Breast Cancer Survivor Talks Radically New Outlook On Life, Finding Purpose, & Navigating Post-Cancer Life

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The Diagnosis

“As the daughter of a two-time breast cancer survivor, I took breast cancer seriously. I started mammograms at the early age of 30 and I practiced breast exams most months. At the age of 37, recently married and recently promoted to my dream corporate job, I began to take notice of a change to my breast. Not an overnight occurrence. It was not a lump or a bump, but the center had sunken in. My mom had always had a lump. In the craziness of life and work, I scheduled an appointment with my OB/GYN doctor. My doctor did not seem overly concerned, but scheduled a mammogram to check it out.

Thankfully, with my mom’s diagnosis, I was taken very seriously, even at the age of 37. One mammogram led to another mammogram and an ultrasound. With the wand going back and forth, back and forth on my armpit, tears rolled down my cheek. Nobody would talk to me, nobody could tell me what was going on. I wasn’t naïve to the situation, however, after being there for my mom’s diagnosis over ten years prior. Reunited with my husband in a doctor’s office, a doctor I had never met before told me in a cavalier manner what I knew what was already going on. I wanted to scream at the top of my lungs. I wanted to crawl into a ball and cry like a toddler in the midst of a tantrum. But I sat there silent, bewildered, scared, and confused. The doctor wanted to schedule a biopsy; they didn’t like what they saw.

woman and her husband
Courtesy of Tina Conrad

I decided to seek counsel from a breast surgeon for my biopsy and I met an amazing doctor that would become part of my team. She had my back and I trusted her; I felt comfortable in her presence and confident in her skills. My biopsy became more of a lumpectomy and I awoke to the doctor, all business and clipboard in hand, with a foreboding message: ‘I need you to get your mom’s records.’ That was a Thursday. I stayed home from work on Friday in a total and complete fog. I can count the days I missed work due to medical or illness on one hand, so this was completely out of character. My lab results would be forthcoming, but I started making calls to my family and closest friends. I was positive and optimistic, but also realistic that this may be serious.

woman wearing pink
Courtesy of Tina Conrad

Then, August 5th of 2013, a Monday, a day that will live in infamy for me, I received a call at work. It was one of those slow motion, you are in a tunnel, you can’t feel your legs kind of moments. I knew it was coming, I sensed it, and yet I was shocked hearing those words, ‘YOU HAVE CANCER.’ I was sad, I was in disbelief, and I sat in those feelings for a few days. I buckled up, I dug deep, I reached out, I reached in, and I prepared myself for cancer. Nothing can fully prepare you, but I was determined to keep calm and carry on!

woman holding breast cancer pillow
Courtesy of SONY DSC

Like Mother, Like Daughter

In order to understand my cancer story, I feel compelled to tell my mom’s story. She had breast cancer in 2001 and then again in 2003. She handled each diagnosis with love and feeling and strength and grace. She was determined to move forward, but scared and humbled by it. She was strong but felt weak. She was powerful but felt powerless. She was beautiful but felt ugly. She was still my mom, but she felt like a different person.

mom and daughter
Courtesy of Tina Conrad

It was September of 2001 and my world view had changed with the onset of 9/11 in the United States of America. I was a young, naïve, and optimistic employee just beginning my corporate career. I even worked with customers in New York City. I just could not fathom what had happened, how innocent employees could leave for work that morning and not return home to their loved ones. I cried at how the world had changed, how innocence was lost, and all of the lives lost that day.

At that very same time, my mom was getting tests and scans. My dad was aware of everything, but my mom sheltered my brother and I, not wanting to worry us. My mom had found a lump. Breast cancer did not run in our family, but this was unusual. My mom got a biopsy and a diagnosis that she had breast cancer, one week after 9/11. My brother was living with me at the time. He was about 2 hours drive from where we grew up while he did his student teaching. My mom called to tell us that she had cancer.

family wearing breast cancer shirts
Courtesy of Tina Conrad

My family dug our heals in and helped my mom in any way possible. I remember sending her flowers to cheer her up after losing her hair. I visited whenever possible, I called her and chatted to make her feel normal even though everything had changed. My family grew closer, my relationship with God strengthened, and my mom moved on in life, happy and healthy but also concerned about recurrence like any cancer patient.

Nearly two years later, my mom’s cancer returned. In the same breast, in nearly the same area. This time felt different. I know that I was angry. I was mad at God for allowing it to come back. I didn’t understand why this was happening, why this kept happening to my family. It felt like a personal attack. I am happy to say that my mom has been cancer free for over 15 years. Knock on wood!

Why do I tell my mom’s story with mine? They are different stories. We had different journeys, but I am grateful for the example of grit and grace that my mom expressed to me. I always had a built-in support network for my own cancer journey, somebody that just got it and I didn’t have to explain why I was feeling my feelings. When I found out that I needed chemo (16 rounds), I called her sobbing from a parking lot. I cried that I didn’t want to look like a cancer patient. And she told me all the words I needed to hear. She always listened, she let me be, she was still my mom but also my friend.

mom-and-daughter
Courtesy of Whirlygig Photography

Finding Purpose

Beep Beep Beep

The sound of the alarm clock at 5 a.m., a reminder to get up and move to join the frantic pace of corporate America.

Beep Beep Beep

The sound of cars stacked up painfully, moving towards work at a snail’s pace and then again heading home late at night.

Beep Beep Beep

The many sounds of the doctor’s office equipment. Take your choice, the blood pressure machine as my heart raced ahead filled with impending dread or the giant mammogram machine as the kind nurse tried to calm my fears.

Then came the words, ‘You have cancer.’ SILENCE…

woman in hospital bed
Courtesy of Tina Conrad

All of the familiar sounds were drowned out by the shock and pain of a cancer diagnosis at the age of 37. How could this happen to me? Why did this happen to me? These questions were replaced with a barrage of treatment plans, doctors visits, clean margin conversations, surgeries, therapy. A totally new and unfamiliar life lied ahead of me. Work continued, corporate life continued, whether I was there or not. Suddenly, a giant spotlight shone on my life’s purpose, just like the ugly cancer cells in the mammogram.

One night, in the quiet of my house, I realized that while I was doing everything in my treatment plan necessary to fight the cancer, I was still working. I was still surrounded by stress. I was not 100% focused on me, and I needed to be 100% focused on me. This was not selfish, this was self preservation. My oncologist strongly advised me to take a medical leave and to focus on activities that made me happy. Question was, what made me happy anymore?

woman with cancer and her husband
Courtesy of Tina Conrad

It was no longer planning end caps for a mass retail chain for optimal holiday sales. It was no longer planning advertising and pricing, and analyzing revenue and margins. Slowly and surely in my nearly 3 months leave, I found joy in the simplicity, I realized the power of making a pizza from scratch. With a pile of flour billowing from my hands and the warm water mixing with the change agent yeast.

For years, I was a fast-paced, adrenaline junkie that did not have time to stop for yoga poses. Give me cardio or give me death was my motto. But in my medical leave, I found time to slow down, to breathe, to practice letting go. I cried as the instructor on my Gentle Yoga DVD described yoga as give and take, being kind to yourself. This was all new and uncharted territory, but I became a disciple of yoga every morning, as the sunlight streamed through the windows in the cold winter Midwest days.

When I found myself back at work, my job had not changed, but I had. It was still crazy, frenetic, fast-paced, filled with meeting after meeting, where you wondered when you would actually get to go to the bathroom or eat a meal. Mentally, the chemo took its toll on me, but emotionally it was even worse. I just could no longer sit in these meetings without a purpose. I could not point fingers at someone in another department that was not there to defend themselves. I could no longer work for a company that did not have the same values that I shared.

woman sitting by a lake
Courtesy of Whirlygig Photography

Advocacy

I landed at a company that cares about Breast Cancer. They even have a foundation for Breast Cancer Research. They encourage associates on Thursdays to wear pink, not because it’s pretty, but to celebrate the research, the culture, and the company values. This job also gave me something else. Time!!! With a short commute (10 minutes!) and a work life balance focus, I now had time to write podcast stories, research my podcast guests, and record!

I started my podcast DJ Breast Cancer in late 2018, inspired by my friend and pink sister Sandy Clausen. She was in a support group and her kindness helped me with rides to treatment. Sandy had a recurrence of breast cancer and passed away, leaving me wondering again what am I going to do with my time here on earth. What is my greater purpose?

Passion, purpose, and podcast is what my life is currently focused on. Once I understood this, I knew I had found what I had been searching for all this time. It began with a simple mission of inspiring H.O.P.E (Help One Person Everyday). I knew that I had a unique perspective after facing breast cancer twice as the daughter and then my own diagnosis. I was fortunate enough to never have faced breast cancer alone as I had my mom, but so many others are facing a diagnosis with no family history and nobody to turn to for support.

woman smiling in a city
Courtesy of Whirlygig Photography

I am amazed how a podcast show can enrich not only the lives of others, but definitely my own. I love the connections and insight it has provided into other’s lives, and I know I would never have had this opportunity without my breast cancer diagnosis. I will always say I’m not happy I had breast cancer and I would not wish it on my worst enemy, but it also has been a gift. It provided me with a purpose. It stopped me from the hamster wheel, roller coast life and made me appreciate each and every day with a new sense of purpose and love. It changed me to my core and I want to inspire others to use their gifts to help others, to share their stories and create a sense of community and sisterhood.

Take some time away from the noise to reflect on what you truly want to do. Dream Big! And then go do it!!

woman holding pink balloons
Courtesy of Whirlygig Photography

Life After Cancer

One of the most difficult and less talked about phases of breast cancer is the after treatment phase. It’s a tightrope of sorts, with less of a guidebook. I’m a rule follower and during active treatment, it’s easier to follow the rules. Under the constant supervision of the doctors, you feel safe and secure. Afterwards, with appointments less and less, I felt more and more on my own. Not to mention, during cancer, I rocked my bald head, I had a theme song, I had all sorts of support. Once all the dust settled and life was supposed to return to normal, I realized the enormity of what had happened. I realized my life was no longer normal, nor could it ever go back to what it simply was.

woman with breast cancer in pink
Courtesy of Whirlygig Photography

My identity was now a mish mash of both pre-cancer and cancer, fitting none of the molds, no longer making sense. This tightrope is difficult, and I am so grateful for the safety net of other survivors. For me, finding a tribe online after treatment was so important. From ongoing aches and pains to scars to scans, it was this group that held me up and gave me hope and helped me navigate. Sometimes just picking up the phone to a survivor friend was my therapy. I didn’t have to explain why I felt the way I did. They already understood.

In this space of life after cancer, I started my podcast and wrote a poetry book From C to C. It has been a soul-searching, creative time for me. It has also been a time to reflect on dreams lost. I am forever grateful for this messy life of mine. I am busy, bustling, and blessed. I am grateful, grinning and grounded. I am not my cancer, it does not define me. But cancer is part of my story, my purpose, and now my passion to help others on their journey.”

woman holding her book
Courtesy of Whirlygig Photography

This story was submitted to Love What Matters by Tina Conrad of Fort Wayne, Indiana. You can follow her journey on Instagram, Facebook, and website. Submit your own story here, and be sure to subscribeto our free email newsletter for our best stories, and YouTube for our best videos.

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