#CancerCantStopMe: Inspiring Stories From Women Who've Faced Cancer
They took on cancer — and didn't stop there. Check out these amazing women's stories of triumph over illness.
These real women have done incredible things despite cancer — and sometimes even because of it. They wouldn't let the disease, treatments or other related complications stop them from reaching goals and achieving dreams. Has cancer inspired you to make a move and go for something big? Share your story with us on Instagram (@selfmagazine), Facebook, and Twitter (@SELFmagazine) with the hashtag #CancerCantStopMe, and check out more inspiring stories by following the #CancerCantStopMe hashtag.
Dana Stewart, 37, financial planner (Chicago) and Colleen Bokor, 30, nursing student, (Downers Grove, Ill.)
Dana developed breast cancer at 32; Colleen was diagnosed at 27.
What they've done: After cancer, longtime friends Dana and Colleen were inspired to take on a new challenge every day of 2015. They call their project Lifeitup365 and have been chronicling their adventures on Facebook using the hashtag #lifeitup365.
How it has helped: "2015 has been the most amazing year of our lives. Big challenges accomplished so far: Go to Ireland, see the Panama Canal, do a polar plunge, try indoor skydiving. And Colleen was inspired to change careers: she left the corporate world and started nursing school this fall!"
Jessica Queller, 45, writer/co-executive producer on ABC's "Blood & Oil" (Los Angeles)
Jessica tested positive for the BRCA-1 mutation at 34. Her mother was diagnosed with breast cancer at 51 and was able to beat it, but then developed ovarian cancer. She died less than two years later. Jessica’s gene mutation gave her up to a 90 percent chance of breast cancer and a 50 percent chance of ovarian cancer. Jessica was still reeling from the loss of her mom when she got the dismaying new of her genetic test results.
What she's done: Jessica discovered through research that her best option was to preemptively have her breasts and ovaries removed. She was single and yearned for a conventional family, so the idea of removing her breasts while she was still cancer-free felt outrageous — horrible, even. However, she decided to have a double mastectomy. She then went on to have a baby on her own (via sperm donor), and then followed the protocol to have her ovaries removed. She wrote a beautiful and touching book about her experience, "Pretty is What Changes."
What she learned: "Because it was not yet a common course of action to preemptively remove breasts and ovaries, I was invited on TV and radio shows to discuss my decision. More than once I was asked, 'Do people think that you're crazy?' I have since become a national advocate for high-risk women. Now, at 45, no one asks me if I'm crazy anymore. (Angelina Jolie helped make my choice mainstream.) I'm healthy and no longer have the terrible shadow of cancer looming over me. And my magnificent daughter, Sophie, just started kindergarten.”
Corey Wood, 23, recent graduate (Orange County, Calif.)
A week after she graduated from Berkeley, Corey found out she had lung cancer. She had never smoked had run several marathons with zero symptoms. Then she started noticing a small flashing in her right eye, which she mentioned to her doctor during an eye exam. Eventually, a scan showed tumors in her left lung, spine, hip bone, and a tiny one behind her eye (that’s what had been causing the flashing). Fortunately, she has able to take advantage of targeted therapies. She takes a pill and hasn’t needed chemo, and her recent scans are clear.
What she’s done: Corey took on white water kayaking in summer 2014 as part of Epic Experience, and she now volunteers with the group and leads expeditions. She’s also an active member of the LUNG FORCE initiative.
How it has helped: "Although I was initially apprehensive about rafting because I had tried it and didn’t like it, I’m more adventurous now. You go out each day, probably are in the water once every day for a few hours, in class 1-3 rapids. You get very nervous because you do flip your kayak — you're upside down, strapped in — but it ends up being ok. With the adrenaline, you have to focus on getting through that rapid rather than cancer or what’s waiting for you at home. It requires you to be very in the moment."
Dawn Nee, 46, criminal defense attorney, (Bordentown, N.J.)
After being diagnosed with breast cancer at 34, completing treatment, and going back to "normal," Dawn found out she has stage IV metastatic breast cancer. In 2012, her back went out, landing her in the ER. Her MRI showed lesions on the spine, ribs and a sternum that had been eaten into numerous pieces by a large mass. The ribs around her sternum all showed evidence of repetitive fractures and healing.
What she's done: Her wife suggested that she try cycling. Dawn started riding, and in 2014 her wife signed them up for the Tour de Pink. They plan to participate in this year's race, too.
How it helped: "I doubt I ever would have attempted a 200 mile bike ride had I not had cancer. I had never ridden more than seven miles. The first time out, I went four miles and started sobbing. But I kept at it, because I’d like to 'live' again. I'd like to see my daughter graduate high school. I did the 200 mile ride last year — I probably only finished 135 of those miles. It was the hardest thing I have ever done. I cried up every hill, and laughed down every hill. It was god-awful amazingly therapeutic and freeing. I came in last, on the last day, and I have never been more proud."
Christine Attia, 33, Strategic Communications and CM Consultant/Recruiting at Facebook (San Francisco)
Christine lost her fiancé, David, after his six-month battle with acute myeloid leukemia.
What she's done: After David's death, Christine sought out and found support with The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society (LLS). Her involvement with LLS through Team In Training has taken off in a way she never planned and helped her heal in a way she never expected. Just six months after David’s death, she participated in TNT with her brother and raised $20,000. Last year, Christine and her fundraising team, Team on Fire, raised more than $250,000 for AML research, all of which is dedicated in Dave's name.
How it helped: "I didn't know what to do, I just needed to run. I’d be bawling every time I’d get out there, thinking of Dave and knowing I could do nothing to bring him back. It was how I grieved."
Mary Craige, 39, fitness instructor (Springfield, Va.)
At 34, Mary was diagnosed with invasive ductal carcinoma. She found the lump during a routine self-exam. Her oldest son was then just seven months old (she was still nursing him). She was a very active mom, but cancer caused her to sideline fitness for chemo, radiation and surgeries over 10 months.
What she's done: Mary wanted to become a fitness instructor since she was 25. Last January, after hitting the five-year survival mark, she realized life was too short to wait to pursue her dreams. She signed up for the certification program with Les Mills BODYATTACK (a sports-inspired cardio workout). She passed in May and is now leading fitness classes and motivating others to exceed their limits.
How it helped: "This certification pushes me past pain and side effects I still deal with from cancer treatment. But even more, it has taught me that I can do anything, regardless of my medical history. I tell people all the time, 'Cancer doesn't define me.' And it doesn't. I work harder than the 20-somethings in my class because I know how precious life is and how important fitness and an active lifestyle are in order to stay healthy."
Amberly Wagner-Connolly, age 34, student, (Omaha, Neb.)
Amberly was diagnosed with breast cancer at 28, a few months after giving birth to twins. At that time, she was also raising a four-year-old and working as a nurse while studying for her master’s degree. Despite a double mastectomy and a year of treatment, she was still able to finish graduate school and land a faculty position teaching public health to nurses (she was bald at the time of her job interview).
What she’s done: Amberly is focusing on her lifelong dream to bring respite to parents who have been diagnosed with cancer. She’s a volunteer for a national organization called Camp Kesem (free camp for kids whose parents have cancer), and she serves on the local advisory board and the national parent committee. She’s pursuing her doctorate in nursing with a focus on global health (graduation is in sight!), and hopes to one day run a respite house that provides relief and services for parents with cancer and their children.
What it meant to her: "Going through cancer while raising young kids, I realized there’s a huge lack of resources for this very special population. I now have six kids, with another on the way (our family includes three post-cancer babies and I even adopted my niece this year). It's a crazy life I live, but having cancer as a young mom opened so many doors for me and made me brave enough to go after my dreams."
Alicia Rivera, 23, nursing student/medical office receptionist (Ozone Park, N.Y.)
What happened: At 18, Alicia found out she had pancreatic cancer. She had major surgery, and then had to learn to live without parts of her vital organs as well as to deal with the fear that cancer will come back.
What she’s done: Despite being a private person, Alicia started sharing her story as an active supporter of The Lustgarten Foundation and Cablevision's curePC awareness campaign. She also felt so grateful by the care she'd received and inspired by the medical professionals that she changed her major from psychology to nursing.
What she learned: "I was really nervous before I spoke for the first time at one of The Lustgarten Foundation’s Pancreatic Cancer Research Walks, but I wanted to serve as an example of hope and educate people about the fact that that there is no early detection test and about the importance of finding a cure for lethal disease. I believe that because there are so few survivors, it makes it even more important that my voice be heard. When I got up on the podium and looked out at the thousands of people gathered, I couldn’t help but think about how many had lost someone to pancreatic cancer or were currently battling the disease. I felt a responsibility to tell my story of survival. So many people came up to me and told me I was their hero! I never imagined that I could be someone’s hero at such a young age, and at first, it was hard to take in. Yet every time I hear it, I feel warm inside."
Robyn Brown, 37, middle school science teacher (Cedar City, Utah)
Robyn found out she had stage 3 breast cancer at 34.
What she’s done: Two years after her diagnosis, in October 2014, she signed up for the Young Survival Coalition’s Tour de Pink West Coast bike ride. Her four-person team raised over $8,000 for the YSC. She’s the state leader for Utah and started the first group here in Utah (she had three people on her team).
What it meant to her: "I felt amazing training for the 200 miles of cycling. I feel alive when I ride, especially going down the hills and mountains. My kids also saw their mom overcome the physical challenges that cancer brought to me. Cancer is hard, but it doesn’t change what I was inside."
Amanda Hynum, 32, formerly in film industry, now a student (Huntington Beach, Calif.)
Amanda was diagnosed with breast cancer at 30.
What she's done: Amanda has become an advocate in the breast cancer community, taking on projects she wouldn't have before cancer. She's participated in conferences for the Young Survivor's Coalition, educational opportunities (Project LEAD, by NBCC), and signed up for the 3-day Tour de Pink bike ride.
What it meant to her: "I have especially gone outside of my comfort zone by participating in two things: the first, posing for a pinup calendar of breast cancer survivors and the second, surfing alongside other young survivors with Camp Koru in Maui. Seriously, way, way outside of my comfort zone! I continue to push myself. I’m so excited for the future."
Lindsey Nathan O’Connor, 38, City of Milwaukee Department of Employee Relations (Milwaukee, Wisc.)
At 35, Lindsey was diagnosed with breast cancer.
What she's done: In August, Lindsey participated in her first triathlon, the Iron Girl in Pleasant Prairie, Wisc., and crossed the finish line with 47 other cancer survivors.
What it meant to her: "Cancer has taught me to take control of the things I can in life my life. I never thought I would ever do a triathlon. Then I told myself, I beat cancer, I can finish a triathlon! I have lost friends to this awful disease and have learned to live life until I die. I will not let cancer define me; it will only contribute to who I am today."
Jenna Erin Murray, 30, hairstylist (Yorba Linda, Calif.)
What happened: Jenna was diagnosed with breast cancer at 28.
What she's done: Jenna started her own company, Confessions of a Bald Girl, which provides women with headwraps and headband inspiration, how-tos, tips and products, as well as makeup tutorials for women who are losing their lashes and eyebrows. She’s also writing a book that highlights women’s inner “chemo fashionista.”
What she's learned: "Having this cancer has really put life into perspective for me. Just because you have cancer doesn't mean your life is ending. You may have to alter it a bit, but you can still be fashionable and you can still live life! I have learned that it’s better to embrace the journey than suppress it. Your relationships with God and everyone around you become deeper, and you may find your true meaning in this crazy world."
Michelle Minnette, 31, police officer (Soldotna, Ark.)
What happened: Michelle was diagnosed with breast cancer at 30, around the time she and her husband were trying to have a baby.
What she's done: Michelle froze embryos before she started chemotherapy, but she will be taking tamoxifen for the next 5-10 years and, even then, may not be able to conceive. Michelle and her husband were lucky enough to find someone willing to serve as their gestational surrogate, and recently transferred two embryos. On Michelle’s last day of chemo, they’re heading to Africa to check off some bucket list items: see the pyramids and swim in the Devil’s Pool at the top of Victoria Falls.
What it meant to her: "I'm so excited to see where this takes us and to finally be a mom! I wasn't going to let cancer stop me from achieving my dream. I feel so lucky and blessed that we were given this opportunity. It's been a very difficult year. I wanted to take a few weeks to treat myself, recharge, and explore a little bit more of the world while I had the chance, so that’s why we’re taking this big trip. Being diagnosed with cancer at a young age has given me a 'seize the day' type of attitude. I never want to take my time for granted again."
Tracie Lunatto, 33, waitress (Enid, Okla.)
What happened: Tracie was diagnosed with breast cancer at 32, but has had no sign of disease for almost two years.
What she's done: Tracie was rooted in St Louis her whole life until cancer. It was her comfort zone. Once she finished her treatments, she wanted to try living somewhere else, but had no idea where to go. Then she remembered a man she’d admired on Instagram. She made a move by "liking" a few of his photos. He then messaged her on the app to thank her. After talking back and forth for a month, Trace drove eight hours to meet him. She had vowed after cancer to just live her life, so she decided to leave Missouri, her job at a bank, her family and friends to move to a small town in Oklahoma to be with him. A year later, they’re engaged.
What she learned: "Cancer gave me courage to do something I never thought possible — leave home. I gained a love of my life and his two beautiful children because of cancer. Cancer made me open my mind to things. It made me continue to want to face my fears head-on. It made me want to see all the world I was missing by staying in my safety bubble."
Norma Lopez, 44, athletic training graduate student at California Baptist University (Bloomington, CA)
What happened: Norma was an undergrad student at CBU when she was diagnosed with breast cancer at 42, trying her hardest to complete her goal of applying to grad school. She was working part-time to support her family, and her mother had just finished her own treatment for breast cancer. Norma had to have surgery a few days after finals; her professors suggested she take an 'incomplete.'
What she's done: She crammed her finals into three days and graduated with honors. She'll now finish grad school in 2016 with a master's in athletic training. Norma plans on making it her mission to help cancer survivors get back to physical health post-treatment.
What it meant to her: "Having gone through cancer and five surgeries in one year, I am pretty close to not being fazed by any challenges. I strive to be the best and smile as much as possible while being a badass!"
Nancy Gulker, 45, community center coordinator (Palm Bay, Fla.)
What happened: Nancy was diagnosed with breast cancer at 42 and had no immediate family to support her. Her father had passed in 1993 from leukemia. Her brother committed suicide in 2010 and her mother died of lung cancer six months after that. Only a little over a year after, while she was still grieving, Nancy got her own diagnosis. Alone and trying to navigate the world of cancer, she was overwhelmed.
What she's done: Shortly after her treatment ended, she found Stupid Cancer, a support group specifically for young adults. She began volunteering for them and realized that her story could inspire and help others facing cancer. She decided to go back to school to get another master’s degree, in public health policy and programs. She's currently studying at the University of South Florida and has a 4.00 GPA.
What she learned: "It's been difficult going back to school after ten years and with the health issues that cancer treatment had left me with, but I know it will be worth it to be able to help advocate for people like me. I never thought I would be back in school at 45, but after surviving cancer, I realized I can do anything I set my mind to."
More From SELF:
• The Secret to Jessica Alba's Success
• 6 Important Things Everyone With Breasts Should Understand About Breast Cancer
• How to Get the Best Cancer Treatment
• What It’s Like to Be Me: I Tell People They Carry the “Cancer Gene”
Photo Credit: Courtesy of SELF