What was your cancer diagnosis and how was it discovered?
I self discovered a mass in May 2018 at age 38. I was vigilant with self exams as my mother passed away from breast cancer when she was 48. Mine was triple negative and BRCA1.
What is the biggest piece of advice you have for newly diagnosed patients or supporters of newly diagnosed patients?
First of all BREATHE!
Any transformative event carries with it 3 points, in a triangle, that can be used as a tool to bridge to the other side of the crisis. 1. Vision, 2. Structure, 3. Support
My best suggestion: focus on your Vision first as you wait for tests and a treatment plan.
Decide how you are going to think about this. Having watched my mother walk this road, losing her and ending up here 20 years later, I had to DECIDE with enormous effort that my story is not the same. Your story CAN and WILL be different from any other. Images of loss tend to crowd the mind, for me it was images of my mother, my patients, my friends who didn’t make it. If you are anything like me, consciously crowd those images of loss OUT with images of women thriving after treatment. Those are not as automatic to the human brain, FIND THEM. I decided that my body was capable of supporting me through whatever needed to be done to get to the other side. I flipped the script. Making a choice to think about what I would love to see happen rather than what I didn’t want or was afraid of.
Here is some of the list for me:
- I would love to see this struggle turn into something that serves others and eases suffering.
- I would love to see my 3 kids graduate from high school
- I would love to return to full range of motion and live as I did before
- I would love to thrive and help others do the same. MAKE YOUR LIST!
What is the most important thing you have learned from your cancer experience?
There is no circumstance outside of me that can ever be more powerful than what is already within me. I embraced the fact that I am both incredibly powerful and humanly vulnerable at the same time. The hard days of living in my humanity and vulnerability do not take away from my inner power, it is still there, always has been, always will be.
What was the most difficult aspect of organizing care / community?
As a caregiver by nature and practice the most difficult part was saying "yes" to help from others and truly receiving it without reservation and nothing but gratitude. I knew this was essential for my treatment success and worked hard at accomplishing it.
What are a few things that you couldn't live without during treatment?
Nature walks, my super fuzzy blanket, my playlist, yoga, mini trampoline.
The first 15 year of my life were forged in Kiev, Ukraine behind that pesky Iron Curtain. I was 7 years old that spring, when we heard unclear rumors of a nuclear plant 60 miles from us in Chernobyl. I was 16 when my mother received her breast cancer diagnosis. Medicine is in my blood, 3 generations of women in my family. My purpose in health care was always clear to me in general, so I majored in Radiation Sciences - Nuclear Medicine with an anterior motive. My logical brain was reaching for a way to understand Chernobyl, my mothers cancer, and possibly even what I could expect in the future for my sister and I. I felt myself model my grandmother and mother in much of the same patterns, I lived with that “drive no matter what” mindset. I felt proud of that legacy. I was living in the United States yet the survival instinct wired in from my early days remained. I enjoyed logic, efficiency, never ending drive. I lived in fight, flight, freeze like it was my second home, and I still thrive under pressure.
I was 38, a tiny indent on my skin drew my attention as if by some miracle, the upper left quadrant, below my collarbone, my mind filled with images of a journey I walked before, my fingers dug in and I felt “IT”. The fabric of my life was torn open for the second time, I have seen this "movie" before… I flipped the script, when choosing my treatment I used both conventional and integrative medical treatments.
Last month I had my 3 year oncology check up. These check ups used to bring me to my knees, for over a week prior I could feel it was coming. These days I am more focused on how I best serve my purpose, my highly driven, hyper logical, servant leaders who believe the way they serve is to sacrifice themselves for the “greater good”. This was the way of my mother, this was my way 5 years ago. Through my cancer journey I found a different way and I believe this is what was meant to be brought out of the ashes in this story.
I of course went back to a university the year after my treatment for formal study - logical type A brain wouldn't have it any other way. I earned the title of an Integrative Health Coach and now get to serve in the midst of my purpose that is now abundantly clear to me. I continue to homeschool our boys and unravel the mystery of autism with our girl. I take long walks with my husband, we just celebrated our 22 year anniversary. We have a yellow Labrador named Tucker. I zip line, climb fire towers over the Everglades, swim in the ocean, clumsily surf, do yoga, kick box and conquer obstacle courses over swarms of alligators. My unique purpose driven by my life curriculum and supported by the didactic curriculum at University of Arizona extends much farther outside my nuclear family. I lived it first. Now I willingly and joyfully pour out from a full cup! I want to serve as the image that helps others crowd out images of loss and fear. I say ‘no” to a lot of things, but I say “yes” to exactly the right things for me.
You can connect with Lena on her Instagram page, @healthygeekcoach. To read even more of her story, you can read her chapter of 'When Love Speaks: A Collection to Inspire,' entitled 'Miracles and Labcoats' on page 93.
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