Terri’s breast cancer diagnosis compelled her to reassess her career and ask some existential questions. This helped to broaden her worldview and led her to start a nonprofit that helps empower others affected by cancer called A Fresh Chapter.
Having cancer wasn’t part of the plan. I was 30, working a high-stress job that I loved as a technology recruiter in Vancouver. There was a family history of ovarian cancer, and a researcher who was working on the BRAC1 mutation did a study on my family. As part of that, I learned I was a carrier. It was a curse to spend my 20s waiting to get cancer. It affected every decision in my life. But it was a blessing to have access to phenomenal screenings at the hereditary cancer program at British Columbia Cancer Center. It was thanks to a diligent radiologist who saw something she didn’t like on an MRI and scheduled an MRI-guided biopsy that I was diagnosed. Triple negative, grade 3 breast cancer, caught at stage 1.
When I got the call from the hereditary oncologist telling me I had breast cancer, it was a shock, horrifying. I was angry. I had convinced myself that I was going to have a normal life. Had this happened when I was in my 40s and I was married and had kids, maybe I would have felt more prepared, but I was too young. They had been talking to me since my 20s about getting a prophylactic double mastectomy, but I didn’t understand the reason for that, or really how cancer worked. I just thought “I’m not ready.”
Unexpected Fertility Challenges
Fertility was one of my biggest challenges. I had always wanted to be a mom and in addition to breast cancer, I also faced a heightened risk of ovarian cancer. When I got the diagnosis, I went to specialist to talk about storing my eggs. At the time, the technology for harvesting and storing unfertilized eggs wasn’t good, and I wasn’t ready to think about a sperm donor. It was overwhelming. They talked about fertility sparing chemo so there was still a chance I could conceive naturally. Fertility processes have since improved, and I later looked into having my eggs harvested, but since I had been through chemo, the specialist explained that I likely wouldn’t have viable eggs. Although I have since had surgery to remove my fallopian tubes, I still have my ovaries, but I’m under pressure to get them removed too.
The surgeon originally recommended a lumpectomy and lymph node dissection. I had the surgery, hoping I didn’t need chemo. Lymph nodes were clear, but they still wanted me to have chemo because of the aggressiveness of triple negative cancer. And I had to choose between radiation and continued risk and monitoring, or double mastectomy. Given the risks, I had the mastectomy with expanders followed by implants.
Asking the Bigger Questions
The process was tough. Chemo was aggressive and I really didn’t tolerate it very well. And recovering from the double mastectomy and processing the loss of my breasts was incredibly difficult. I was lucky to have a great network of support from friends and colleagues, but even still – the hardest part was the loneliness. I so appreciated the people who would stop by to see me. But it was hard when they left and went back to their friends, families, and careers. I had to stay—I was stuck in my life.
I was surrounded by friends and family who loved and cared for me, but they couldn’t understand what I was going through. It created such a broad identity question for me—who am I and why am I here? If I die young, how do I look back and remember my life? I was asking all these existential questions that cancer causes us to ask.
Although I was struggling emotionally and felt isolated during treatment, I didn’t attend any local support groups. It just didn’t resonate for me. I didn’t see myself as being a cancer patient, and I didn’t want to sit in a circle and talk about treatment. Cancer wasn’t my identity; it was just something I was dealing with. That was surprising. I thought it would feel like it looks in the movies. Instead it just felt like the most boring, hard marathon of my life.
When my hair was growing back, everyone wanted me to get on with my life. The pressure to return to work in an industry that no longer resonated with me made me feel depressed, angry, and afraid. I also stopped looking forward, I just saw more treatment, surgery, and sadness, so I just lived in this weird little bubble.
I think it’s normal to feel angry and sad. You need to hold space for conflicting emotions at the same time. I remember crying in my psychologist’s office, saying I feel so alone, I don’t know how to be with the people in my life, I love them, but they don’t get me. How am I going to feel connected again? And she said, “Terri, when you do things in line with your values and interests you are going to connect with people who understand who you are today.”
I had dated someone for a year during all this, and that relationship really impacted me. He was from Africa and taught me the ability to be resilient despite the struggle, taught me to ask “why not?” I had been raised in a very traditional way—go to college, get a job—I couldn’t see possibilities beyond what my family lived, but he challenged me to think differently. He gave me the books The Artist’s Way and Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet, which taught me to ask myself the right questions without worrying about the answers. He was the perfect person then to help me see a broader view of the world.
At the time, I couldn’t imagine feeling inspired; it would take something epic to be bigger than cancer, which is when I started thinking about volunteering in Africa. Why couldn’t I envision a new life for myself? This notion energized me to get to a whole new place of possibility. I wondered what I could do to help others who might also be struggling. You never leave cancer behind; it’s always part of your story, but maybe I could channel the negative experience into something positive.
Making New Connections
My perspective instantly shifted when I arrived in South Africa. A two-year-old boy at my volunteer placement had a profound impact on me; he didn’t care that I had cancer. He just saw me as someone who could give him love and attention. The connections I made with new people who had no expectations for me to be a certain way gave me the luxury of discovering who I want to be now.
I met people who had suffered through the oppression of apartheid or lost multiple family members to HIV and I really understood that struggle is universal. Who was I to feel sorry for myself, with the opportunities that I have? I met people with very few material possessions who still managed to radiate joy. And, I saw the resiliency they had to coexist with both the struggle and the joy of life.
This gave me a sense of empowerment—and responsibility—and I didn’t feel I could waste it. I’m wired to help people create a sense of belonging and see what’s possible in their lives. I also had an innate desire to build a business and create something that has a broader impact on the world. For me, that’s what my organization, A Fresh Chapter, has become: it’s a way to help people who are struggling with this sense of loneliness to find their tribe, to find that sense of connection with others.
Life of a Survivor
My cousin had breast cancer 12 years before me and became my support person since she understood. She died a few years ago of stage 3c ovarian cancer, and I think about that a lot. She never went through her 30s thinking “I’m going to die of cancer at 46.” I really think about that fear; it’s always going to be present—I’m going to assume any weird pain is cancer. This is the life of a cancer survivor. Having work that is meaningful helps me cope with the fear. So, if cancer came back and my life was cut short, I could say, “Shit, I lived.”
I deal with survivor guilt, which is most profound when I work with people in parts of the world where it’s common to be diagnosed in later stages. If I had to deal with my aggressive tumor while living anywhere else—and not have access to genetic screenings or scans—I would have died. But I remind myself that I’ve been blessed with this second opportunity to do something.
There’s this notion that cancer should make us great and we’re supposed to do amazing things and change the world, and that is way too much pressure. What motivates me is thinking about what’s possible—right now, today, and to not be angry about what I can’t control. For me, I love to travel, write, build connections with new people, take photographs, and give back. It started with discovering what would light me up, which turned into something bigger. I wish someone had asked me to think about what lights me up when I was first diagnosed. It doesn’t have to be something massive, but trust it, because it brings joy to the rest of the world.
The old version of me has evolved into a kinder, wiser, gentler version of myself. I have new connections and friendships and don’t feel lonely or alien. And I’m going to continue to evolve. I don’t have it all figured out. But some of the insights I gained because of cancer have helped me engage with the world in a different way. Cancer was an invitation to do deeper work and it will be a constant practice; it won’t happen overnight. I’ve thought about this a lot while building my organization. I want to create a culture where people take care of themselves and I need to model that behavior. You cannot teach what you do not do.
A Fresh Chapter empowers men and women to step beyond the label of cancer patient, survivor or caregiver while giving back to communities at home and abroad. Read more about Terri and explore opportunities to join a strong community of support at A Fresh Chapter.