In 2018 I became a statistic - one of the eight women who will be diagnosed with breast cancer in their lifetime. My specific diagnosis was invasive ductal carcinoma and it turned my world upside down. Fortunately, I was able to survive and thrive post cancer, and I attribute this to realizing that my superpower over cancer is in my story. I also truly believe that the positive, healing energy I have received by sharing this journey with my community has deeply benefited both my physical and mental health. Here's my story:
Any cancer diagnosis is scary; mine was no different than anyone else's, except that my diagnosis transported me back to when I was eight years old and learned that my mother was diagnosed with multiple myeloma. In just a little over a year's time, I had watched my mother waste away from her chemotherapy and felt adrift when she passed; and now here I was with my own diagnosis. I was scared as hell and all I could think is that I would walk the same path.
My immediate reaction to the diagnosis, after bawling my eyes out, was to run away, preferably to Sedona or Costa Rica, and hide away from the world. Thankfully, I was working for Nationwide and reporting to John-Paul Purssord (who had his own journey with cancer) and he gave me the best advice. He said, "Reach out to your community, share your story, and let people help you. People want to help. Let them help." The advice was so simple and so very different than what I wanted to do in that moment. So, I set out to do just that.
I started by opening up to my surgical oncologist, Dr. Natalie Jones, that I was scared about chemotherapy and my worries that I would die young like my mother. Dr. Jones reassured me that everyone's cancer diagnosis is unique and that we don't always walk the same path as our parents. She also shared that cancer research had contributed to a new(ish) tumor type test that would guide the recommended treatment. I shared similar concerns with my medical oncologist, Dr. Andrew Grainger, and he shared that he too lost his mother to colon cancer while in college and that cancer research had progressed so far that chemotherapy and radiation are just two of the many treatments available today.
I shared with my plastic surgeon, Dr. Tyler Angelos, that I had never been in a hospital as a patient, let alone had any surgery, other than having my wisdom teeth removed. Each physician thanked me for my openness and promised to be by my side every step of the way (and they still are even today). I began to share my diagnosis with my family, close friends, work friends, Facebook friends. Everyone rallied around me in one of the darkest times in my life. What I learned from this experience is that my superpower over cancer is in my story. I realized that if I can bring even the tiniest bit of sunshine to someone who is feeling adrift from a new diagnosis - or any other cancer experience - then I feel like I have/we have won the fight against cancer.
The second part of my story is about physical and mental health. Prior to cancer I thought I was healthy. I ran half-marathons, competed in triathlons, mountain biked from Telluride to Durango, and was a member of a local high-intensity workout facility. In fact, right before my diagnosis, I thought that the intermittent pain I was feeling in my breast was because I needed a new sports bra and not that I had a tumor. Mentally, I felt like I was on even ground and was an average, healthy, active adult.
When I was diagnosed, I felt like my body betrayed me and my mental health spiraled into a deep, dark place. When I look back, I realize that I was being cavalier with both my physical and mental health. Long work hours, brutally stressful work environments, drinking alcohol, eating processed foods, and losing/gaining weight was taking its toll on my physical and mental health.
A couple of weeks after diagnosis, I decided to reclaim my physical and mental health. I started seeing a therapist experienced with counseling cancer patients. I began to meditate, use diaphragmatic breathing, guided imagery, and vision boarding to help me focus on the moment rather than spiraling into a negative mental state. In preparation for surgery and while I was in the hospital, I envisioned myself hiking in Sedona, which allowed my brain to take a break from all the thoughts that raced through my head. After recovering from a double mastectomy and reconstruction, I continued with counseling, started acupuncture, signed up for the Wolfe Foundation Cancer Wellness program and made a goal to ride 55 miles and raise $2,000 for Pelotonia. Upon my return to work I made a meaningful effort to always take a lunch break, do my best to walk away from work around 5:15, and to be present with all of the people in my life.
Looking back on my journey, I realize how very fortunate I was to have the best care, invested healthcare professionals, supportive friends and family, and health insurance. Not everyone is that lucky. If I were to give anyone advice on coping with cancer, I would tell them that it is critical to recognize the far-reaching mental health impacts of a cancer diagnosis. The fear, anxiety, and unknowns stretch far beyond the day of diagnosis. This is normal. Recognize that, get help, and be gentle with yourself because your mental health is what will help you on the road to regaining your physical health.