After cancer, I am very clear on what is important in my life.
During a recent interview for a breast cancer charity, I was asked the simple question, “How has breast cancer affected your life?” Given that I am just a few months out from a double mastectomy and breast reconstruction, it might seem that my personal diagnosis would be the area of greatest impact for me. Certainly, my daily life was disrupted for several weeks, I was forced to rely on family and friends for help, and I was reminded by the universe to keep my priorities in line. However, this doesn’t even begin to answer the question of how breast cancer affected my life. Rather, it was watching my own mother fight metastatic breast cancer and pass away when she was fifty years old and I was fifteen. That has most informed the person I’ve become.
I had the privilege of taking care of my mother when she was ill which sparked my interest in medicine, and I went on to become an emergency physician. In that role, I’ve had the opportunity to take care of some really sick people, including many cancer patients and many others who live in fear of a cancer diagnosis. This experience, coupled with my own diagnosis of a fallopian tube tumor four years ago, inspired me to start helping people focus on the aspects of their health they can control. Many of us have genetic predispositions to cancer, but this doesn’t have to be the end of the story. Our gene expression is greatly affected by our lifestyles - things like what eat, how we move, if we get enough sleep, and how we manage stress. So, I’ve made it my life’s work to help people make small changes to their daily habits that will decrease their chance of getting that bad diagnosis, and to put them in fighting shape if they do receive a cancer diagnosis. Now I speak to large groups and do individual coaching and workshops, empowering people to take back ownership of their own health.
On a personal level, I learn more with every year that passes about how deeply I’ve been impacted. About six years after my mother died, I also lost my father to pancreatic cancer. Thankfully, I have loving siblings, extended family, and friends who showed up to my life events such as graduations, weddings, and my children’s births. However, I’ve learned that nothing can replace a parent being there. As the years pass, I actually find myself missing my parents more on the simple days than the monumental ones. As a mother, I would do anything so that my own children don’t have to feel that void prematurely. I am constantly working to improve my small habits — squeezing in that five-minute meditation when I’m busy or eating a few more veggies than I would like. I’ve also learned to follow through on medical screenings that never seem convenient. Who feels like going for a mammogram once a year, never mind adding in a breast MRI if you are high risk? I certainly wasn’t excited about it, but this proactive screening is what made my catch my diagnosis so early - and saved my life.
I learned the importance of health and to be thankful everyday you are alive. Cancer made me realize family and your health are really all that matters.