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2:57 AM

Jennifer Whetsell

Diagnosed at 32; at stage 2; currently NED (no evidence of disease)
Now 34
Long Island City, NY

A can-do corporate lawyer, Jennifer realized through her treatments that sometimes asking for a hand is an achievement in itself. "I needed support," she says, "I accepted it, and I made myself a priority, without feeling selfish for that. It was a good lesson to learn from for the rest of my life."

Inspirations: Family and friends. "I feared that friends wouldn't be able to deal with it and I'd be abandoned. But people really came through. I was so grateful that they took time to show they were thinking of me. I got letters from people I hadn't heard from in years. I didn't realize that I mattered that much!"

Advice to new patients: "Know your pathology, and be an advocate for yourself. Your medical team is on your side, but no one is going to care about your body as much as you do."

How I've changed: "I don't let things upset me the way they used to. I don't have room in my life for petty stuff. Also, I'm not trying to compete with others anymore—I've got my own goals."

What I'm proud of: "When I left work, I ripped off my wig and walked around the city bald. I thought, whatever—go ahead and stare. I went through treatment in a way that was comfortable for me, and I'm proud of that."

Now, I stand up for myself more. I advocate for myself and am willing to request help."

What I wish everyone knew: "Young women do get this! But there's life afterward, a lot of life to be had. You deserve to live 'til you're 120 years old."

Lisa Vingerling

Diagnosed at age 30; Stage 2; currently NED
Now 32
Atlanta, GA

When told of her diagnosis, Lisa turned her energy outward, founding Pink Heals, an Atlanta non-profit that helps young women who've just completed breast cancer treatment.

Inspirations: "I have a list of things I want to experience. Some are big, like trips to take—for example, I went to the Grand Canyon this year. But little things are on it too, like getting up to watch the sunrise. When I'm having a bad day, I try to do something on the list."

Advice to new patients: "Try to connect with someone your age who's also going through cancer treatment. Even if you do nothing but sit and talk about the last episode of The Bachelor, the simple fact of knowing you're not alone in this is huge."

What I'm proud of: "My experience has made me more confident and comfortable in my own skin. And I'm proud of Pink Heals."

What I wish everyone knew: "It's not over the day chemo is over! Everyone says, 'Congrats, you're done!' But there's a journey starting at that point that can be incredibly difficult. That's the beginning of survivorship."

Tracy Santos

Diagnosed at 26; Stage 4
Now 28
Baltimore, MD

When Tracy felt a small lump in her breast at age 26, "I was told it was probably nothing and to come back in 6 months," she says, "But I wasn't comfortable with that." Unfortunately, she was proven right when the biopsy she argued for found cancer. Then came the biggest surprise: A body scan showed that the disease had spread to her bones and liver.

But Tracy is thriving two years later. Her passion for animal-welfare fundraising has become a full-time paid position, and she and her husband Romeo house three dogs, four cats, and three turtles in their home in Baltimore.

Inspirations: "I've always been a positive person and loved my life. I have an awesome, incredible husband; the things I love inspire me. And I believe in myself, my body, my possibilities. I believe that finding something to eliminate my cancer is as possible as any other outcome, and I won't let myself be written off."

Advice to new patients: "The mistake I made was being too passive at first. I was given a book and told not to read anything else. But my life is at stake here! I need to know as much as I can.

Also, the only thing you have to do at the time of diagnosis is take care of yourself. If I could go back, I'd take time for myself before even telling most other people what was going on."

What I'm proud of: "I'm very proud of everything I'm doing that has nothing to do with cancer. Cancer is taking a lot from me—why should I let it take my other interests, too?"

What I wish everyone knew: "Quality of life is a major issue. When I have drug side effects, I'm offered more drugs for them, but that's not the direction I want to go...We need better ways to deal with the effects of long-term cancer treatments, especially for younger patients."

Soniya Gadgil-Sharma

Diagnosed at 29, Stage 2; currently NED
Now 31
Pittsburgh, PA (born in Pune, India)

Soniya was a Ph.D student in cognitive psychology when she found out she had breast cancer—and, shortly afterward, learned she'd tested positive for a BRCA gene, which greatly increases a woman's chances of getting both breast and ovarian cancers. Today she's completing her studies, teaching, and looking forward to starting a family.

"[My diagnosis] doesn't change my plans," she says, "There are many genes we might be passing on, for better and worse. And hopefully by the time our children are old enough, there will be a way to solve BRCA issues. It's empowering to know about my BRCA gene, in a way, as I know what I'm dealing with—it makes some things more clear."

Inspirations: "Community. I saw there were others out there who had gone through it and were doing great things. And my husband, family, and friends. My mother came in from India twice for me. She has a busy life—she's a lawyer—but she came."

Advice to new patients: "Take a deep breath. There is hope. There are others who've gone through this just like you."

How I've changed: "I always have eaten healthy foods. With exercise—I'm working on it! Meanwhile, I realize how lucky I am to have every day of health. I cherish my life."

What I'm proud of: "I didn't get too thrown off my course. I defended my Masters thesis 6 months after chemo."

Carrie Thomas

Diagnosed at age 25; Stage 2; currently NED
Now 26
Denver, CO

A self-described "minority within a minority within a minority," Carrie was shocked to hear that she had breast cancer at age 25. "I am young for the youngest subset of breast cancer survivors, Korean, adopted, and with a less common disease pathology," she explains, "It's a pretty unusual combination of circumstances." But she tackled the situation and got through treatment as she gets through life: with humor, creativity, and a good dose of snow sports.

Inspirations: "I think—skiing! It was something where I got out there and didn't remember I had cancer. I just felt like myself."

Advice to new patients: Gather information. "The first opinion you get will seem like the main authority, but it doesn't have to be."

How I've changed: "I'm trying to work on diet. Also—I just worry less. I used to stress and want everything perfect. Now, I take things as they come more often. And I try to be proactive about things I want to do. I ask myself, 'If it all goes down the tubes, will I regret not having done that?'"

What I'm proud of: "The blog I kept to try to keep everyone informed worked out. It made me feel like I was being productive. There were others reading it who said they felt like I said things 'for' them, as they wanted to, and they sent their families to look at it.

I also feel proud of my resilience—being able to heal, psychologically and emotionally. Cancer didn't break me—I don't feel broken by it."

Debbie Cantwell

Diagnosed at age 41; Stage 3; currently NED
Now 44
Seattle, WA

"My cancer was treatable," says Debbie, "and I was surrounded by friends and family. I met other women who weren't as fortunate. I could never pay back all the help I received—but I'm paying it forward."

She's doing this through the charity she started post-treatment, the Breast Cancer Sisterhood, which provides financial support and "pick-me-ups" to young women facing breast cancer.

Advice to new patients: "Keep in mind that you'll get through it. At first we imagine the worst, but then you realize you can do it—and when you do, you know you can do anything."

How I've changed: "Cancer was a good opportunity for me to realize what I had. I felt blessed to see how loved I was. I had been in a bad place, thinking everyone was in this life for themselves—and of all things, cancer put me in a better place.

I used to rush through life—now I savor it. I feel like I was blindly getting through things—now I try to make the most of everything."

What I'm proud of: "I made a point of trying to face treatment with grace; I had always been a bit of a complainer before. When I was done, my mom wrote me a card saying she was proud of me. I was so touched. I really grew up, is what happened—at age 41!

And I'm proud of the charity. Besides my loved ones, it's the thing I live for. I didn't do this before—I wasn't philanthropic. Now, I can't do it enough. In a way it's selfish—I live vicariously through the charity."

Jaclyn DeBosscher Davies

Diagnosed at 29; stage IIIB (Inflammatory Breast Cancer); currently NED
Now 31
Washington Township, New Jersey

Davies was 20 weeks pregnant with her second son when she received her diagnosis of inflammatory breast cancer. She entered treatment during her pregnancy, and delivered Kaelan--healthy and happy--four months later.

Advice for new patients: "Put together a good support system. Someone who will take notes at doctor’s appointments while you try not to go into shock; someone who’ll go to chemo so a frightening thing turns into a social event; someone who’ll take your kids for a few hours, or prepare a meal so you remember to eat; someone, or a few someones, with whom you can share your feelings."

How I've changed: "Emotionally—an innocence is gone. I worry about the kind of parent I am because I may not have as many years as I’d thought to have an impact on my children. I try to be the best person I can be now, since I may not be able to make up for it later. Sometimes I feel lucky to have this new perspective. Other times I think about how much easier life would be if I wasn't so afraid of it ending."

What I'm proud of: "My type of breast cancer unfortunately has a less positive prognosis than others. Choosing a preventative right mastectomy in addition to my necessary left mastectomy was extremely difficult, but I’m proud of myself for making that choice."

What I wish everyone knew: "I’m greatly saddened when I hear that a woman was encouraged to end her pregnancy because her doctors were unaware that chemotherapy and surgery can be done during pregnancy. Also, too many people focus only on the acute phase of cancer treatment and forget that life is never completely normal again for a cancer survivor. It might get a little easier as time goes by, but it's always in the back of a survivor's mind, influencing her decisions, for better or for worse."

by PAMELA GROSSMAN Women'sheath.


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