, January 10, 2019 | More Post by

Our “A Calendar to Live By” features survivors we serve through Here for the Girls programs and their inspiring, uplifting stories about their cancer journey. Get to know this month’s model, Michelle!

49, diagnosed at 43

1st degree family history; no known genetic mutation

An itch led Michelle to find the lump in her left breast, but there was a five-week delay before this environmental planner, mother of three, and wife could be seen for testing. Mammography revealed nothing; however, ultrasound showed a 5.1 cm mass that a biopsy confirmed as malignant. Treatment for her stage 3A Her2+ breast cancer included a bilateral mastectomy with reconstruction, chemotherapy, and radiation. During that time, Michelle not only experienced a rare, life-threating reaction, but also her mother, a breast cancer survivor, died of colon cancer. Michelle realized then how much she wanted to live. She says, “Like Sleeping Beauty, I was bestowed many gifts by the good fairies, but I was sleeping through life. I was a busy working mom who wasn’t appreciating my blessings. I put off so many things for later instead of living now; never considering that we aren’t promised a tomorrow. Cancer was both a blessing and a curse as I awakened from my ‘sleep’ and learned to be present and live more fully and gratefully.  I no longer put off those trips or activities with family and friends. My fairy tale now is about enjoying the little moments and blessings that life has bestowed upon me.”

, January 08, 2019 | More Post by

Vanessa L., one of our 2019 models in A Calendar to Live By, has a two-part blog series to share about three lessons she learned from her breast cancer diagnosis — some great thoughts for a new year! Below is part two. Thanks, Vanessa! Pictured here is Vanessa on the cover of our 2019 calendar; order yours here.

January 9th, 2017: I would be officially diagnosed with breast cancer. Invasive Ductile Carcinoma.

Those first couple of weeks were a blur. I had not yet told my children. I kept putting it off. I told myself that I wanted to know my course of treatment, but really, I was procrastinating. I was counting my blessings and being brave, but the thought of telling my children just shattered me. I felt such intense guilt because I knew that in the telling, it would change their world.

I felt like I would be robbing them of their childhood and their innocence. I struggled.

It was my Nurse Navigator (a professional who is assigned to you during your treatment, they call and check in whether you want them to or not) who helped me here.

She told me that this is not the “cancer” from my childhood memories, that time when I thought of people with the disease dying and being just horribly sick. Medicine has come a long way since then. She also told me I had a choice: I could be someone with cancer or someone fighting cancer, and I had to decide what type of survivor I was going to be – and that is who my children would see. We sat down together to tell the children that I was fighting cancer. We laid out the plan of how we were going to fight, and they joined team mom fortifying my resolve to continue to “live brave.”

Over the next month+, I had over 30 doctor appointments, two surgeries, and one minor procedure.

On the way to one of those early appointments with my husband, we were both operating on autopilot, still in shock and disbelief. To fill the awkward silence, I was reading reviewing the mail with him while he drove (looking back we probably could have used some counseling). I was already getting lots of breast cancer swag, books, information, etc. So this day, the swag included a calendar. I remember turning to him and saying, “great, a daily reminder that I have breast cancer, just what I need!”

However, I continued to read through it. I read every page of the Here For The Girls A Calendar to Live By. It’s an organization to support women diagnosed with breast cancer under the age of 51.

And for the first time, I had a sense of peace as I sat looking at those pictures of young women, my age, who were vibrant, alive, and some even with kids – they were me!

For the first time, I knew I could actually do this! That I was going to do this, but do it my way. My way and on my terms. That was the day I took control of my journey.

I didn’t really care for “hope for a cure,” I  was more in  the f*ck cancer camp! I was offended and insulted that I even had to deal with it, so there was no way I was going to go about this quietly. I posted on social media, I shared my story, and I wore obnoxious shirts.

In making those decisions about what type of survivor I would be, it was a decision I had to reaffirm every day. I learned that I have a choice of who I’m going to be and how I am going to be, and it impacts how others see me and engage with me.

I was not interested in those who wanted to pity me or feel sad all the time. I was fighting for my life and it was important that I surrounded myself with people who treated me like I was still alive.

It significantly impacted how my children received and responded to the news. They were on board and ready for the fight.

Lesson two: you have a choice everyday about who and what you are going to be, and that decision matters. The energy will be matched by those around you and will determine who draws near.

Because I was young and healthy, I would get chemo (as if it were a prize). Now, I was in the middle of fighting for my life. I found out I would have chemotherapy and what did I worry about? Not the loss of energy and appetite, nausea, inevitable mouth sores, or the toxic chemicals that would be pumped thru my veins (one of which is literally known as the “red devil”) – I was worried about losing my hair. I cried for real! It worried me.

Now for those of you that don’t know, hair is a pretty big deal in the African American community. I have rocked a ‘fro, a mohawk, two sets of dreadlocks; my hair had a personality of its own! But the idea of going bald, of not having a choice in the matter, it stressed me, it floored me. I was shook.

Two weeks before I started treatment, I shaved my head. I wanted some control at a time when I felt I had none.

Well it turned out I loved my bald head! I have been shaving it ever since! I have never worn a wig, not during treatment or any day since. That one thing that worried me the most is the thing I ended up loving. I still struggle with the worry and when I do, I just rub my head and as a reminder.

Lesson 3:  worrying about something not in your control is a waste of time and energy.

July of 2017, I received my NO Evidence of Disease report from my oncologist. I was cancer free! But that is when the real work started. The Gut Work. How to pick up the pieces of my life? I needed to find my new normal at a time when nothing seemed normal.

I had to shift from surviving to living. That calendar I mentioned earlier from Here for the Girls – well, I joined their support group (I often say they saved my life). They continue to teach me how to be brave, but they also allowed me to be weak when everyone else needed me to be strong. I have made lifelong friends there.

I have since shifted from being a survivor to an advocate. That calendar I mentioned, well, now I’m

in it as Ms. February 2019! In giving back, I’m also becoming an advocate. I work closely with the organization. Unfortunately, we welcome new survivors into our group every month and each year we also say goodbye to those who passed. But, we continue to fight and live our lives, as we say, with an exclamation mark instead of a period!

I fought cancer, but all of us are fighting or going through something. I hope that you appreciate these three lessons and chose to do as I do every day: to live brave.

-Vanessa L.

, January 03, 2019 | More Post by

Vanessa L., one of our 2019 models in A Calendar to Live By, has a two-part blog series to share about three lessons she learned from her breast cancer diagnosis — some great thoughts for a new year! Below is part one. Thanks, Vanessa! Pictured here is Vanessa on the cover of our 2019 calendar; order yours here.

In 2016, I was 43. At the time, I had two daughters, 4 and 10, and a 13-year-old son. I had been in my brand-new job for less than four months and my family was about to celebrate the one-year anniversary of being in our dream home that we had built from the ground up. I found out I had breast cancer on December 29, 2016. Can I just tell you that being diagnosed with cancer at that point in my life was a huge inconvenience… HUGE!

What I came to learn was that nothing about the breast cancer fight would be convenient, nothing would happen in my time or way that I wanted. In spite of it all, I chose daily to LIVE BRAVE; with that focus, I learned some important lessons along the way and that is what I would like to share with you.

December 29th of that year I had my yearly mammogram.

When the radiologist informed me, after lots of hmms and ohhs and side huddles with the nurse, that he wanted me to see a breast surgeon for a biopsy… that’s when I became concerned. In his words, he would be surprised if it was not cancer.  I was scheduled for an appointment the following week.

So we waited… I waited. Waiting is the worst part of this whole thing – well obviously not, cancer is the worst part – but you get what I mean. During that week, I wavered between wallowing in a state of shock and self-pity to researching every bit of information I could find on breast cancer. I decided it was only fair that I would spend equal time in each state.

During my time wallowing, I saw my life flash before my eyes. I thought of my husband and children and worried that I wouldn’t be there to watch them graduate high school or college. Would I be there for their first date? Would My husband outlive me!?  I mean really, I was the vegetarian, I was the one jogging and working out and such. Him: beef jerky, steak, and his longest walks where from the refrigerator to the couch… I mean, come on!

Hey, don’t judge me, I said I was a survivor, not a saint!

But most of all, I mourned the idea of not being there for my children, to lug them to softball and ballet practice, to tell them for the millionth time to get off fortnight and do their homework, and to clean their room. All those chores that exhausted me just to think about are the things that I now did not want to miss out on.

When not wallowing, I became… well, let’s just say that everyone knows that you are not supposed to actually google diseases you may have or you’ll be sorry, but that’s easier said than done!

You might as well call me Dr. Larkin, because by the end of the week, I had already diagnosed myself, decided on my treatment, knew I was going to do chemo and knew what type of implants I would get after my mastectomy!

My husband, on the other hand, had more of the “be positive, let’s just wait and see what the doctor says,” mindset.

Not a surprise, we had faced the same dance when I was pregnant.  I wanted to daydream about Harvard, MIT, ODU, and he was thinking about ensuring 10 fingers, 10 toes, overall health – you know, just making sure our child was breathing.

So, back to my wallowing… I begged and prayed to every higher being there was. I didn’t want to take any chances, so I called on them all. What continued to echo through my prayers and chants (as I was covering all bases) was, ” Please, just give me a chance, let me have a chance to fight.” I begged and I promised that if I was given the chance to fight, I would be thankful. I would be thankful for every opportunity I had to fight in future and that I would find the blessing in everything I had ahead of me. And that’s what I did.

And that made all the difference in my fight. That was my first LESSON, to just find the blessing.

Even in the midst of a storm, even when fighting for your life, if you can find something, anything to be thankful for in the midst of chaos, it changes your outlook.

Stay tuned for part two soon!