Survivor Stories 2014:
1. How did you first find out you had cancer?
I first found out though a routine mammogram. I had been getting them since I was 40; I was diagnosed with breast cancer at 49.
2. How did you react when you heard the news?
I was shocked. I immediately jumped to the worst-case scenario. The first thing I asked my Kaiser Permanente oncologist was, “Am I going to die from this?” She told me, “No, you’re not going to die from this.” I needed information, and once I started getting information I started making a plan. There’s an awful lot of disbelief, especially because you hear about so many false positives, and I was really relatively healthy.
3. What course of treatment were you prescribed?
We did the lumpectomy first. My doctors checked in the lymph nodes and there was nothing there, so at that point I thought, “Okay, I got off really easy.” Further testing showed I didn’t have to do chemotherapy. After the surgery, I went on Tamoxifen, and will be on it for five years. I don’t have any issues with it at all. With my treatment also came the radical diet change. I stopped eating processed foods, lowered my intake of animal products, and stopped drinking alcohol. I took up pilates. How I feed myself and take care of myself really went from putting myself last on the list to putting myself first on the list. That’s the gift that cancer gave me: I’m healthier now than I have been in decades. It takes a wakeup call.
4. What most surprised you about your treatment?
I was surprised at the community. You become part of the cancer community, and at first you don’t want to be part of that community. I was surprised by the support I felt. The people who took care of me, they’re just so good at it. Kaiser Permanente does a beautiful job at providing emotional support, great surgeons, great follow-up. The facility made it as painless as possible to get in and get out. I was surprised that it went so easily, and also at how well I healed. That came from the nutrition. I just refused to be a victim. I felt like I was able to work my own form of healing – through nutrition, meditation, reading – within the treatment plan from Kaiser. They went hand-in-hand together.
5. What would your advice be to anyone who’s just received a cancer diagnosis?
Don’t panic. Slowly get the information, and be compassionate with yourself. You’ve been stopped in your tracks. Reaching out to people and finding your support system is so important – and the goal is to have that support system in place before you’re in crisis.
When I got cancer, my community supported me. The other advice I have is to look for the gift in the hardship. Every hardship brings some kind of gift. No, you don’t want to go through this, and no, it’s not pleasant or fun, but think of it this way: what can we take away from this experience that makes us better people? That we can offer back to the world? Find a way of processing the experience that gives it value.
6. How long have you been cancer free?
It will be three years in November. I just got my mammogram and it was clean!
7. What lessons did you learn from the experience?
I learned that I am stronger and tougher and more resilient than I ever thought I was. I learned that in the face of crisis, I will not crumble, and I have the tools to navigate tough things that I didn’t know I had. I’m proud of the work that I’ve done in my life. There are times where I’d start to panic and I told myself, “Stop it.” That’s a spiritual muscle you have to flex, to say, “I’m not going to go into this panic or fear. I am not going to go into this space.” I was surprised I was able to do that because I’ve always feared vulnerability. I’ve always had the fear of getting sick and leaving my children. I’m stronger than I thought I was.
8. If you could send one message to all the Good Enough Mothers out there – what would it be?
Have compassion for yourself everyday. Mothers are trying so hard to be the best they can be. And if you could talk to yourself the way you talk to somebody that you love instead of this constant measuring voice – “Am I good enough? Is this enough?” – We could rest a little bit easier, and maybe relax just a little bit, and find that we are good enough.
Stephanie Bedwell is an artist, mother, educator and breast cancer survivor living in San Diego, Calif. She currently teaches at Mt. Helix Academy and Grossmont College, and serves as the Artist in Residence for a National Science Foundation-funded project, leading workshops that weave creative practice into innovation. Since her breast cancer diagnosis in 2011, Stephanie has empowered herself to celebrate life and her body through great nutrition, exercise, and maintaining a healthful environment. These changes have constructed for her a semblance of control that has made her healthier and, ultimately, happier.