Cancer Stories: How Cancer Changed Joyce's Life
A cancer diagnosis is not something anyone would wish for. But for patients, survivors and the people closest to them, cancer can change their lives in profound ways they never thought possible.
For 52-year-old Joyce O’Brien of East Northport, New York, cancer put her on a path to self-discovery, gratitude, and healing.
The first sign of cancer
When she was 33 and the mother of an 8-month-old daughter, Joyce was breastfeeding when she discovered a clogged milk duct and a lump in her breast. “If I hadn’t been nursing, I wouldn’t have even known to look for it,” she recalls.
Her doctor suspected the lump was cancer and after Joyce underwent testing, she received the devastating news: she had stage 2B, grade 3 breast cancer located in three out of four quadrants. “It was a complete shock,” she says. “It didn’t make any sense to me.”
Undergoing chemotherapy & a new cancer diagnosis
Joyce underwent chemotherapy, a mastectomy and a TRAM flap reconstruction—a procedure in which a flap of skin, fat, and muscle in the lower abdomen is used to reconstruct the breast.
Shortly thereafter, she lost her job, and for a short amount of time, her health, disability, and life insurance. Joyce and her husband Kevin (the couple is now separated), were also on the verge of losing their home. As if things couldn’t get worse, Kevin, who had already suffered a brain hemorrhage, multiple strokes and had been paralyzed, was diagnosed with stage 3b malignant melanoma and was given a 20 to 30 percent chance of survival.
A new cancer tumor & round to fight
As Kevin underwent a treatment via a clinical trial, Joyce was successfully treated and cancer-free when she discovered another lump. “The doctors had been telling me for a year that it was nothing to worry about and that it was just scar tissue,” she says.
When the lump increased in size, however, Joyce went back to her doctor and had a biopsy. A few hours after the procedure, she was sitting at her kitchen table at home with her 3-year-old daughter nearby. “The biopsy came back and it’s malignant,” her doctor explained.
“I put my head in my hands and I just was in shock and I started crying,” she recalls. “How can I possibly make it through this again? ” she said to herself.
This time she had stage 4 breast cancer and doctors told her there was nothing they could do to save her. Yet she refused to accept that fate and leave her daughter without a mother.
“I remember the next day getting on my knees and praying to God and saying, God, I’m not meant to die. I know I’m here for a reason,” according to Joyce. "I knew that I had two choices: I could either accept what they were telling me or I could choose to live."
The road to cancer remission
Joyce decided to see Kevin’s oncologist who was willing to treat her. She underwent two surgeries to remove the cancer, as well as radiation, along with chemotherapy and trastuzumab.
Then, she and Kevin saw a group of holistic practitioners and started making diet changes such as eating raw green vegetables, juicing and cutting out all sugars and grains, and taking supplements.
“When we have something happen to us…at a physical level, it’s really just a wake-up call,” she explains. “It’s our body trying to get our attention so that we can start really being able to look at what we need to change in our life and the things we need to do differently.”
She also realized she needed to change her mindset because it was negative and toxic. “There was a lot of negative self-talk and I was really hard on myself,” she says. “I learned to be kind, gentle and forgiving of myself as well as other people.”
An inspiration for patients with cancer & living cancer free
Although she had previously had a successful career on Wall Street, the long hours took a toll on her. She realized it was important for her to do work she loved, so she shifted her career to become an inspiration for patients with cancer and those facing chronic health conditions. “It’s important for us to feel fulfilled and [have] something in our life that is giving us that feeling of being fulfilled,” she says. Joyce is now a speaker and author of a book about her cancer journey, “Choose to Live.”
Joyce also addressed other areas of her life that she felt were key to her ultimate recovery. She sought guidance on personal growth so she could work on healing past emotional traumas, resolve conflict and create healthy personal relationships. She also worked on strengthening her her spiritual connection and made a commitment to living a full, purposeful life. “I was on a path to heal every single aspect of my life and make my life the best it could possibly ever be.”
Today, Joyce and Kevin are cancer-free. Although that journey was difficult, Joyce says she feels thankful for the changes that she made in her life. “It was the best thing that could have happened to me,” she says.
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