a single mother twice. I just thought, God, how cruel? How can you do that to me? But I realize that we all have our trials. We all have these crosses to bear and I'm not the only one. While it was my job when Sean was here to make sure he had everything he needed and wanted, everything that he wanted when he died, but I'm also here to make sure that we make him proud, to make sure that Gus and I live our best lives. That was a promise that I made to him, one of the promises that we wouldn't let him down, and that we were going to get up every day, and we were going to live our greatest lives possible.
There are days when I don't want to get up. There are days when I don't want to face people, face the camera, and smile, and forecast the weather for everybody, but then I remember my promise to Sean, and that was to not let him down and to be happy, and to go out there and live my best life. So, that's what I try to remember and I get myself up and out of bed. And I try to make new memories, because that's what we're supposed to do.
[00:41:19] TH: One of the things that I was most touched by, and I put myself in a similar situation to try and imagine what I would do was the night that Sean passed away, you didn't wake up Gus, and you let him wake up on his own.
[00:41:33] MQW: I did. That was a hard decision for me. I remember having this discussion with our counselor, and you can't do everything right, in hindsight. You have 20/20 in hindsight, but at the moment, you can only make decisions as best as you can, in the circumstances that you're in. So, I say to anyone, if you have a regret about a decision you've made in the past, let yourself off the hook a little bit, because you really are making decisions based on what you know at the moment. I know that Gus was angry with me after because, as a six-year-old, he was able to articulate that to me, actually, that he was mad that I didn't wake him up, and he didn't get to say goodbye to daddy.
But I reminded him that he did say goodbye to daddy. I did have him say goodbye and goodnight the night before because I didn't know when daddy was going to pass away. The nurse was here 24 around the clock, and we had had kind of a timeline going. But we don't have control over when we go, certainly, not then, not now. Even then, we had conversations about, I could have stepped off the sidewalk at any time and could have been hit by a bus. It could have been me first, before Sean. But as I explained to Gus, at that time, I said, “I'm really sorry that I didn't wake you up, but it was in the middle of the night and I thought you would be better off having your sleep.” I said, “You were able to say goodbye to daddy, just like everyone else was able to.”
We had a session about it and he forgave me. That was a real powerful moment for us too because here's a young child understanding not just death and angry about not being able to be there, but he was also understanding the power of forgiveness. He was able to forgive me, and that was really good for both of us in our hearts. So, we were able to get past that, and so, I'm hoping that, as an adult, that he's not going to hold that in his heart as a sad thing. I focus on the good memories that we did have, and that’s moving forward.
[00:43:44] TH: I would have done the same thing. I mean, I think your point is so well taken. It's like I get the benefit of practicing how I would have acted in that situation by putting myself in your shoes. So, I appreciate that you wrote about that. It takes a lot. This book is really a gift. It's a gift for all the reasons that we just discussed but I think the thing that I appreciate is your willingness to share your resilience and your passion for helping others by sharing this story, because, you know, you are a public figure.
You could have just pushed this under the rug. But you not only have written the book, you've been on the book circuit and interview circuit, and even in the midst of this pandemic, have still said, “I'm going to go out and meet with people. I'm going to do book signings. I'm going to talk about this journey," so that people understand not only journey of grief and loss, unexpected, as you had said, for all the reasons like not fair. But I think one of the things that I’m so impressed by with you, Maria, is just, every time I see you, you're such a shining light. You just radiate light, on TV, and in your personal life. So, give everyone a snapshot of kind of where you are today.
[00:45:18] MQW: Oh my gosh. Well, first of all, I have my days. Trust me, there are days where I don't look like this and I just want to stay curled up in my bed. But Gus is my motivator. Honestly, I look at him every day, and I see Sean and I remember my promise. So, I have to put myself out there because, one, I really believe this is part of my purpose. When we were faced with this diagnosis, there was not much about brain cancer out there. They were very few sources of information. There were very few books that talked about the reality of brain cancer today, in our modern world.
There were, yes, there were books, but it felt outdated and didn't feel like it applied to me. I think it was an old person's disease is what I was reading, and that's not the case, that's not the reality. It affects so many people of various ages. I really felt like I needed to tell our story and shine a light on this disease at the minimum. I'm hoping to inspire someone out there to go into the medical field, and maybe that person can finally find the cure. I want to be able to be a lamppost for people, our story. I know that the support group that I was involved with, at UCLA, and then I found – so blessed to have found those people. They shined a light for me. They lit the path for me, this terrifying road of the unknown when it comes to brain cancer and some of the debilitating deficits that one can go through. They helped me so much, and I have to give that back. I have to try to do my part.
I'm hoping that this book can help, in some way, not just inspire someone to find a cure, but also hopefully help you understand what brain cancer is, and what loss and grief and getting through that in some way. For me, faith is a big part of that and my church and my community at school, as you know, Tracy. Our school and our church community is so amazing. To this day, they give me the support and love. Both of us, me and Gus, and our family, through prayer and support, it just gets me through each day, really.
[00:47:25] TH: Yeah, it does. I so appreciate your willingness, as I mentioned, to be at the forefront of this. I think if anyone wants, they can go to your website. It's mariaquiban.com. I think what is so impactful is you're willing to go forward and share your story with Dr. Oz, on Extra TV, Good Day, Austin. You've been out there, Friday Magazine, very, very actively sharing the story.
I think that the very poignant, specific recommendations in here about what happens whether you're losing a father, a mother, a husband, whatever that journey of loss and grief looks like, as you well said in the book, a lot of people don't get 18 months. They find out that day, which would send someone on a trajectory that looks very, very fast, going through some of the process of letting go and grief. But you had these 18 beautiful months to create these incredible memories with you and with Sean, and with you and with Gus and Sean. And then of course, the greater family. So, what a gift that is.
If you were sharing with anyone out there, if you had any thoughts or recommendations other than obviously buying and reading this book, getting, as you had mentioned, a support group, a therapist and having this group of people around you, is there anything else in hindsight that you would want to share that you've learned on the getting on with your life part and starting over in some ways?
[00:49:11] MQW: Yeah. There's so much that I've learned. I'm definitely a different person than I was. And I'm hoping that this book can help people get to this point without having to go through what we went through or something like that for yourself. One of the things I've learned obviously is, you are stronger than you think you are. When you're faced with something like this, a tragedy, a loss of a job, even, or a marriage can be so devastating. When you think that there's just no way that you could get through the day, you really are stronger than you think you are. I remember digging so deep within myself and getting through not just each day but sometimes just getting through the hour. I would tell myself, “Just get through this next hour and you can do it, you can do it.”
I also would like to say that when you have something like this happened to you, your heart is broken in a million pieces as you can imagine. And for me, talking about it, and sharing our story and knowing that I can help someone helps to heal my heart, it really does. So, although there's some pain involved to going back to some of those moments, it greatly, greatly heals me more so. I want the book to be successful because I want people to understand brain cancer and of course, that journey. But selfishly, also, I know it's going to heal my heart, knowing that I can help others. So, thank you. Thank you, Tracy, for letting me on your podcast, inviting me here because it does heal my heart.
[00:50:51] TH: I'm so grateful that you were willing to share your story. If people want to follow you on Instagram, can you share your Instagram handle with them?
[00:50:58] MQW: Yes, it has a bit of a spin on it for meteorology, of course. So, it's @mariasearth, and that's the same for Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter. I have now a new social media account on TikTok, which is all the rage, as you know. Everyone should be on TikTok, and that is @mariaquiban, so you can find me there.
[00:51:27] TH: Awesome. Well, thank you so much for sharing your journey. So grateful for you. So grateful that you took time to write this book, and pour your heart and your story into it. I appreciate you. You're a powerhouse. You blow me away, and I'm just going to continue to watch your journey unfold.
[00:51:50] MQW: Thank you so much. I feel to same. When I first met you, Tracy, I thought you were just a knockout and I have so much to learn still in this world, and thank you for having me on.
[00:52:02] TH: Thanks so much. Have a great day. Lots of love.
[00:52:05] MQW: Lots of love.
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