Life Lessons from Breast Cancer Survivors

These women say breast cancer made them happier, braver, more inspired. But changing your life can happen without a health crisis. Use their lessons to live like a survivor, starting now. By Sunny Sea Gold, REDBOOK.

Say the love

"When I was going through chemotherapy, another survivor told me that breast cancer was the 'best thing she would never wish on anybody.' I now know what she means. Facing the possibility of dying freed me up from sweating the small stuff. Before breast cancer, I wasn't as forthcoming with my feelings toward my friends and family. Now I say what's in my heart. When a friend of mine was having a difficult time in her life, I told her how brave and courageous I thought she was. There's no reason why we shouldn't share these things with the people in our lives, even when no one is sick." --GRETA BESENDORFER, 42, diagnosed with Stage II breast cancer seven years ago

Tell people what you're going through

"Being a Southerner, I was taught that you don't put your business out in the street. So when I found out I had inflammatory breast cancer (IBC), I planned to keep it to myself. But as I started researching my illness, I realized how little information is out there. IBC creates swelling and redness but doesn't necessarily form lumps or show up on a mammogram or an ultrasound, so it's often caught very late. I'm a well-informed woman, and I'd never even heard of it! That made me angry. I decided to talk to everyone I knew about IBC. I told a roomful of sorority sisters; I told the almost-all-male board of a nonprofit I'm involved in, and asked them to go home and tell their wives; I even stood up in front of my church congregation one Sunday and asked them to spread the word. I felt that if talking could possibly save one other woman, it would be worth it. I am more open in general now--if you can discuss your breasts with perfect strangers, you can share anything." --THELMA M. SESSIONS, 60, diagnosed with Stage III breast cancer one year ago

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Laugh at it

"Obviously I didn't invite breast cancer into my life. But somehow, through it all, my husband and boys (5 and 3 at the time) and I never stopped laughing. My youngest was fond of pointing at random bald men in the grocery store and happily exclaiming, 'Hey! My mommy doesn't have hair either!' Another time we were in hysterics when I had to grab both sides of my wig to keep it from launching off my head while on a free-fall amusement-park ride. My cancer's gone and my hair's back, so the wig's been given away. But our ability to laugh together, even when things are scary and hard, is something we'll always hold onto." --LORIE LAVINSON, 41, diagnosed with Stage II breast cancer three years ago


Listen to your gut

"I felt a lump in 2010, went for a mammogram, and got a card in the mail saying everything was fine. But I had a nagging feeling that the report was wrong, that the lump I found was not okay. I could feel it every time I showered or put on a bra. It was tiny and hard like a pebble, and I knew it shouldn't be there. So I went in for another mammogram at a different center. The radiologist explained that my breasts were very dense, which makes mammos difficult to read, so she wanted to do an ultrasound and biopsy the lump. The crazy thing is, those results came back fine too. But both my radiologist and my doctor didn't like the look of the lump and wanted to take it out. Further tests showed the tumor was Stage I breast cancer. Their intuition and mine saved me. I'm living proof that if you trust your instincts--in health matters, at work, in relationships--it can truly change your life." --JAMIE MACH, 44, diagnosed with Stage I breast cancer six months ago


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Don't be a "someday" person

"Before my diagnosis, my husband and I hadn't taken a vacation in more than three years. Part of it was not wanting to spend the money, but it was also that we were set in our routine. As soon as my chemo and radiation treatments were over, we did it: We took our dream trip with our son to Disney World and had the time of our lives. Before cancer, we were always saying we wanted to do things 'someday,' but never following through. Now I know that it makes no sense to wait. If you want to do something, do it now." --LAUREN MAGLIARO, 34, diagnosed with Stage II breast cancer three years ago


Be honest with your kids

"When I found out I had breast cancer, naturally I was devastated--for me and for my daughters, who were 15 and 13 at the time. My initial thoughts were of doom and gloom: that I wouldn't see my children grow to be successful young women, get married, and have children of their own. The next was how to break this news to them. Instead of keeping things from them so they wouldn't worry, my husband and I decided to be really, really honest. And you know what? They took everything in stride, even the chemotherapy treatments, the tubes, and the IVs. Children, especially older ones, can sense when you're being secretive, and it can make them insecure. So why not treat them with the respect they deserve, and tell them the truth?"--GINA LUNA, 47, diagnosed with Stage III breast cancer six years ago

Start over any time

"I didn't pick my birth date, and I will be equally powerless over my last date on earth. But it took breast cancer to make me realize that I have all the power over what happens in between. As soon as I woke up from mastectomy surgery, I knew my purpose: to help save lives in the African-American community, because survival rates for us are much lower than for any other ethnicity. Then I got scared. I thought, I'm too shy. I don't have enough money to start an organization, or a college degree. Other people didn't help when they told me my idea wasn't necessary, and that I didn't speak well enough to pull it off. I formed the Sisters Network of Central New Jersey with three other survivors 13 years ago, then went back to school, graduated cum laude with my bachelor's degree, and took public speaking classes. All year we host events at churches, schools, and companies, educating African-American girls about their risks and prevention. People said I couldn't fulfill my mission, but I knew I could." --DOROTHY REED, 59, diagnosed with Stage II breast cancer 14 years ago

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Cut yourself a break!

"I have what's known as 'chemo brain'--a sort of brain fog some chemo patients get. For some people, it fades quickly; for others, it lingers for years, even decades. I seem to be in the latter group, and to be frank, I do some pretty dumb stuff. Phones in the refrigerator, milk containers in the cupboard, trouble figuring out simple math. I used to be really tough on myself, but eventually I accepted this as the unfortunate fallout of living through a cancer diagnosis. The key word: living. I've learned to use work-around solutions: to-do lists, iPhone calendar alarms for every last appointment, always keeping my keys in the same spot. It's still a bit frustrating when I dangerously leave a burner lit on the stove after dinner. But instead of beating myself up, I remind myself that I've got a microwave and can use that instead--hey, it's easier anyway. The title of the classic breast cancer memoir by Betty Rollin, First, You Cry, is spot-on. Yes, first you cry, but it's what you do next that determines the rest of your life." --ANNEMARIE CICCARELLA, 55, diagnosed with Stage I breast cancer six years ago

Take a stand

"My mother died of breast cancer when I was 15; she had found a lump, but hadn't done anything about it. So when I felt one at 39, I rushed to see my ob/gyn. I asked for a mammogram, but he told me it was nothing to worry about--that if I'd just be patient, it would go away. A week later the lump was still there, so I went back, asking for it to be tested. He actually rolled his eyes! All I could think of was my mother. Refusing to let history repeat itself, I said, 'I will go straight out to the waiting room and tell everyone that even though my mother died of breast cancer and I have a lump, you won't give me a prescription for a mammogram.' Within a minute, I had the script in hand, and the proof that women need to be our own best advocates in life." --SANDRA STERNSTEIN, 44, diagnosed with Stage II breast cancer four years ago

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