Cancer put me on the path of what I was born to do: help others going through a traumatic experience. I help survivors understand the importance of health and discover a new version of themselves that can accomplish what their soul wants to in this lifetime.
An excerpt from “A Survivors Story: A Holistic Healing Journey Through Cancer”
I was born in New York City, New York, my parents, and I lived in an apartment on the upper east side. My parents, Tucker and Eugenia Bradshaw were both dominant in the health and fitness industry, serious triathletes, business owners, and living a healthy lifestyle. They practiced what they preached and continue to every day. When I was one year old, we moved out of the city and to Port Washington, Long Island, the city became too expensive to raise a family. My parents were both commuting and working in the city at the time, continuing to grow our family fitness business, Bradshaw Personal Fitness. They also knew they wanted more kids and that would be difficult to afford in the city.
Now fast forward to me at age three and a half, my mom had my two-year-old brother, Nicholas and my two-month-old brother, Raffaele. It was around Christmas time, and I had been sick for a few weeks. I was very pale, had an ongoing cold that had gone into my chest and had to be put on prednisone. My mom had been taking me back and forth to the doctor, but he didn’t seem to be alarmed. It was just after Christmas, and I had been sick for almost six weeks. We just moved into our new house; we were staying at my grandparents’ house while work was being done on the house. It was now just after New Year, and I still wasn’t feeling well. I didn’t want to walk, coughing all the time, and as my mom said, pale as a ghost and had petechiae, (small bruising). She told me if she knew then what she knew now it would have been obvious to her. My mom once again went back and insisted on blood work. The doctor called her back and told her to come in so he could go over the results. He immediately sent my mom over to the Schneider’s Children’s Hospital, (now Cohen’s Medical Center) although she had no idea what was about to unfold and what her daughter was about to go through. When she got to the hospital her brother met her there, and they immediately did a bone marrow aspiration from my hip. There was no anesthesia and my mom had to help hold her three-and- a-half-year-old daughter while they stuck what she described as a corkscrew into her young daughters’ hip. From there they took her into a room with me on her lap, my uncle sitting next to her and about five other doctors sitting in a circle... The doctor said, “Your daughter has Leukemia and needs medical attention immediately.” She said she heard nothing else after that and just looked at her brother in disbelief and wanted to collapse.
I asked my mom later on in life what her reaction was in that moment she said, “time stopped, everything just went blank, I couldn’t process the information. The number one priority was to take care of you.” I was then immediately admitted to the hospital for surgery for a mediport to administer chemotherapy, blood transfusions, x-rays, chemotherapy, and
countless other medical treatments. This is where my cancer journey begins. I was diagnosed with Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia. Small yet mighty is what the doctors and nurses used to say, they really did make the process a bit better. I remember my Oncologist, Janie, I thought she was the coolest. A very calm, funny, and passionate woman and she cared, I knew she cared. I can vividly remember getting finger pricks (which I would throw an absolute fit every time), blood work, constant monitoring my vitals, spinal taps, chemotherapy, the combative nature after getting “sleepy medicine,” but most of all the playroom, our IV pole races down the hallway, and the clown visits. I can still remember one clown in particular, Therese, she attended my fifth birthday party and made balloon animals for all the kids. My absolute favorite part thought was that my grandfather, who owned an Italian restaurant at the time in Westbury, Long Island, would cook me fresh homemade meals and bring it to the hospital, EVERYDAY. To this day he will say, “the food healed her.”
What my little body and other pediatric patients went through is enough to kill a horse. The treatment and protocol that was used at the time (and still is evolving) was prescribed to adult cancer patients, it is like splitting an aspirin in half and giving it to a child. I lost all of my hair and since I was also on steroids, I had what one would call a “moon face” I was looking quite chunky. I remember feeling very much alone, isolated, angry, sad, abandoned, scared at such a young age. Having to fight for my life and the effect it has made on me today. According to Leukemia and Lymphoma Society research, 80% of pediatric cancer patients that survive can end up being diagnosed with another form of cancer or illness down the road. I am part of this statistic.
The Treatments I received:
Doxorubicin Daunorubicin Cyclophosphamide Prednisone Dexamethasone Methotrexate Cytarabine Mercaptopurine Thioguanine Asparaginase Vincristine Intrathecal Methotrexate
Mediport Insertion and Removal
Chemotherapy is extremely toxic and expensive. “In 2017, one 6mg Neulasta (type of chemo) injection cost between $5,000 and $7,000.” (1) Not only does chemotherapy kill cancer cells, but it also kills all your healthy cells, completely wiping out your bodies defense mechanism. It specifically goes into the bone marrow where blood cells are manufactured and proliferated. If it gets to a point where the body cannot clot, the patient is at risk of bleeding to death. What happens when they must haul chemotherapy, or the body isn’t receptive to it? The doctors are at a loss and so are you. There are no other alternatives being given in hospitals once this happens. This is where alternative and holistic medicine must come into play.
At Schneider’s, which was a couple of years of a long and hard battle, my dad was working in NYC, came back to the hospital overnight, sleepless nights, then would go back to work in the city by 5am on repeat for two years. My mom stopped working, committed to taking care of me and what was now three kids at the time. Almost losing their home. Truly I do not know how my parents did it. They are angels and never gave up. When adversity struck, they prevailed, were resilient, had faith, kept their health to the best of their ability, and we had the most incredible support system you could ask for. Yes, I went through some serious suffering, but I truly commend my family for having faith and keeping me alive. The stress on the family was enough to rip us apart, it only brought us closer.
During this time, we were involved in many non-profit organizations and fundraisers to help raise money for my family to survive, and to find a cure for cancer, specifically pediatric cancer. Team and Training, Leukemia and Lymphoma Society, Schneider’s Children’s Medical Foundation, Light the Night, The Jell-O Jump (this was my personal favorite), Cohen’s Children’s Medical Center, the list goes on. It is amazing to think back at all the incredible moments we shared as a family attending and participating in those fundraisers even going through one of the most difficult adversities. We also made so many friends along the way, one of our family friends to this day was in treatment the same time I was. My parents and parents of another pediatric cancer survivor, Nicole, (who is also a two-time cancer survivor), are best friends to this day. Our families being extremely close knit, we all participate in the cancer community together. Talk about full circle.
Out of all, if not most of the pediatric cancer patients, Nicole and I were the very few to survive in our group. While in the hospital, there was a clinical trial with new treatment to potentially cure us or at least try because at this point nothing else was working, all of us near
death. I have personally faced death. I was the only one that wasn’t allowed in the clinical trial due to prior protocol that I did not meet. Nicole was admitted into the trial, and ended up relapsing with Leukemia, as close to death as you could be. Literally planning her funeral. Thank God, Nicole survived. However, she became physically disabled, the neurotoxins from the chemotherapy and treatments caused permanent motor skill disability; speaking slowly, writing slowly, walking slowly, in need of assistance to perform daily life activities. However, Nicole is a total Rockstar and has continued her journey to help others that have suffered similarly.
There are many repercussions from receiving such intense drugs at such a young age. I was told that I have “chemo brain” which can affect the left side of the brain. Really all that affected me was being able to deal with numbers and math in my head, I need fingers or a calculator. However, the doctors did tell my parents that down the road I could potentially develop another form of cancer, which did happen to me at age 20.
Fast forward to college, I was competing on the women’s track and field team at Ithaca College. One day, I had a very bad migraine (which I suffer from time to time), I went to the health center. I explained my pain and how maybe it could potentially be a sinus infection. The doctor starts to feel my lymph nodes in my neck, and I felt her pause and feel around my neck investigating the area. I had a feeling she noticed something. Never did I think it would be cancer. The doctor says, “I don’t like what I am feeling by your thyroid.” The first thought in my head... “what the hell does that even mean?” She then proceeds to explain about the main hormonal gland in our body, it is a very important regulator within our system. I asked what the next step would be. The doctor tells me that I need to book an appointment with the local ENT asap, which I did. I also did not mention any of this going on to anyone, not my coach, not even my family. I didn’t really think much of it, I was kind of nervous, but I never thought that I would ever be diagnosed with cancer again, I just did what I had to do.
I ordered a cab and headed to the local ENT in Ithaca, New York. Once the appointment was finished, the doctor suggested that I get a biopsy at Cayuga Medical Center. I made that appointment and headed over to the medical center a day later. This all went on within the last two weeks of my junior year, where I was studying for finals, and training for our state championship meet that I had qualified for. The technician told me that it was a thyroid nodule, a hard lump in the thyroid, when he tested the slides, it seemed benign, however it needed to be removed soon and needed further testing. Fun fact the thyroid cells and cancer cells look extremely similar so sometimes you just can’t tell. This nodule was sticking out of my neck and was 4cm big. I was lifting and training hard, so I thought it was muscular. Talk about neglecting my own body and not even realizing that this was a potential threat to my health. Finally, I called my parents and broke the news. I expected a totally freak out and that is what I got. I did
not tell my coach at this point because I wanted to finish up school and the track season. What did my mom do? She called my coach. However, everyone was very helpful and receptive in the process. But how is anyone really supposed to act? The only thing that can be done is support that person emotionally and assist in any helping hand. While I was preparing for competition, my mom was making phone calls and was put in touch with two doctors that specialize in the thyroid.
Once I finished up with school and competing, which I ended up hitting a personal record in the javelin and 100m/200m sprint and a 3.8 GPA, I had scheduled appointments to meet with doctors who would complete my surgery. I met two different doctors, one had stated that they may have to remove my entire thyroid, be on medication for the rest of my life and potentially have to take radioactive iodine and that the other doctor I had been looking into he actually studied under. The other doctor told me that they would remove only half of my thyroid because it was encapsulated, no medication and no radioactive iodine. You can bet your bottom dollar that I chose the second doctor who is the number one thyroid surgeon in the world and was located at Memorial Sloane Kettering in NYC. P.S. prior to my surgery I booked a trip to Florida to live my best life, visit family, and I ended up doing the flying hydro board in the Fort Lauderdale Intercoastal, I was above water, and it was the most peaceful, exhilarating feeling. That is when I knew all would be okay.
June 2nd, 2014, I went in for surgery at Memorial Sloane Kettering in NYC (right before my 21st birthday). I had a sinus infection going into it (probably because I was subconsciously stressing and had just come off of a stressful junior year). I couldn’t eat prior to the surgery because of the anesthesia, I felt absolutely terrible. I remember walking down the hallway finally going into surgery, and I said, “let’s get this fucking shit over with.” Everyone laughed of course. To be honest I had no clue what to expect even speaking with the doctor prior to the surgery, Dr. Shaha, mentioned that my voice could change. I said, “what do you mean, I could have a different voice?!” He explained how the nodule was very close to my vocal cords and could potentially change my voice. Well thank goodness he was wrong, and it did not, it was slightly raspier, but it ended up being fine. He also said to me that he doesn’t believe at all that it was cancerous, so of course I wasn’t worried, nor did I have any thought it my mind that it would end up being thyroid cancer. Post-surgery was honestly such a painful process and mentally challenging for me, I still didn’t know that it was thyroid cancer until about a month or so post-surgery. I remember not being able to move my neck, nauseas all the time, couldn’t eat food (which was the most upsetting for me because I LOVE food), I couldn’t breathe, it was just awful, and I wouldn’t wish that on my worst enemy.
Now this is interesting, I must mention that when tragedy strikes, how we cope with emotion and stress can trigger a physiological response on a cellular level, which you will learn in the coming chapters. My doctor mentioned to me that this nodule may have been growing since the age of 14 or 15, nodules on the thyroid are very slow growing. After doing my research, I have learned your inner world and how you internalize stress and emotion play a big role in illness and disease. The tragedy of my grandmother passing away from cancer when I was 14 years old and how I was coping internally may have triggered a response and it was a perfect storm. Also in Chinese herbal medicine, personality traits, environment and our emotions are directly correlated to how physical illness, disease, and injury can manifest.
In terms of coping, I had the most amazing support system that I could ever ask for, if I didn’t have that I don’t know how I would have been able to get through such a challenging and sad time in my life. Death was not an option for me, I felt that I had so much more to do and accomplish. I thank God every day for my mindset and my health. Slowly but surely, I started to move, walk, eat healing foods to nourish my mind and body and just laugh. Not to mention, I took the summer to recover and train, I went back to Ithaca, finished up my senior year, competed the whole year, hit a personal record and finished up my degree in four years. I must say, I am badass. I had to have such a positive mindset and awareness all would be okay, or I don’t believe I would have healed the way I did. Which leads me into why I wanted to write this book. I believe our bodies and minds are made to heal themselves and fight off disease when nourished and moved properly. We have to battle too many harsh chemicals in our environment, foods and products. That can be too much for the immune system, pair that with self-hatred and fear, in turn can cause chronic illness and disease. Your body will tell you when something is wrong, you just can’t ignore the warning signs.
Today, the healing journey of survivorship put me on a whole new path of helping others. I wrote my first book, “A Survivors Story,” combining my experience and knowledge and became a holistic health coach, created my business Holistic Human Performance to help others tap into their inner healing and wisdom to know they can heal their bodies and thrive in life. Created a program called Cancer Fear Freedom Program to hold space and coach those who are battling cancer, survivors, caregivers, or those genetically predisposed and fearful of cancer, creating peace in their lives so they can thrive. I combine a multilevel approach to health, fitness, and wellness, true healing from your inner world. My journey will always evolve, and I will always dedicate this lifetime to help others take ownership of their health and thrive.
Gena Bradshaw is an author and founder of Holistic Human Performance. She offers:
My mantra during treatment was: “I am cancer free!" I am just waiting for my body to catch up with what my mind already knows.