My story to me is really one that expresses love and spirituality.
At the end of 2016, at the age of 32, I was diagnosed with stage II non-Hodgkin lymphoma. But the year leading up to this diagnosis was definitely a wild one and played a huge part in my diagnosis overall. My mother was diagnosed with stage IV stomach cancer about a year and a half prior to my diagnosis, which was a huge shock to us because she was really into nutrition and integrative health practices. But one thing led to the next and she was diagnosed and given six weeks to live. Her stomach cancer spread and my husband and I ended up being her caregiver. She moved in with us and we took care of her until the end.
This was a huge, stressful event in my life. Taking care of your mom full time while she really deteriorated from this terrible disease really brings its own stress and trauma. And I was kind of in this constant fight or flight mode under a severe amount of stress.
Six months after my mom passed, my husband and I were trying to get pregnant and nothing was working. After many tests, an MRI and some rare symptoms, my doctors at Northwestern in Chicago actually found a large pituitary tumor at the base of my brain that needed to be removed immediately because it was impairing my eyesight.
The following week, I flew to Boston and I had my tumor removed at Massachusetts General Hospital where they luckily confirmed that it was benign. It was a huge relief after losing my mom to a rare cancer, but also very stressful for these events to happen back-to-back. At that point, I thought, I’m ready to begin to heal. I thought the worst was over. This was my time for a new chapter.
I couldn’t have been more wrong.
About one year after my mom had passed, I had this dream. And I hadn’t had a dream about my mom at that point. In my dream, I was taking a shower. My mom was in the bathroom with me. We were chatting and joking around. I got out of the shower and I was brushing my hair. All of a sudden, my hair started falling out with each brush stroke.
I was very scared. My dream was very jarring. I remember feeling complete fear. I was very stumped by it all. And then my mom began to lead me down this really dark pathway. I remember feeling very resistant and saying, “No, no. I can’t.” She was showing me a path in front of me that I couldn’t deal with.
I woke up, and I was sweating and panicked. It felt like I pulled something in my shoulder. But honestly, I just brushed it off.
I made my annual physical with my primary doctor. I said, “I just want to be sure I don’t have cancer or anything. You know, I had this weird dream.” I told her what had happened and we went from there. At this point, I was 32 years old and was extremely active. I worked out every day. I ate healthy. I didn’t feel invincible in any way, but I felt like I had control over my health. I felt like I was doing everything right.
My doctor did my blood work like a normal physical. And when it came back, my doctor called me and said that my D-dimer level is elevated, which can mean possible blood clots somewhere in my body. I needed an X-ray of my chest ASAP since this could travel to my lungs or my heart. I got the X-ray done, and they let me leave. My husband and I went to brunch and we headed home. I got a call from my doctor. I had a very large mass on the interior of my chest. They didn’t know if it was cancerous, but I needed to get it biopsied ASAP.
I thought this was a sick joke, like someone pranking me. I couldn’t have cancer. My mom had just died of cancer. I’m 32 and my life is supposed to be starting. I remember going inside and just crying.
I think one thing most people don’t talk about is delivering that news to family and friends. Something was definitely up and I called my dad. The fear and anxiety you hear in your loved ones’ voices and see in their eyes is just heartbreaking. He was telling me, “Don’t worry about it. You know, you’ve had so much trauma. Your brain has to process. It’s normal to feel that way.” But I said, “No, I feel it in every bone in my body. There’s something going on.”
I remember suffering with extreme anxiety, waiting weeks for the results. And I remember walking into the doctor’s office. She insisted my husband and I sit down and she told me I had cancer. She didn’t know what kind or how far along, but she referred me to an oncologist, Dr. Regina Stein. She was my ray of hope amidst all of this darkness. She was very patient and very kind. At the end of the meeting, I was admitted into the hospital. I did in fact have blood clots, four in my left arm because the tumor, which was 10-by-10 centimeters, was pressing against my heart in my veins.
I remember the blur of MRIs, bone marrow extractions and CTs. I felt like I was floating through it all, watching it all happen. I learned the cancer didn’t spread farther than my tumor. I was declared stage II. After that, everything moved so fast. A week later, I underwent IVF in case chemo destroyed my egg supply. My inpatient chemo regimen was five days in the hospital on a continuous chemo drip with six different chemo drugs throughout those five days. I had about 12 days of a break in between each round.
I definitely went into it confident, strong, positive and ready to face this war, but not knowing what to expect. It definitely drummed up so many emotions. I think in times of distress, people can face things or run from things. That’s their primal nature. I chose to face it and to really give it my all.
I went round after round. And after every conducted, they kept getting better. The chemo was definitely working. So I told myself that I could do this and really dug deep and realized how incredibly strong and brave that I was. A therapist told me that I almost had the mindset of an athlete, I was so zeroed in and getting through each round. It kept moving me forward in my journey.
I started to really understand and learn that prevention and early detection is key to survival. I also started to wonder, you know, did my mom save my life? Without that dream, I would have never gone to the doctors. I had no symptoms. I think that the love a mother has for her child really reached me and I do think it saved my life.
By round four, I was officially declared cancer free. It was absolute joy. I remember thinking God is good. I’m not my mom and I beat it. I still had two more rounds to go. And once I completed my last round, I thought I thought that would be it, life would be normal again and I would go back to being me. But that wasn’t the case. The reality is there’s a lot of emotional and mental healing that needs to be dealt with because it doesn’t go away. But it also doesn’t have to define you. I decided to embrace the change, embrace the transition and embrace this—this new me.
You see people, their perspectives and their souls through their eyes. I remember noticing how people looked at me with such fear, sympathy, compassion and sadness. And in turn, at least for me, it made me realize that I need to be strong for myself before everybody else. My coworkers, nurses, my husband, my friends are all listening for strength. Are you okay? Are you in pain? You could really see that reflection staring back at you. They really wanted me to validate their feelings, which, to be honest, is an enormous amount of pressure to put on someone battling cancer and chemo.
I could only depend on myself. No one would feel that positivity for me. It had to come from me authentically. I had to be strong. And I had to believe the outcome would be good regardless of my other experiences with cancer. There were so many things about my mother that I didn’t understand: her emotions, her reactions and rationale, her perspective. She held everything in and also never really accepted her own diagnosis. I was doing the exact same thing—holding it in to be strong. I related to her more in those moments than I probably ever have in my whole life. She wasn’t here to see it.
I really struggled with the physical aspect of healing post-cancer. I couldn’t absorb nutrients in my stomach, I couldn’t properly digest food, I wasn’t receiving the vitamins needed to repair my body from all the damage that had been done. I received no guidance around nutritional support at any point. So I really went off on a mission to find options.
I founded a company called Revival Health and Wellness. And I’m a certified integrative nutrition health coach. My mission is to help cancer survivors heal from their treatments, to detoxify their bodies and rebuild their communities. I treat each person according to their conditions and circumstances. And it doesn’t just start and stop with nutrition. It’s identifying the root causes, whether they are stress or inflammation or relationships.
In 2021, I’ll be four years cancer-free. I have an 18-month-old daughter and I’m pregnant with my second daughter. And it’s my personal mission to help others recover from cancer treatments. I really believe that we’re all new, stronger and improved versions of ourselves after such a battle. And we deserve to heal from the inside out. So I feel grateful for the journey that brought me here.