|Chryso D'Angelo, 36: Seven-Year Survivor Breast Cancer Survivor
What I learned: Breast cancer showed me where my courage lies
Needless to say, being diagnosed with breast cancer at 29 was scary. What made it even more terrifying, though, was my phobia of doctors, needles, and blood—all of which would factor into my prescribed breast cancer treatment (a mastectomy and chemo). It's hard to believe that any form of peace or enlightenment could come out of that brutal experience. But, ironically, breast cancer gave me a gift: It showed me where my courage lies.
These days I know I can cope with pretty much any medical procedure. I'm so grateful to have navigated through nine months of pregnancy fearlessly, confidently, and in joyful anticipation of the birth of my child. Still, thanking cancer is tough. But the truth is, having it can change you in significant and encouraging ways. But don't just take my word for it: Read on as other cancer survivors discuss their takeaway from a battle with breast cancer.
|Sepia Owens-Villas, 39: Two-Year Breast Cancer Survivor
What I learned: Only I can take charge of my health
"After eight rounds of chemotherapy, I met with a breast surgeon to discuss options to remove the tumor in my breast. I had read all about my diagnosis and spoken with some of my influential contacts, so I went in armed with information. When the doctor recommended a lumpectomy, I might have gone along with it had I not learned that, in my case, a mastectomy could lower my chances for recurrence.
"Because of my health care background, I knew how to make decisions that were right for me. But not everyone has that knowledge or access. So, after completing breast cancer treatment, I co-founded a nonprofit called First Things First. Our workshops include teaching women what to expect from a gynecological exam so that if a test is omitted, they know to ask for it. I also encourage them to tell their M.D. if they notice something suspicious. If I hadn't brought the lump I found to my doctor's attention, she might not have discovered it. No one knows your body better than you do, so speaking up is crucial."
|Grace Ma, 44: Five-Year Breast Cancer Survivor
What I learned: It's okay to let down my defenses
"In medical school, we're taught to be sympathetic but to keep a professional distance. But having breast cancer has shown me that sometimes you need to expose a little more of yourself. When I was diagnosed with breast cancer, I didn't have a close survivor in my life; if I did, maybe cancer would have been a little less scary. "Now, when patients come in to discuss breast reconstruction, I look them in the eye and say, ‘I know exactly how you feel.' I give them an honest, firsthand account of the side effects of chemo and radiation, and point out that my hair has grown back and that I'm okay, which seems to provide some comfort.
"My new openness has carried over to my personal life as well. I'm more comfortable discussing anything at all with friends and family, which has made my relationships deeper and more meaningful. I had a protective shell around me for 20 years—cancer has eaten away that shell, allowing the real me to shine through."
|Julie Jockel, 32: Two-Year Breast Cancer Survivor
What I learned: I'm a green queen at heart
"While recovering from a lumpectomy to remove a walnut-size tumor from my breast, I couldn't help but wonder, ‘Why me?' I was young and I have no family history of cancer. But after doing research, I learned that many common household items are made with potentially cancer-causing sulfates and parabens. I thought, ‘What's the point of surviving if I'm only going to poison my body again?'
"I began swapping our bathroom and kitchen products for organic alternatives. Today, I clean with an all-purpose spray I make with vinegar, baking soda, and castile soap. "I feel empowered because I'm protecting my 3-year-old son in ways my parents couldn't because they didn't know about the dangers of chemical-laden products. When he's older, I'll be able to tell him, ‘I did whatever I could to make the world a healthy place for you.'"
|Marie-Jo Cario, 53: Nine-Year Breast Cancer Survivor
What I learned: Never take life for granted
"There's never a good time to learn you have breast cancer, but nine years ago, I couldn't have imagined a worse one. As the manager of a bustling French chocolate shop in New York City, I was working a 12-hour shift six days a week. I took only short breaks during 10 rounds of chemotherapy and was back on the job two weeks after my mastectomy.
"Then one day, after collapsing at the shop from exhaustion, I received a wake-up call from my doctor: If I didn't stop overdoing it and start taking care of myself, he said, I might not survive breast cancer. Two months later, I resigned and started enjoying life again. I visited my parents in France, toured colleges with my twin daughters, and started practicing yoga. After a year, I returned to work, taking a low-stress, 9-to-5 position. My husband also found a new job with better hours so we could spend more time together. We've had so much fun traveling to other cities, hiking in Colorado, and swimming at our local pool.
"Cancer not only put a spark in my marriage, it helped me realize what's really important. These days, I'd rather spend time having dinner with family and friends than obsessing over a little dust on the furniture."
|Jennifer Griffin, 41: Six-Month Breast Cancer Survivor
What I learned: Exercise has healing powers
"Last September, just a week after I was diagnosed with stage III breast cancer, a friend dragged me to a Pilates class, hoping it might lift my spirits. I'd exercised in fits and spurts over the years but never had a consistent routine.
While I loved class, I wasn't sure if I'd be able to work out during chemo, so I joined the gym on a month-to-month basis. "To my surprise, Pilates classes were a therapeutic ritual, giving me the strength to deal with the side effects of my breast cancer treatment. Sculpting my body also made me feel beautiful—which was especially important at a time when I had no hair. And six months later, after a double mastectomy, those toned muscles helped me get back on my feet quickly. I now practice Pilates three times a week."
|Jacqueline Evans, 66: 16-Year Breast Cancer Survivor
What I learned: I found my faith
"I always believed in God, but never had a personal relationship with him. But after my diagnosis 17 years ago, I prayed because, well, that's what you do when things get rough. My main concern was that I wouldn't be there to help my 10-year-old son with his homework or take him to baseball practice. I said, ‘Lord, if you help me survive this, I'll study the Bible and go to church.'
"I definitely feel my prayers were answered that day. Since then, I've read the Bible five times and attend mass regularly. My religion teaches that everyone has an important role in life, and I decided mine was to help my neighbors. I started speaking with patients on behalf of the American Cancer Society and helped organize Stop the Violence, a group that educates young adults about the consequences of crime. This month, I'm running for community district leader so I can help provide the programs and services we need. My opponent is an 18-year political veteran, but I'm not intimidated. With faith on my side, I'll be ready to face whatever comes my way."
|Bridget Ford Hughes, 46: Four-Year Breast Cancer Survivor
What I learned: We all need a community
"After a double mastectomy and breast reconstruction for stage II-B cancer, I had trouble getting out of bed because I was so sore. It was months before I could lift my arms above my head. Since I'm a trained massage therapist and a Pilates and yoga instructor, I wound up rehabbing myself. I tuned in to my body to see what types of stretches felt right and sketched on a pad during chemo to relax my mind.
"One day, it hit me: I could do this for other women like me. Two years later, I founded the Pastures, a studio retreat where cancer patients and survivors can enjoy yoga, Pilates, dance, art therapy, and healthy cooking.
Having breast cancer gave me a sense of purpose and showed me that the more I give of myself, the richer my life becomes. Plus, being around these women inspires me; they're a daily reminder that I, too, can live a full and happy life after overcoming this breast cancer."
More inspiring women:
SHAPE's Women Who Shape the World: Meet the Top 8 Women Who Care
Breast Cancer Awareness: Celebrity Breast Cancer Survivors
Where are They Now? Total Health Makeovers, 6 Months Later