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4 Lessons I Learned from Cancer

Last Friday I had the honor to give the survivor speech at the opening ceremony of the George Washington University (GWU) Relay for Life. It was amazing to see these students show up and devote their entire Friday evening to demonstrating their support for cancer patients/caregivers and to raise money for critical research, patient services, and advocacy.

I thought I'd share my speech here as a blog post because I think the lessons I share here are applicable to so many people and so many situations in life. Please read below for 4 of the biggest lessons I learned from my experience with cancer.

GWU Relay For Life Survivor Speech: March 2018

I have to admit, this is really bizarre for me. It feels a bit unreal to be standing here as a cancer survivor - sometimes I still think - did that really happen to me?

Most other people are in disbelief when they hear I’m a cancer patient. They remark on how I’m too young. They ask if I know how I got it. And I have no answers for them. I don’t carry any known genetic mutations, and no one in my family has had breast cancer. I’ve never smoked a cigarette in my life, I don’t drink much, and was a triathlete. On paper, I would be one of the least likely people to get cancer.

It seems so random and unfair. I get annoyed by the phrase “Everything happens for a reason” - because there’s never a good reason for someone to get cancer. However, what is true, and what is in our control is - How do I make meaning of this tragic and unfair thing that has happened?

For me, I make meaning by using my experience to help others. I had a really rough time managing my side effects, so I founded a company called Tx Tracker to create an app to help cancer patients to track their symptoms and meds, and share with their medical teams and with researchers. I started a blog called Survivorship Starts Now to share my experience as a survivor. And together with a few other patients, we created a non-profit called Cold Capital Fund to raise money to build awareness about the ability to save your hair during chemo and to make it affordable to everyone to access.

You see, cancer took a lot from me, but I also learned a lot from it. It taught me lessons that it would have otherwise taken me a lifetime to learn - a few of which I’ll share with you today.

Lesson 1: Know your body and advocate for your health

I was 30 years old when I was diagnosed - I wasn’t due for a mammogram for another 10-15 years. I found the lump in my breast myself - while I wasn’t worried at first, I knew this wasn’t normal for me and I went to my gynecologist to get it checked out. It turns out that I had a very aggressive form of breast cancer, and my tumor was likely only a few months old. Early detection saves lives. It’s not about constantly looking for signs for cancer - that is scary and can create a fearful relationship with your body. Rather, it’s about knowing and learning about your body to better understand what is normal for you, and getting in touch with your intuition to recognize when something is not normal.

Our healthcare system can be difficult to navigate - we won’t go into that right now. But what I learned is that knowing my body, speaking up for myself, seeking multiple opinions, and doing my research not only helped me get the best care possible, but gave me a sense of control in a time of chaos.

Lesson 2: Put on your own oxygen mask first

My husband has always talked about the oxygen mask rule - and we really learned how to put it into practice during my treatment. You know how the safety videos in airplanes instruct you to put on your own oxygen mask before helping those around you? You can only help others if you’re well enough to actually help them. If you’re a caregiver or loved one of someone going through cancer treatment - remember to also take care of yourself so you can be fully present for them.

Lesson 3: Strength is more than just a brave face

There’s a popular narrative about cancer patients being strong warriors. It’s grounded in truth - it takes strength and perseverance to endure what many of us go through to save our lives. But feeling like you need to be strong and brave 100% of the time can be a heavy burden for patients and caregivers. I want to tell you - it’s normal to have moments or even days of feeling weak, frustrated, angry, exhausted, or fearful. Grief and anxiety are very real things that we, and often our loved ones, have to deal with. Sometimes I would get upset at myself if I wasn’t feeling strong or brave or 100% positive - and my husband would gently remind me to hang up my superhero cape for a little bit and let myself feel those feelings. Strength doesn’t mean just putting on a brave and positive face all of the time - there is also strength and grace in acknowledging your feelings and seeking support and resources to help you.

Lesson 4: You have the power to make a difference

I know that sounds cliche, but hear me out. My mother-in-law was diagnosed with multiple myeloma 7 years ago, is alive today because every few years a new treatment is approved. If I had been diagnosed 10 years ago, I would not have had access to the treatments that saved my life. My breast cancer was HER2 positive, meaning there’s a particular protein that’s over-expressed and drives tumor growth. I benefited from two targeted therapies that attack those particular cells - because of this, I had a complete response to chemo and my risk of recurrence was dramatically reduced. The dollars that you raise for organizations like the American Cancer Society make a real impact on people’s lives. Events like this help make the research and advocacy needed to save lives a reality. I am alive today because of each of you and decades of people before you who contributed their time, skills, and money beat this ugly disease.

Cancer has taken a lot from me. It took my breasts. It took my health. It likely took my fertility. It took a year of my life that I can barely remember through the haze of medications, nausea, and pain. It took away so many aspects of my physical and mental wellbeing that I’ve had to rebuild myself from the ground up, both literally and figuratively. It can be easy to feel overwhelmed when reflecting on the scars and wounds that cancer has inflicted upon my life and the lives of my loved ones.

However, as the poet Rumi said, “the wound is the place where the light enters you.” So much light has entered into my life through these scars that I bear. I had the most incredible support system of friends and family who brought so much light into my life during my darkest times. My husband is an absolute angel and the light of my life. I’ve formed so many beautiful friendships with fellow patients and survivors. I’ve found purpose and meaning in my career. And I had the most incredible, kick-ass team of oncologists and specialists - an all-female team, might I add - here at GW who gave me my life back and took the most incredible care of me.

And I stand here with you looking at all of this light that you bring to the world. Thank you for being here to celebrate and support survivors and caregivers, and to honor those we’ve lost. Thank you for contributing your time and money for critical research and patient services!

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