Jun 07, 2022
Emily Ornberg: This episode is dedicated to survivor Melissa, who passed away in June. Her legacy lives on through her incredible film Ginger, which she made to tell the story of her cancer diagnosis. The film’s won numerous awards and has toured around the world.
Melissa: I think that it’s so important to tell your story. I wanted to make Ginger because it was the kind of film that I wasn’t seeing in Hollywood on the indie scene. It’s about my first experience with breast cancer when I was 23 and what that, kind of, means to be just coming into the world and then be smacked right in the face with a diagnosis and having to deal with that. And when we were casting it, that’s when I was re-diagnosed with stage 4 breast cancer. We had a lot of people come to us and say, “We can hold off. We can wait.” And I said, “We can’t. Clearly, now, more than ever, we can’t. Like, life is short. Mine is going to be shorter.” And I think—it was really intimidating at first to try and be open about everything. You don’t want to put yourself on screen right after, like, you shaved your head. You don’t want to have people know how [pause] upsetting that kind of experience is, so it is really hard to be that vulnerable. But I think that there is a lot of strength in that, too, because it brings people together in a way that you would not even imagine, which is so cool. And after bringing it to so many other cities—like, I didn’t expect as many people to show up as they do. We usually can almost fill a theater, which is incredible for, kind of, where we started, which was—we didn’t have followers, and now we get, like, personal requests and emails about bringing it to other countries. And it’s insane the amount of connection that people have to this. And I think that my desire to make the movie was really to tell my story that I knew would resonate with so many other young adults. And, yeah, we’ve been really happy with it because it seems to have done that.
Emily O: To continue her legacy, Melissa and her husband founded the Melissa and Jimmy Boratyn Foundation. The nonprofit supports and empowers people impacted by cancer through the art of film.
Caitlin Kiernan: Cancer is not pretty. The side effects can impact not only how you feel but also how you see yourself. Whether you want help learning how to create eyebrows from scratch, need to know how to treat a radiation burn or just looking for wig-shopping tips, you’ve come to the right place. Welcome to the Feel More Like You podcast, presented by Walgreens and Pretty Sick: The Beauty Guide for Women with Cancer. I’m the book’s author and your host, Caitlin Kiernan. In each episode, we’ll break down the important information to help you look and feel more like you. In this episode—
Stephanie: It’s fabulous. It’s—you want to talk about empowered?
Breanna: OK. Now I can do everything. I’m not stuck in a hospital bed or on my couch anymore.
Emily: Yes. For the future, yeah, I worry. And there’s a possibility it could come back.
Dr. Guy Winch: Everything you promised yourself you will do if—do.
Caitlin: The views, information and opinions expressed in this podcast are those of the individuals involved and do not necessarily represent those of Walgreens and its employees. While we care about you and your health, this podcast is meant for informational purposes only and is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment from a qualified healthcare professional. Walgreens does not recommend or endorse any specific tests, products, procedures or other information that may be referenced. Always seek the advice of your physician or qualified healthcare professionals to see what the best treatment is for you. [pause]. Let’s discuss what to expect about life after treatment.
Walgreens pharmacist Emily Shafer, beauty consultant Laura Catron, and health editor Emily Ornberg join me. Hi, Ladies.
Emily Shafer: Hey.
Emily O: Hello.
Laura Catron: Hi.
Caitlin: So what I love about the minute you finish treatment is you’re on your way back. It’s such a great feeling. This is a second chance at your life. So, like, take it and do what you want with it. You know, like, if you’re—if you have not met your goals or gone after what you want or pursued a passion, now is the time, girl. Now is the time. I think that’s the most important thing. You’re going to start dealing with all sorts of other physical changes in your body as you, you know, get back. But we’ve dealt with physical, and now it’s time to sort of also tune in to your—to your spiritual side and, like, just really embrace your life. That’s my tip. [laughter]. Emily, I want to hear your tip.
Emily S: Honestly, this is not going to be anything that we haven’t all heard before, but it’s so important to emphasize being healthy, staying healthy, because, as someone who is a cancer survivor, you have an increased chance of getting cancer again. Number one, quit smoking if you smoke. So research shows that smoking can increase the chance of getting cancer at the same site or another type of cancer. There’s definitely a lot of resources that your community pharmacy and community pharmacist can help you with for anything smoking cessation related and other resources to help you with the more social aspects of that, not just the nicotine replacement. So utilize those resources. Cut down on how much alcohol you drink. Even though I feel like every other week there’s a new study coming out to say that, you know, red wine is actually better for you or worse or whatever, in general, cutting down on the amount of alcohol that you drink is going to help maintain that healthy lifestyle.
Caitlin: And I think what’s interesting about that is that what people don’t know, especially for women that have estrogen-fueled cancers, even if you no longer have estrogen in your body, there are amounts of estrogen that get stored in fat cells. So the more fat you have on your body, the more you increase those chances of reoccurrence. So absolutely, alcohol plays a huge part. But what else is there? What other kind of things should people be—be thinking about and doing?
Emily S: Sure. So, at this point, too, your diet is very important. Healthy food choices and physical activity can help reduce the risk of cancer or reoccurrence. You want to talk to your doctor or nutritionist to find out about any special dietary needs that you may have at this time in your life. Eating well, even trying a plant-based diet, may be the best option for a lot of people. With the plant-based diet, if you have at—at least five to nine servings of fruits and vegetables every day, incorporating beans, whole grains—choose foods that are low in fat, low in salt and get and stay to a healthy weight. There’s so many resources out there now, whether it be in person, through an app, through a trainer. And as you mentioned, Caitlin, this is your opportunity to start the second part of your life. So if you were never someone who exercised, who says you can’t be someone that exercises now? Maybe, you know, try something different than you’ve ever done before, and see if that is going to be, you know, helpful to your—to your new life.
Caitlin: Yeah. And you know, the thing is—is like, you don’t have to do all of them. Pick one—
Caitlin: —and do it consistently. You don’t have to do a million different things. You don’t need to be working out every day. I mean, like, listen, that’s your—OK. Should you be? Maybe. But—
Emily S: —Yes. Thirty minutes every day [laughter].
Caitlin: Yeah, but don’t feel the pressure to do all of it all at once, you know? Just start making—take the step in the right direction.
Emily S: Mm-hmm. Starting small. Ten minutes a day, even different times a day to get to that ten minutes. See what works for your lifestyle. Realize that exercise not only has a positive effect on the scale or how your clothes fit, but it’s definitely helpful—and studies support this—that it reduces fatigue, nausea, pain, diarrhea. Super helpful for the whole GI system. Reduce anxiety and depression. So let’s say that you’ve had mental health challenges throughout your treatment. Exercise may help you—
Emily O: —boost those endorphins naturally.
Emily S: Absolutely. Absolutely. So it’s not always about just the weight, just the scale. There’s so many benefits to exercise and having that a—a regular part of your life.
Caitlin: Yeah. Laura, what—you know, on the way back, your—your hair’s growing back. Your nails may be growing back. Your skin is getting healthier again. What’s your advice for survivors?
Laura: Especially with the regrowth, there’s so many fun, new, like, hair trends going on right now. A lot of accessories are coming back, so you can really utilize those. Look up, like, really fun, like, hairstyles you can do with—shorter hairstyles. And there’s so many resources with the internet now to look up these cute styles. And getting with your stylist and just being like, “Hey.
How can we, you know, funk this up?”
Caitlin: Yeah. Play. Have fun.
Laura: Play. Have fun.
Caitlin: Emily Ornberg, our health editor, I want to hear your tip.
Emily O: I think a lot of the tips we’ve shared throughout all these stages still apply. Being patient with yourself and doing the things that make you feel like you, it’s going to be so helpful as you bring back those other parts in your life that you—you had now that you have a more open schedule, you have a little bit more energy. Transition into your life the way you want, but be excited about this. You know, it’s time to—to live life.
Caitlin: Yeah. Yeah. The most important thing is—is like, you know what? It’s time to celebrate. [pause]. What about you, survivor sisters? How have you adjusted to life after cancer?
Emily: Hi. I’m Emily, and I am a seventh grade math teacher of 25 years. I have two children, and I have breast cancer. It changes, for sure. Your outlook changes. My outlook—yeah, I’m, I’m glad to be here now, and I do not sweat the small stuff. It doesn’t matter. You know, just appreciate being here every day. As for the future, yeah, I worry. I have a very aggressive cancer, and there’s a possibility it could come back in another form. If I can make it two years, my doctor said, with nothing else coming up, then I’m pretty much home free. So I—that’s my goal is to stay healthy, eat healthy, exercise, drink water and get to that two- year mark [laughter].
Stephanie: Hi. My name is Stephanie, and I’m a realtor. I am a certified life coach. I’m a world traveler. I’m a creative. And I just happen to be a breast cancer survivor. It’s fabulous. It’s—you want to talk about empowered? OK. You want to have a conversation about empowered? I—it’s fabulous. It’s, uh, the gratitude—you know, I—I often, uh, refer to having waves of gratitude. What I would experience, I call—"Oh, I just had a gratitude wave,” you know. And sometimes it can be, for me, so profound that I could literally feel it wash over me. And that five-year mark was one of those moments to fill me with this incredible sense of gratitude. And it’s not anything that I—I do not take it lightly, is my point, you know. But to get to that point and be reminded of it, you know, it’s very freeing in its own way. It’s like you have this big heavy coat on, and it’s 85 degrees, and you’re like, “Oh, crap.” And then you do one of these, and you take it off, and you go, “Oh, boy, does that feel good.” That’s what it felt like. That’s wha—that’s what that day felt like. I had wanted to get a tattoo for the longest time, and I had given some thought to it, and I thought, “I want it minimal where I can see—and all it is, is on my left, if I turn my arms around, on my inner wrists, on my—yeah. On the left hand, it says, “this,” and on the right hand, it says, “day,” because if I choose to pray or at any point in time if my hands are open, it is a reminder to me that this day is really all I have, you know, and, you know, as a survivor, I just see things a lot differently. You know, I don’t take life for granted. I recognize that every day is a blessing. Every day is a gift.
Deanna: Hi. I’m Deanna. I am a beauty writer in New York, and I have had cancer three times, and I call myself a cancer landlord because I feel like I didn’t survive it so much as just was the place in which this battle was fought between my tumors and my doctors. Even now, I’m still dealing with a lot of anger, which I think is how I coped throughout it because s—someone has given you a raw deal. And, unfortunately, with cancer, there’s no one to blame it on. And it helped immensely just to talk to someone who could help me navigate and kind of make sense of what had happened to me in the years prior. I think it’ll always stay with me and impact me and, I guess, in a-in a not- so-bad-way be there to kind of bring me back to earth when I think things are bad. If it’s not cancer, it’s not that bad.
Breanna: Hi. I’m Breanna. I’m a writer and comedian, and I survived Hodgkin’s lymphoma. After I got better, I definitely started overbooking myself because I’m like, “OK. Now I can do everything. I’m not stuck in a hospital bed or on my couch anymore. OKy. Now I can, like, go out and live my life to the fullest.” And, in some ways, that was bad because I really overextended myself, like, taking on a lot of, like, creative projects outside of work, never really having time for myself. But one thing that I got out of that that was really good was I scheduled a bunch of trips for myself. Which, I had never really travelled before I got sick. So I’ve been, like, traveling a lot in the four years since then. Like, more than I probably should be, financially, and, like, schedule-wise. I don’t want to get too cheesy, but it’s like you never know what’s going to happen next. Like, there’s always a chance that it could come back, and I won’t be able to do all these things again, so I’m trying to squeeze it all in as much as I can. And, uh, still am struggling to find the balance between not doing that, like, having time for myself and resting. But it’s opened me up to—I’ve met so many more people. I’ve done things professionally and creatively that I never would have done before, so I don’t regret it.
Karen: Hi. I’m Karen. I’m a feminist, lesbian, actor, teacher, artist who is a BRCA1-positive woman. And I, I try to look at everything glass half full because even though I had to have body parts removed and, um, my body altered and changed a lot, I’m also—I also did something really empowering by removing breasts and removing my uterus and removing my ovaries. I have a way better chance of staying alive longer for my children and maybe meeting grandchildren one day. I feel like I gave myself a gift of possibly being able to stay alive. But I had to get through it first, you know. It was just really, really hard.
Virginia: Hi. I’m Virginia Gregory. I’m an actress. I live in New York City, and I am a two-time survivor of breast cancer. It’s not a club that you want to belong to, but there are some extraordinary people in it. And, I mean, I had people who I have not met to this day who I met online who were encouraging and were there for me every single day. And it’s an amazing, it’s an amazing group of people.
Csilla: Hi. I’m Csilla. I’m a mother, a teacher, a boxer, an artist and a free spirit. And I had triple-negative breast cancer, and right now I’m in my second year cancer-free. I fought it. I am still thinking about it, you know. I feel like now I’m in the processing mode. Like, wow, this thing happened to me. Life kind of quieted down. You went through it. There’s no more nurses around you, but what now? You start seeing the world with new eyes. Suddenly, the sunshine and the leaves on the tree are so beautiful. You start noticing the quality of reality in a very different way. Maybe because you’re forced to slow down and suddenly just start reconsidering what are the important things in my life right now. There’s so many problems all the time that just hit you constantly, like a wave washing over, and I don’t want to rule out the beauty in the world. How did cancer change me? I feel like I became a lot more open, a lot more caring, a lot more amazed by the beauty in the world, and just trusting, you know, with people. And a little bit less fearful.
Emily O: In the main gathering hall of Gilda’s Club, the Chicago chapter of Cancer Support Community, silver-haired ladies glue the finishing touches of rhinestones to their purple foam crowns. Satin sashes that represent milestones like five years cancer- free are handed out to survivors as they nervously shuffle into place. And lining the room are their teary-eyed caregivers and family members armed with pom-poms, noisemakers and handmade signs. We are here today for the annual Survivor’s Day Parade 2019 to commemorate Cancer Survivor Month. This nationwide holiday honors those who have survived, gives hope to the newly diagnosed, and provides support for their families. At Gilda’s Club, it’s just another reason to come together and celebrate life with tears, laughter and lots of food.
Female 1: It’s delicious.
Female 2: Yes. You like it?
Debbie: There you go. OK. You’re welcome.
Emily O: Debbie, one of the coordinators, takes the podium smiling. It’s
time for the parade.
Debbie: Thank you very much. All right. Survivorship is anyone living with a history of cancer. It is widely recognized as when one was diagnosed, so it could be as early as one day ago. So when we announce a period of time, if you have been a survivor for that amount of time, please move around the room. So I want to ask if people could kind of clear out the center area, and then all are welcome to cheer as loud as possible. So here we go. Day one or within the past week.
Emily O: A curly-haired woman steps into the makeshift runway holding a posterboard that says, “one day,” in glitter letters. She was just diagnosed yesterday. She’s sobbing, but she takes a step, holds her foam crown up high and smiles. [pause]. The energy in the room immediately fills with love and support as survivors of all ages and backgrounds hold posters noting how long they’ve carried the label, “survivor,”—
Debbie: In the past year.
Debbie: One to four years. One to four years.
Emily O: —and how long cancer has left its permanent mark on their life story. [pause].
Debbie: Nine years. [pause]. Ten to 19 years. [pause].
Emily O: It’s hard to see these survivors relive such dramatic memories, but their strength is radiating through every step.
Debbie: And then, the last, uh, grouping is 20 or more years. [pause].
Emily O: A young woman confidently prances around the room. She’s no older than 30, which means she’s lived nearly her entire life with cancer. The survivors parade around the room, smiling and waving, as their families blow kisses and wipe away tears of pride. There’s something unspoken that bonds you once you’re in a room full of people who have all experienced the same type of pain, suffering and unwavering strength. Finding a place like Gilda’s Club is how survivor Stephanie is able to maintain her strength.
Stephanie: You know, everybody can go, “Yeah, yeah. I feel your pain.” No. You come here, and they’ll look you right in the eye and say, “I feel your pain,” and mean it. So—it’s, uh, fabulous.
Emily O: If you can find support like Stephanie has here at Gilda’s Club, full of people who understand what you’ve been through, that’s where you can find comfort.
Stephanie: This is a safe place; it’s a sacred place. And everybody can come here. We can laugh together. We can cry together. We can compare notes. We can do whatever. And that’s the beauty of it because it’s that sense of community. I say it all the time. It’s that sense of being connected. [pause].
Emily O: Remission doesn’t necessarily mean you’re cancer-free. Just as you need to take care of your physical health, you need to take care of your mental health, too. Clinical psychologist, Dr. Guy Winch, explains that your emotions might still be stuck in battle.
Dr. Winch: It’s the best news you can get right after treatment: You are now in remission. The thing about it is you just kind of came from the war zone, you know? You’ve just been fighting for your life. It’s difficult, sometimes, to break out of the, “I’m still fighting,” mode.
Emily O: So what’s the best way to get out of fight mode? Try living in the present.
Dr. Winch: I think the best thing you can do in remission is to remind yourself, like, “Wow, I’m—right now, I am healthy. Right now, I’m getting my energy back. I want to really live each day to the fullest. I want to really take advantage of the time that I’m feeling good.”
Emily O: Of course, Dr. Winch says it’s natural to feel guilt, worry, anger or fear, but celebrating every moment that you feel well is important, too.
Dr. Winch: Even if you’re worried about, “Well, I’m in remission, but for how long,” take a little time to celebrate. Take a little time to really, you know, enjoy the fact that you’ve recovered your health, that—that you are feeling yourself again, that you are back in the game. That’s worth celebrating. Don’t skip that part. And you need to think about it as, “I’ve earned this remission.” However long it lasts, I’ve earned it, because I have—went through a lot.”
Emily O: A great way to give back to yourself and celebrate your new chapter is to get out that bucket list.
Dr. Winch: See, you’ve had probably all kinds of thoughts along the way about, “Oh, if I get better, I’m going to do this. I’m going to make these changes.” And, well, now—now is the time to implement. Everything you promised yourself you will do if—do.
Emily O: As you begin to feel better, take time to think about your relationships and how they may have changed during treatment.
Dr. Winch: It creates this skewed dynamic that for the time being of the treatments, one is giving much more to the other. It’s about one of them. It’s about the person who’s going through the cancer treatments much more than it’s about the other person.
Emily O: Your loved ones will always love you. Dr. Winch says now’s a good time to ensure there’s balance in the relationship.
Dr. Winch: What’s important here is when the treatments are over, when the person is back to recovery, that the dynamic has to be realigned. Then, to the extent that it was skewed toward one person and mostly about them, you need to consciously skew it back and make it more even, make it more the way it was in time. Because dynamics can shift, and then they don’t shift back, and then it can cause a crisis for the couple after they’ve been through such a difficult experience because things are misaligned.
Emily O: Another thing you want to think about is how you want to be labeled. Whether you think of yourself as a survivor or prefer something more like warrior or something entirely different. Thisis your life, so you choose how you want to be identified.
Dr. Winch: Quite a few people like the label of cancer survivor, and they wear it with pride, and they feel like, “Yes. I’ve survived cancer.” There are people who thoroughly dislike that label, who feel that, “I don’t feel like I’m a cancer survivor. I feel that I was more active in my recovery,” although everyone is usually active in their recovery. So they say, “I want to be a cancer vanquisher,” or, “I want to be a cancer defeater,” or, “I don’t want cancer in my label in any way, shape, or form.” So be thoughtful about whether you want to be identified as a cancer survivor, how that makes you feel, whether-whether that makes you feel the right thing. Give some thought. Let people around you know what you prefer. “Please don’t refer to me as a cancer survivor. Please don’t refer to me as a cancer anything. Just refer to me as me.” Or, “please refer to me as a cancer survivor.” Or, “Please refer to me as a cancer vanquisher.”
Emily O: Survivorship is a lifelong journey, but what could the end of treatment mean for you? Here’s some advice from our survivors. Virginia said her experience helped her see what
Virginia: Hmm. I don’t know how to put this. Cancer can be a gift if you’re able to look at it that way. In some ways, it makes you know who you are. And while you’re going through all the crappy parts of it, it makes you look at yourself and realize what’s really important.
Emily O: When she felt fear, Christine sought her faith to ground her.
Christine: Whatever it is—I mean, I go to church. I have faith. I really believe in God, and I believe that he has a plan for my life, and it’s much better than what I’m going through right now. And he’ll use this for something better for me down the road. So I think wherever you can find your strength, just find it, embrace it, and let it fill you up. Let it consume you. Because the bad stuff, it’s really easy to let that overtake you, and it’s really easy to let that bring you down.
Emily O: Deanna found inner peace by expressing herself through writing.
Deanna: If there’s something you can do to distract yourself and you can throw yourself into, then, I—I found it really, really helpful for my mental health especially.
Emily O: Experiencing cancer can change your outlook on life for good, but you can choose to not let it define you, like Stephanie.
Stephanie: I got to a point in life where I recognize that—it came—it really, believe it or not, it came in a dream. We were in a train station. It had everything to do with a train station. And I saw myself schlepping this cargo trunk down this train platform, and it made me realize, you know, maybe this worked in the past, or maybe this served a purpose, but it doesn’t serve a purpose anymore. You know, it’s OK to have baggage. You know, everybody’s got baggage. But there’s a world of difference between an—a weekender or an overnight bag and a cargo trunk. So it lightened my load, was the message of the dream was to lighten my load. And I laugh every chance I get. I do. For me, laughter is very freeing. It just feels good. In a, you know, in a nutshell, it feels good to laugh.
Emily O: Of course, there’s always that chance that the cancer may come back. Once Melissa was diagnosed metastatic and terminal, she wondered if her life would take on new meaning.
Melissa: I’d say, um, when people hear that they’ve only got a couple years to live, they usually have all of these things that they’re going to do. Because I, I think I did the same thing. I was like, if it ever comes back, I’m going to get, like, a pack of cigarettes and a bottle of whisky and just go nuts. And that’s not realistic, right? You see all these shows and movies about people who are dying and they don’t give a f-shit, and they’re doing whatever they want. They’re saying whatever they want. Like, that’s—I think that that’s—it seems fun to kind of let your id just go wild, but at the end of the day, I also still have things that I—you know, I still want to arrest bad people, and I still want to do good work. And I’d say, yeah, it’s surprising how much life has not changed from then. Like, of course I’ve started saying yes to more opportunities.
Our friend is turning 40, like one of our work friends, and she wants to go to Australia, and I think there was a point in time where we would have said, “No. We want to save and be responsible,” and so we said, “F that. Like, yes. Yes to Australia." Uh, same thing was when we went—we, we went to Botswana in Africa, and we were like, “Oh, should we stay and go on safari? Should we stay and try and go to Cape Town?” And, yeah. I think—I think things like that, originally, we would have said no. And so we’re learning how to say yes to things that we feel like really, like, feed our soul, if you want to say it like that [laughter].
Emily O: So how do you balance the fear with the freedom? Csilla says it’s all about being genuine and true to whatever makes you feel like you.
Csilla: No. There’s no guarantee. There’s no guarantee that it won’t come back. Yeah, the chances are there, but what are you going to do? I guess you’ve got to live your life, and bringing out the fear and the darkness and the unknown, there’s some realities you’re not happy about. What are you going to do? And I often found it helpful to just express it. Get it out of your system. I-I tell my students, “Get the ugly out of your system.” You have to go through it to arrive to a better place or a better understanding. I feel like we have so little time to find what makes us us, what makes us this unique human being right now at this time. Take that strength from that well, and give your best to a world that you want to see. [pause].
Emily O: Special thanks to the survivors for sharing their stories. This Walgreens podcast was clinically reviewed by Emily Shafer. It was written, reported and produced by me, Emily Ornberg, with Taylor Banasik, Laura [Locksmandy and Stefan Clark. It was coproduced by Caitlin Kiernan, author of Pretty Sick: The Beauty Guide for Women with Cancer. Follow her on social media @CaitKiernan. Recording and mixing by Mathew LeJeune with Connor Boyle at Chicago Recording Company. For more oncology side effect help, visit Walgreens.com/FeelMoreLikeYou to find oncology-trained pharmacists and beauty consultants in your area.