They say lightning never strikes twice. For me, it struck three times in the form of cancer. My first diagnosis—with Hodgkin’s lymphoma—came just after my second year of college. Fast forward 15 years, to my sixth month of pregnancy, and I learned I had breast cancer. Finally, barely a year after undergoing treatment, the breast cancer came back. Take it from me: Being told you have a life-threatening illness never gets easier.
It can, however, teach you a few things. After three terrifying rounds, I’ve come away with a deeper understanding of my mind-body-spirit connection. And despite the considerable challenges I still face, I’ve made surprising strides toward achieving a more powerful, authentic form of health.
I’d love to say I was a brave model patient from the beginning, but that wasn’t the case. At 20, I couldn’t comprehend cancer’s magnitude—or that my life was truly on the line. Instead I numbed myself in all the ways you’d expect from an emotionally immature college student. I didn’t take care of myself. I tried not to think about it. Somehow I made it through treatment.
Pregnancy and new motherhood heightened the stakes with my breast cancer diagnosis. I couldn’t run away from the problem this time; I had two lives to save. Treatment began following the birth of my son. I had both breasts removed after nursing for just 8 weeks, followed by four grueling months of chemotherapy. The combination of pregnancy hormones, postpartum blues and cancer medications made hope elusive. I just wanted it all to stop.
My most recent bout with breast cancer was a relapse about a year after my bilateral mastectomy, starting when I found a small lump in my chest near the site of the first one. This cannot be happening again, I thought. No matter. It was.
I couldn’t run away from the problem this time; I had two lives to save.
This time, I resolved to face my disease differently. If I couldn’t stop cancer from recurring, at least I could be conscious of factors such as my fitness level, the foods I was eating, and the mindfulness I was bringing to each day. I vowed to fight back with everything in my arsenal.
So as I underwent treatment—again—I continued to go to Bikram yoga. I did my best to run a few times a week. I cleaned up my diet in a way that felt right to me, cutting out dairy, bumping up the organic greens and opting for higher-quality protein. I tossed out my synthetic personal cleansers and cosmetics and switched to products made with natural and organic ingredients.
I also used my diagnosis as an opportunity to do some internal work. I had gone through several periods physical and emotional trauma when I was younger—including the death of my mother—and never allowed myself to process that pain. Years later, I was still deeply wounded.
I immersed myself in a best-selling book called Anticancer: A New Way of Life. In it, the author, a neuroscientist and two-time cancer survivor named David Servan-Schreiber (sadly, he died in 2011), explored the potential link between emotional suffering and physical illness. It really resonated with me—the idea that trauma can send your system into a physical state of “dis-ease.” Getting sick was my body’s way of communicating to me that things had to change. I needed to process my pain and commit to a new way of living.
I’m in remission now, and I can’t be sure of what the future holds for me. So I manage what I can: my mental health, my family connections, the myriad daily choices I make that nurture my overall wellness. This not only puts me in control; it gives me hope—a triumph in itself.
Time is a luxury. No one is guaranteed a long life, so quit putting off what you want to accomplish. Say “no” to things that don’t excite you so you can say “yes” to things you really want to do.
You are not your body. You are a soul having a human experience. Your physical appearance, your wealth, even your health—those aren’t you. You are the light you shine, the love you share and the connections you make in this world.
You have more power than you realize. So much of our well-being is in our hands. Exercise. Sleep. Treat food as medicine. Read books. Drink water. Practice mindfulness. You are strong enough to learn good habits and break unwanted ones.