Melanie owned a food and wine marketing business when she was diagnosed with breast cancer at age 50. She was used to taking charge of things but had to come to terms with the chaos of diagnosis and treatment while discovering a new professional path for herself as a wine, food and wellness writer, radio host and certified holistic health coach.
Diagnosis was devastating. It felt like I was punched in the chest. I had a momentary meltdown on Madison Avenue when I heard the news, but I’m a professional event planner, so I got into crisis-management mode to figure out what I needed to do. I’m very practical by training and try to stay level headed even in the toughest situations, so I spent the weekend letting it sink in, processing everything. I needed to find a breast surgeon to explain my diagnosis and I also needed to find out what my insurance would cover.
I didn’t think about whether or not I was going to die; you hear about people dying from cancer, but I was determined to control things; I’m a control freak. Once I realized a bilateral mastectomy was necessary, I researched my reconstruction options and interviewed surgeons. Then I tried to control when I would have treatment. I said to the oncologist, “I’m available in January.” It didn’t dawn on me that I wasn’t in control. It was around Thanksgiving and my father had just died of cancer. I had a big trip to Asia planned for the holidays and my January 1 birthday, so I wanted to start when I returned. My oncologist said, “This is the protocol and you need to start when I tell you. It should not be delayed.” I humbly and reluctantly put myself in her hands and cancelled my plans.
Then I looked for other things to control; I interviewed people to figure out how to manage the chemo and the best time of day for me to have treatments based on the schedule my oncologist laid out. Some people have a hard time with the chemo; I’m lucky I handled it as well as I did.
The constant bone pain from treatment was hard and the chemo brain was crushing to me, but I was able to go on a vacation to Hawaii in the middle of treatment (with my oncologist’s consent) and treated myself very well during the experience.I exercised every day, but I took it easy. I also wrote every single day, which was good for the chemo brain and one of the most centering things I did. It was my creative outlet.
I felt set adrift when treatment was over. I had so many lingering questions. There are a lot of issues I didn’t expect as a survivor: lingering chemo brain, Raynaud’s syndrome, aching joints, dry and super sensitive skin, and mood swings. I was depressed, which I found out happens to most cancer patients after treatment and didn’t understand why I was so sad. I had this wandering-in-the-desert feeling and wasn’t sure where I was going next.
In a fit of pique, I walked away from my business; I could no longer do it, which was not expected at all. The impact lasted longer than I realized. The financial devastation of cancer is crushing; a high percentage of women are unemployed two years after treatment. There’s little information out there that talks about this.
I miss a lot of things about my business, such as the higher income, frequent travel and dining out, but I don’t miss being in public relations. It was very stressful; I equate that part of my life to getting sick. Placing stories for my clients was no longer interesting to me; instead what excited me was telling the story in my voice. Writing in my diary and blogs made me realize I have a great voice, so why hide it behind a client. What makes me happiest is writing, speaking, and consulting to inspire others; it’s become inspirational in addition to aspirational.
The hardest part of having cancer was not being fully in control of my life and feeling very vulnerable. I felt like I was living in another-world which I refer to as “Cancerland.” I worried I would never come out of out this state and return to a normal life. I was also in mourning for losing an important part of my body—my breasts. However, I realized that you can’t change the fact that you have cancer, but you have choices about how you’re going to manage your life. I chose living for the future versus grieving for what I no longer had.
A New Me
I am now an adjusted new me; I’m still a strong and beautiful individual but I’m not who I once was. I’ve been surgically altered and chemically rewired. I have the BRCA2 genetic mutation, which makes recurrence, or another cancer, a lingering concern. I’m also on the pancreatic cancer registry and am much more conscious about every ache and twinge. I’m not sure that ever goes away.
But I was always confident about my self-worth and who I am. As shaken and emotionally worn down as I was by the disease and the lose of my father, I refused to let the effects of having cancer crack my confidence or make me crumble, but I did have to adjust to the new me.
Since the surgery and treatment, I still sweat the small stuff, but it definitely gets easier. I learned that I’m not invincible, but I have to put self health first—there’s nothing more important than that— and I will walk away from non-healthy things. Diet and exercise are paramount. I changed to a plant-centric diet: no more red meat or pork, reduced dairy intake, and I feel much better. Nothing prevents cancer, but a lifestyle of not taking care of yourself is a toxic situation. And when your body becomes toxic, things go awry. There are no guarantees about anything, but if I can do one thing to improve my chances, it’s to take better care of myself.
A New Perspective
I still have mood swings and am dealing with the everyday stresses of not having the same financial resources. I’ve been clawing my way back up, which is difficult, and have really had to change my life in a lot of ways. That gets to me sometimes, but then I put it back into perspective to realize how lucky I am and learn to live with less and find ways to do different things to earn money; that is really the only lingering challenge.
Being diagnosed with cancer is not a death sentence and you shouldn’t feel victimized or stigmatized because you have it. I experienced so many acts of kindness and try harder now to pay it forward. If cancer gave me anything, it’s a new perspective about caring—for myself and for others. The biggest gift I got out of itwas learning to prioritize my self-health over putting the needs of a businessand being a more empathetic person.
You can learn more about Melanie and her work on her website: melanieyoung.com