Ashley is the CEO of OneVillage, which she founded following her own battle with breast cancer in 2017. She is a dog mom, plant lover, wanna-be chef, and former venture capital investor.
What is your cancer diagnosis and how was it discovered?
In February 2017, I was diagnosed with Stage II breast cancer. My mom battled breast cancer when I was a teenager, so at age 35 I decided to be proactive about my health and ask my GP for a mammogram during my annual appointment.
I was too young, she said, and my mom's cancer hadn't been genetically linked, so the mammogram wasn't medically necessary and wouldn't be covered under insurance. As it turns out, there isn't much preventative care that is covered under the majority of insurance plans, because the average time a person is on a health plan is about two years - not enough time to have preventative health measures accrue to the bottom line for payors.
I pushed for the mammogram anyway, and ended up paying out of pocket for it -- even after I had received my diagnosis. I'm glad I did though, because it uncovered a growing tumor right in the center of my breast which doctors concluded I wouldn't have been able to physically feel for 3-5 more years. My tumor had already begun to spread into my lymph system, meaning that the cancer could have spread to anywhere in my body, so it's extremely lucky that I caught it when I did.
Although my experience with diagnosis and treatment wasn't easy, I am without question one of the lucky ones, and it is my great honor to build this platform to make the experience of all those who will come after me in this disease just a little bit easier.
What is the biggest piece of advice you have for newly diagnosed patients?
I'll never forget my doctor uttering those bone chilling words, "you have cancer." Words I never thought I would hear about myself. Especially after a routine preventative screening my doctors said I didn't even need. I felt like I had been hit by a bus, and everything stopped moving around me.
Coming to terms with my mortality was an extremely difficult process for me, especially during those dark and lonely days of waiting for a diagnosis, and after that of learning that my cancer had spread. I spent a lot of time walking around the snowy streets of Capitol Hill in DC near my home, and I found peace and tranquility in the Tao and the sage advice it offers on embracing change as a part of one's reality. You can struggle against it, and wish it wasn't there... but at the end of the day I still had cancer and I was going to have to get through my treatment one way or the other. I decided that it wasn't useful to struggle against what was to be and mourn for my old life, but instead needed to put my energy into making myself as comfortable as possible as I had to endure my new reality.
It helped me to think about my cancer treatment experience as a story that I could tell later with a beginning, middle, and and end. There were days when I was so sick and so exhausted that I couldn't think straight and felt like I would never be well again. But when the going gets tough, and you feel like things will never end, remember that one day this will be only a part of your narrative. It doesn't have to be one that defines you forever.
What is the most important thing you learned from your cancer experience?
My experience with cancer to this day has been the scariest and most daunting experience of my life. For most people the ultimate fear is of death, and I assure you I am squarely in the center of that demographic. Having to confront my mortality, therefore, was not an emotionally comfortable place for me to be for quite some time. However, now as a four year survivor, the inner strength and courage I found as a result of confronting that fear has led to some truly wonderful outcomes, including gaining the courage to start this company! As George Addair says, "Everything you've ever wanted is on the other side of fear."
What was the most difficult aspect of organizing your care/community?
Asking for help has never been easy for me. In fact, I had always prided myself on my independence and ability to be self sufficient and strong. But when the mental and physical toll of my cancer treatments reached their peak, and I could barely cook my own meals, I realized that cancer really does take a Village... and there was nothing I could do about it.
I also realized that everyone has a Village of friends, family and co-workers who all want nothing more than to help. The problem is that most of them don't know what to do. I found it difficult to direct and coordinate my very eager and willing community to help in ways that were helpful to me, most of the time because I didn't know what I needed myself. My hope is that OneVillage can be a trusted source of information to you during this difficult time, and also offer you all the community resources and management you need to feel your Village's support in all the right ways.
Are there products, services, experiences or physicians that you couldn't be without? Tell us more!
Tori Croog, who's the chairman of our Medical Review Board, and also my personal radiation oncologist, was an absolute Godsend to me during my cancer treatment process. She is brilliant and thoughtful and understands better than any physician I've ever met the tradeoffs in standard of care vs. quality of life. Thank you to the whole team @ Johns Hopkins for your kindness and care during my stay with you! Christy Teal @ GW hospital is an absolute surgical genius and I could not be more thrilled with her work. Reiki was a huge relief for me during my radiation treatment and gave me a feeling of calm I wasn't able to get from traditional therapies. I had never done energy work before, but encourage everyone going through treatment to consider it as an option.
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