Fierce, Fighting Fridays
“You are seen, you are heard, and you are loved!”
Provide a brief biography to describe your life pre-diagnosis.
Before I was diagnosed the first time I was a typical 24-year-old. I was working as a retail manager in Boston, living with a roommate in Beacon Hill. I had just started dating a new guy. I was super career focused and worked a ton.
Did you have any symptoms leading up to your diagnosis? What led you to see a doctor?
I didn’t have any symptoms. I went to see my GYN for birth control and my routine pap smear. I got my birth control and went on my way. A few days later I received a phone call from my doctor saying that my test came back abnormal and they needed to do another test. I immediately started shaking and crying and I remember him telling me not to worry or be overly concerned. He told me that this happens all the time and it’s almost always nothing. Turns out it wasn’t nothing and they found pre-cancerous cells. I was referred to an oncology OB/GYN and had two minor surgeries and was considered to be in remission with a very high cure rate.
When my cancer came back for the first time it was once again through a routine follow-up. It was at my two-year mark where I was going to be able to go in for follow-ups much less frequently. I remember speaking to my doctor about getting referrals for a non-oncology OB/GYN as I was newly married and we were going to talk about starting a family. Two days later, my doctor had to call me and tell me the cancer was back. She and I have always had a great rapport. At first, I thought she was kidding, pulling a really mean joke on me. But as she kept talking about what my next steps were I realized she was serious. Once again, I had cancer with zero symptoms.
Third time is the charm as they say and on my third go ’round I finally had a symptom. I just didn’t know it was a symptom of cancer. My stomach was bloating. At first, I thought I needed probiotics and I ignored it. But after a few weeks, I mentioned something to a coworker of mine who happened to be a nurse. She told me to get seen immediately. I went to see a doctor that worked in my primary care office and I remember her telling me that I should call my oncologist. I thought she was crazy but I did. I had a CT scan done two days later and it was confirmed almost immediately that my cancer was back.
When I was diagnosed again in July I once again had no symptoms and my tumors were found on a scan.
How did hearing the words “you have cancer” make you feel?
The first time was sheer terror. I had never had surgery, I had never been admitted to a hospital so everything was overwhelming. It was shocking how fast everything moves, it felt like I was living in a horrible dream. One day, healthy. Next day it’s courses of treatment, scheduling surgeries, waiting for results. And on top of all of the health stuff, I was also so nervous to have to tell the man I was dating casually at the time that I had pre cancer and it likely came from HPV. We had only been dating six weeks or so but I already had feelings for him and I was convinced he was going to stop seeing me. Spoiler alert: that man is now my husband so that worked out.
I remember after treatment was done just being so grateful for my body. I had always struggled with my body and wanting to be thinner. Once I was healed from surgery, I started running a lot, something I used to hate doing, but I found it to be so empowering to feel like my body was healthy and strong again.
What do you know now that you wish you had known back then?
I wish I had done more research on the HPV vaccine. I never used to worry about cancer because there isn’t a lot in my family history and I didn’t fully understand my other risk factors.
You have to be your own advocate. Do research, question your doctors. Ask if there are other treatment options. Doctors are not all-knowing Gods, they are people and having open communication and trust with them is key to finding care that works for you. I have gotten much better about this, but I wish I had known to do this from the start of my treatment.
Accepting help is not selfish and is one of the kindest things you can do as a patient. Friends and family want to do something to be there, accepting their help helps empower them a little in a time when many have expressed feeling helpless.
How has life changed? What has been your biggest challenge since your diagnosis?Massively.
I left my hyper driven careers in retail management and real estate to focus more on helping others. I’m now a certified yoga instructor and Reiki practitioner. Instead of walking around like a human ball of stress, I try and structure my days intuitively now focusing on balance and self-care. I try not to worry about events in the future and try to keep my mind focused on the day to day.
I also prioritize my relationships with others. I make sure that I allow for plenty of time to gather with friends, family and other cancer survivors and thrivers knowing this connection and community is important to me.
My biggest change has been around mindset. I truly don’t sweat the small stuff anymore and my fear of failure has been tossed aside. I’ve found myself more open to trying new things and looking silly. I’ve learned to lean into my vulnerability and live whole heartedly as who I am. In doing so, my life has become so enriched and joyful.
What has been your biggest challenge?
My biggest challenge has been overcoming the fear around not knowing what is working and what isn’t with my cancer. Going through seven years on and off and four reoccurrences has really tried my mental resiliency. It’s hard to not get frustrated when treatments don’t work. It’s hard to know that the doctors really don’t know how things will work since my cancer is a type they haven’t seen before. Staying in the moment, focusing on how I feel each day is what keeps me sane (somewhat). The amount of research and information that is available both in western and holistic medicine is overwhelming. It’s hard to know what the right decision is when the stakes are so high.
It’s also hard for me to just rest. There is so much I want to do but I only have so much energy each day. Setting boundaries, learning to say no, and learning to accept help have also been really challenging for me.
What do you wish people knew about supporting a loved one with cancer? What have been the most helpful ways that friends and family have supported you?
I love and cherish when someone can simply hold space for me to brain dump and get all of my fears out on the table. When I know I can be truly honest about how I am on a bad day.
So many people have reached out offering to watch my dogs or provide rides and company on treatment days. Being invited to things always feels amazing. I have been sent many books and TLC care packages and those brighten up the day.
Mostly, the kind words of love and support truly help lift me up on difficult days.
What is next for you?
I’m working on a non-profit called The Thriver’s Network [ThrivR] which will provide emotional and financial support for young adults ages 18-40 who are cancer survivors (in remission) and thrivers (currently in treatment). We are hoping to bring screenings, prevention and care into communities that may not have access.
I’m starting to do public speaking and look forward to exploring this platform as a way to reach others.
Hopefully I’ll also be opening my own studio and healing space to continue to help people in my community.
What advice would you give to someone who has recently been diagnosed?
For me, the hardest part about cancer, especially in the beginning, was hearing all about the side effects and risks of the medications I was starting. I had a picture in my head of what cancer looked like, and it didn’t look good. I was surprised when I did treatment and didn’t feel horrible. I have since made it a self policy to not look up side effects after going over them once with my doctor. I think keeping my head on the present moment, focusing on how I feel, seeking alternative therapies like Reiki, yoga and meditation have *knock on wood* kept my side effects to a minimum. Treasure your good days when you feel good, don’t despair on your bad days- believe you will get back to health.
You can live and THRIVE during cancer, you don’t have to wait until perfect health to hope and dream.