22 Women Share the Powerful Lessons They’ve Learned Through Breast Cancer

Breast cancer is the most commonly diagnosed cancer among American women, affecting approximately 1 in 8 over the course of her lifetime. Thankfully, as a result of improved breast cancer treatment and early detection, fewer women are dying from breast cancer—37 percent fewer, to be exact. But it’s still a serious problem.

Most of us can say we have a mother, aunt, sister, cousin or friend who’s been given a breast cancer diagnosis at some point. One thing all these women have in common, aside from cancer, is an incredibly powerful and unyielding strength, determination and passion to not only survive, but live—even more than they did before breast cancer came into their life.

In honor of breast cancer awareness month, here are a few of their inspiring stories.

Most, if not all, problems can be solved by three little words: ‘I am sorry’


“I have terminal stage 4 breast cancer and was diagnosed 13 and a half years ago. When I look into the beautiful blue eyes of my daughters, I see two young women who were robbed of their innocence at ages 11 and 13, a time when they should have been rebelling and fighting for independence. Instead, they were clinging to the big scary reality that I might not stick around. Their whole young lives have been infused with emotional pain.

One thing I want to leave with them is how to say three very important words: ‘I am sorry.’ In the past, when people would say or do something I didn’t like, I wouldn’t say anything—not a wise strategy coming from a psychologist, but I grew up in a house with a lot of yelling and fighting so I avoid conflict like the plague.

But since my diagnosis, I’ve been less willing to let things slide. Two close friends did something that really hurt me, and I confronted them about it. Neither one apologized or said, ‘I am sorry.’ One even said she was waiting for me to get over it. This isn’t a sign of caring or empathy. Maybe my cancer was inconvenient, but they took flight and left. So for my daughters, Kelsey and Bridget: If you hurt someone, accidentally or intentionally, always apologize first. Say, ‘I am sorry’ or ask, ‘How can I fix this?’ This will help at work, in love, with family and friends.”

— Barbara Bigelow, blogger at The Cancer Chronicles

There’s no limitation to what you can be grateful for


“You have a choice when you’re diagnosed: You can either feel sorry for yourself and ask the question ‘why me?’ or you can face it head-on and be positive. When I had my first operation to remove the offending tumor, I also had an x-ray to make sure the cancer hadn’t spread to my chest. Thankfully it hadn’t, and I was ecstatic. I didn’t have lung cancer, just breast cancer.

Having breast cancer gave me the time to write my first book, to discover who my true friends are, to be grateful for having hair. I was even happy to see my armpit hair return after chemo and leave behind that plucked-chicken look all chemo patients get. It taught me to turn a negative into a positive and find miracles everywhere.”

Sara Stewart, owner of PR and marketing company, Mad as a March Hare, and author of Whilst I Was Out

Breast cancer survivors are exceptionally giving individuals


“As a caregiver and supporter, I’ve lost three dear friends to breast cancer and made new ones along the way. I’ve learned that this disease tends to afflict the kind of loving, concerning women who care for others, sometimes at the expense of caring for themselves. My most recent book features the award-winning photography of my late friend, Monica Schwartz Baer, illustrated by the lyrics of a song she asked me to write.

Not long after its publication, I met my friend Cindy Sheridan Murphy, a triple-negative breast cancer survivor, who wanted to use the song for a video about her breast cancer story. Our mutual desire to grow, understand, and reach out to support and inspire survivors and their loved ones sparked a partnership and friendship. Cindy’s fierce drive to find purpose in life through coaching other survivors is an essential part of her healing.

She continues to give openly and has a heart of gold, as did my friends Monica, Annie and Ginny, who’ve passed on. Through loving these women, I’ve come to see a different side of breast cancer.”

—Debra Lynn Alt, singer, writer and author

You’re stronger than you think


“I’ve never had to keep going through something so hard and so long as breast cancer. I was literally fighting for my life. Absorbing the physical and mental agony of cancer is a challenge unlike any other. Take chemotherapy, for example. The first day you walk in and prepare yourself. But that’s it; after that, your body knows what’s coming. You’re finishing one round—sick, delirious, suffering—and already anticipating the next.

Getting in the car for the drive is a lesson in distraction. Turn the radio up, blast the music, and psych yourself out for what you know will be another blow to your very being. But after making it through chemo, surgery, radiation and more chemo, I know I can face anything. I’m stronger now mentally than I have ever been. And I’m grateful for that.”

—Laura Holmes Haddad, author of This is Cancer: Everything You Need to Know, from the Waiting Room to the Bedroom

I no longer let fear rule my life


“We all have 3 a.m. freak outs, when we wake up in a panic over what comes next. I’d be lying if I said mine were always about breast cancer. Long before I was diagnosed, I was a worrier—a driven, type A, nothing-is-ever-good-enough worrier. I never defined it as fear, as that would show weakness. I suspect I just thought it was part of my DNA, something that drove my success.

My mindset was, ‘I’ll be happy when this happens,’ or ‘If I can just reach this goal, I’ll be content.’ Even when I was first diagnosed, I thought, ‘What a bother that I have to put these annoying chemo treatments on my calendar. I don’t have time for this.’ It wasn’t until the cancer came back a second and third time that I knew the truth. I wasn’t some super confident over-achiever. I needed control because I was scared and so afraid of failure that I never enjoyed a step of the journey beyond looking at it as a necessary pass-through to something better.

The day I laid on a CT scanner and heard that the cancer had returned after five years, but this time in my lung, everything changed. It was a punch to the gut I wasn’t expecting, but one that finally knocked the fear goggles off my eyes. I remember it like it was a movie—walking out into the waiting room, grabbing my husband’s hand and bolting for the door.

When we got to the car, the only words that came to my lips were, ‘I’m not spending whatever time I have left in fear.’ That day, as awful as it was, has led me to a life I could have never imagined. I found the most wonderful book, Love Is Letting Go of Fear, by Jerry Jampolsky. It taught me how replace the fear goggles with a lens of love. Now, almost 10 years later, I don’t look over my shoulder anymore—I live the moment.”

—Donna Deegan, three-time breast cancer survivor, author, journalist and founder of The DONNA Foundation

 My support network was much stronger than I thought


“I knew I had a wonderful, loving family and caring friends before my diagnosis, but what I didn’t realize was how deep, solid and wide that support network really was. I learned that people want to show their support, love and prayers. They want to share their hugs, kindness and offer creative ways to help. I was so astounded and touched by all the things people did for me, that I wrote a book, 39 Things to Make A Cancer Patient Smile, outlining those terrific ideas. My hope is that everyone diagnosed with cancer has people surrounding them with love and support like I did.”

—Susan Reif,  eight-year breast cancer survivor and author

Sometimes even the hardest of times can make us stronger


“In late January 2009, I went for my annual mammogram and ultrasound required for my ‘dense’ breast tissue—the kind that’s four to six times more likely to become infected with cancer. No matter the outcome of the pathology, my cancer was detected so early that in my logical mind I knew I’d be fine. This didn’t stop the phases of grief from coming, but it did make them less scary. I had a positive attitude from the start and stayed that way throughout treatment.

My first dread after the initial shock was that it was going to be like 9/11 all over again—and I just finished thanking people for their support. The drama of being a 9/11 widow now diagnosed with breast cancer would be almost too much for people to believe. I didn’t want to seem unappreciative, but I just wanted to hide. But again people were so generous and thoughtful. Friends brought dinner for weeks, to the point where I was actually tired of receiving. I was grateful, gracious and appreciative but just couldn’t receive anymore. While cancer was not something I ever wanted or needed, it turned out to be one of the greatest gifts.

Again a struggle, challenge or trauma rendered an even deeper insight, a more profound understanding of the courage, strength and resilience we’re born with as human beings. Again with gratitude and humility, I’m much better for having lived it.”

—Lisa Luckett, 9/11 widow, breast cancer survivor and entrepreneur

Don’t settle for anything—go out and find what you really want


“I remember with startling clarity, the terror, panic and disbelief I felt when I was diagnosed with breast cancer. I knew it would be life-altering, and that I’d have to use all my mental, physical and spiritual resources to win the battle. I hoped my then-husband would support me, even though my marriage was troubled before the cancer. Once I started my year of treatment—enduring chemotherapy, surgery, more chemotherapy and radiation, and becoming more and more debilitated—my husband became angry, verbally abusive and even more distant. He forced me to make the journey towards recovery alone. After treatment, I tried to save our marriage, but as the days and months passed, I realized I was still stuck in a loveless, empty relationship. Surviving cancer taught me that if I wanted to fully live and find the love I’d always searched for, I’d have to take risks and be fully present.

I mustered up the courage to divorce my husband and reconnected with a man I’d fallen in love with 30 years prior, who had always remained in the back of my mind and heart. I took the risk of calling him and telling him what I’d gone through—cancer, divorce and all. He said he was also in the midst of divorce, which prompted me to say, ‘Well I’ve been in love with you for 30 years, so can I have a turn now?’ Amazingly, his response was, ‘Would you like to go to London?’ With those simple words, a new journey towards a full life began. I finally realized my dream of finding a partner who filled my heart and soul with endless, boundless love, and we were married a few years later. Now, not a single day goes by without my husband telling me how much he loves me and thanking me for being in his life.”

—Maxine Noel

Our breasts are an important part of our identity and femininity


“As a bra fitter, I’ve helped thousands of women shop for undergarments. One of my favorite clients was an elderly woman who’d undergone a bilateral mastectomy after her battle with breast cancer. She was petite, kind and nervous, and whispered to me that it had been a while since she’d last worn a bra. I asked what kind of bra she was looking for and she said, ‘Something pretty.’

While I took her measurements, her husband waited patiently in the middle of the shop. I asked if he wanted to take a walk or wait outside, but he declined and said he’d wait for her inside. I could see how much this appointment meant to him, because of how much it meant to her. I found a few bras in her size and brought them back for her to try on. The first was slightly molded with a deep plunge, soft material, dainty straps and a small floral appliqué in a cherry color. I fastened it around her torso, adjusted the straps and let her take in her reflection.

‘Oh!’ she gasped, ‘It’s beautiful. I’m beautiful. I just never thought I could feel like a woman again. Thank you!’ In all my years of bra fitting, I’ve had quite a few women cry in the fitting room, but this was the first time I unapologetically let myself cry.

Each of the women I help find a bra have unique stories and have taught me great lessons, especially those who’ve undergone breast cancer surgery. I’ve learned that what we wear on our bodies, especially on such an important part of our bodies as women, matters.”

—Kim “Kimmay” Caldwell, bra fitter, women’s advocate and owner of Hurray Media

It helped me find myself and learn what to value in life


“In truth, I had an amazing life before cancer. I had a successful business and a wonderfully supportive family. The problem was, I never clearly saw what was right in front of me. I was always worried about the future or living in the past. Cancer was a wake-up call. I’ve now learned that when we race through life from one task to the next, we miss the unfathomable beauty life has to offer. More importantly, we close ourselves off to life-changing connections and experiences. Cancer was never the enemy. This illness was not the thing that took me away from my family and life.

Instead, it was my inability to live in the present moment, focus on what truly mattered, and succumb to a peaceful presence that left me anxious and emotionally burdened. So what did I gain or learn from my cancer diagnosis? I think the raw and honest answer is, I lost many things in cancer but I found myself.”

—Melissa Weaver, three-year breast cancer “thriver,” clinical social worker, author and inspirational speaker

Cancer has taught me to be patient with loved ones


“At age 39, I was diagnosed with stage 3 triple-negative breast cancer. It was definitely a defining moment in my life. One thing I’ve learned is to cherish and be patient with your loved ones—to allow everyone time to heal from this life-changing event. Be patient with your significant other. Allow them time to heal and recover from the heavy process of your treatment. If your relationship was in a good place before cancer, it will be stronger after cancer. Enjoy the process of rediscovering intimacy again. You deserve happiness!”

Jamie S. Grant-Prater, six-year triple negative breast cancer survivor and graduate gemologist

People will surprise you with their goodness in a time of need


“I certainly had no gratitude for breast cancer when I got the diagnosis in January 2013, or when the doctors recommended radiation and chemotherapy. I didn’t have gratitude during or after the string of surgeries that eventually led to a double mastectomy. But something shifted a few weeks into my new life with cancer. My first feeling of gratitude came from friends and family who immediately stood by my side. Then tiny glimpses came from acquaintances who asked how they could help and a stranger who sent me dessert with a message saying she was ‘sorry for the struggles I had’ when she overheard my dinner table discussion with friends.

When I received the news that I wouldn’t need the chemo or the radiation after all, I couldn’t deny it. I had a lot to be grateful for. And in feeling gratitude, life seems to be a lot more fulfilling than it once was. There’s a subtle shift and things don’t seem as serious when you’ve faced the thought you might never be the same again. You realize everyone struggles and that you’re never alone—that each day is truly a gift. I’m grateful cancer brought blessings to me and even more grateful that I get to live more days with this gratitude.”

—Erin Manning, three-year survivor, Walk With Sally mentor and holistic healing practitioner

Cancer gave me the insight and courage to start my company


“After surviving cancer I became fearless. I wanted to make a difference, help other women and leave a legacy. I used the courage I mustered to fight my cancer to start my business of wicking sleepwear for women who sleep too hot. Now, 12 years later, I’ve helped over 100,000 women get a better night’s sleep. I design with the breast cancer patient in mind, soft wicking fabrics and no buttons for sensitive skin due to radiation or surgeries. I use models who are survivors or their daughters, sisters or friends to show that we’re connected and beautiful in the world of cancer.”

—Haralee Weintraub, 14-year breast cancer survivor and CEO of Haralee.Com sleepwear

Cancer can’t destroy beauty


“I can’t honestly say I’m one of the women who’s survived breast cancer and feels that it turned out to be the best thing that ever happened to her. I’m just recovering from my seventh surgery now after more than a three-year journey due to serious complications. I’m looking forward to fulfilling dreams I put aside as I marched to the medical beat. I’m a daughter to a mother who died of breast cancer when I was three, and learned at a tender age to be a strong survivor. I was in a 5 percent category by having breast cancer in both breasts indicating a genetic disposition. I’m just on the other side of multiple surgeries, countless doctor appointments and tests all resulting in my being deeply aware that it’s a miracle to be alive.

It’s the fact that I’m a seeker of beauty, and even in the worst times of pain, I noticed beauty all around me. I’ve held moments like hummingbirds sitting on my hand taking nectar as visual frames to call upon. It’s also due to a few devoted friends that never left my side, as well as being a curious person who longs to know what else there might be in life ahead of me that I fiercely move forward frame by beautiful frame.” 

—Valerie Burns, makeover specialist for home & wardrobe, writer and graduate from Hollywood School of Hard Knocks.

I am responsible for my own happiness


“The first time I had breast cancer was in 1987, when I was 32. The second time was in 2010, when I was 55. Each time I learned different things.The first time I wasn’t sure I’d survive, so I really took a close look at my mortality. I decided if I did survive, I’d add ‘meaning’ to my life. I wasn’t sure at the time what that meant, but I felt that no one would care if I died. I was single with no children and, sure, some family and friends would mourn, but no one depended on me. I hadn’t made a difference in anyone’s life. It lead me to my current profession as a tobacco treatment specialist. Yet that wasn’t enough, because I fell into a deep depression.

I kept looking for a counselor to give me ‘the answer’ as to why I wasn’t happy. I made the decision that I was the only one who really knew what would make me happy. That each day I had a choice: either be depressed or make positive changes. It started with small things, like just enjoying a cup of coffee or buying myself flowers. It worked and, as my life got better, I got the travel bug. Now I’ve been to over 30 different countries and have had the most incredible experiences.

The second time I got breast cancer, I learned how to be vulnerable and allow others to help me. I’ve always been so independent, but now I allow others to help. This new attitude did bring love into my life, which I thought would never happen at my age. While that relationship lasted only two years, I still learned for myself that love is possible.”

—VJ Sleight, two-time breast cancer thrivor and tobacco treatment specialist

My mission is stronger than my cancer


“When I was initially diagnosed, it felt like a near-death experience. I was told I had stage 2 triple-negative breast cancer (an aggressive, unusual kind), a 25 percent chance of it being terminal with treatment and 50 percent without. I had to have a lumpectomy, chemotherapy and radiation and would lose all my hair for a year. I was scared because my kids were one and three years old at that time.

I went for a walk on the beach to pray and got a message that I’d be okay, but that I had a legacy of 22 books left to write. I was so happy to get clear guidance that I didn’t even mind the almost unimaginable idea of writing 19 more books (I’d already written three) during treatment and while working. I decided self-publishing would be the fastest way to go, so I taught myself how and began writing. It became my way of empowering others, a means to leave my message behind and do something positive during all that time in the hospital. Today, four years later, I’m publishing book number 21 (out of 22), and feeling great.”

—Paulette Sherman, psychologist, breast cancer survivor and author of The Book of Sacred Baths

Women are unstoppable, especially when we stand by each other


“I was diagnosed with breast cancer at the age of 42. If anyone had told me that the diagnoses, 28 rounds of chemotherapy and what seemed like endless surgeries would turn into a blessing, I wouldn’t have believed them. But that’s just what happened. Through the faith and determination of the women in my life who stood by me day after day, month after month, I learned that I was worthy and got back the voice I ‘d lost years before.

The phone call from the breast specialist came at a time when fear and insecurities had taken over my very existence. I had just undergone a year of arm surgeries and medical misdiagnosis that left me in bed, in pain and with a fused right arm. My cancer diagnosis felt like just another tragedy. I felt hopeless and afraid of this deadly disease and was terrified of the ramifications it would inflict, not just on my life, but the lives of my loved ones, especially my children.

My first reaction was to quit and even take my life. I thought if I was going to die from this cancer then why go through more pain or put my family through more suffering? I didn’t die. I got through the mental anguish, the chemotherapy and the surgeries. But today I’m stronger. I’m filled with self love and I got back the self worth I had lost. It didn’t happen overnight, but I’m proud to say it happened.”

—Christine Handy, breast cancer survivor and author of Walk Beside Me

Don’t let the fear of the unknown keep you from living


“I don’t have many memories from when my mom had cancer because I was only seven, but I do remember being scared that I would someday have cancer. I’ll never forget her response when I told her my fear: ‘By the time you’re old enough to get breast cancer, they’ll have found a cure.’ Fifteen years later, I’m now old enough to develop breast cancer, and sadly there’s still no cure. But we’re getting there. Several years after my mom beat cancer, her doctors discovered she was positive for the BRCA1 gene, which then explained the generations of young women in my family who’d received a breast cancer diagnoses.

When I turned 20, I started seeing an oncologist, genetic counselor and gynecologist twice a year. The first time I was terrified. I didn’t know if they’d tell me I definitely carried the gene, or if they’d recommend I have an immediate mastectomy. It felt like an impending death sentence. Instead, I left extremely educated about my situation, and felt relieved to know I was in good hands and being watched. I’ve watched my mom live her life grateful that she beat cancer, that she’s lived longer than her mom, and has made the best of knowing that some day her cancer might come back.”

—Mary Stankiewicz, daughter and granddaughter of cancer survivors

Make time to slow down for butterflies


“Once a friend told me, ‘You’re the only person I know that slows down for butterflies.’ Technically that wasn’t true. Prior to my cancer, I would have slowed down for butterflies, but the problem was that I was so busy thinking about the things I needed to do that I didn’t see them. Today I see, not only butterflies, but all insects, birds, animals and all plant life as something that should be respected, treasured and cared for in a humane and sustainable way.”

—Amelia Kirchoff, founder of GoMacro

Going through the journey with my patients taught me to see the person, not just the patient


“As a physician and patient advocate, I’m extremely passionate about helping patients and their families through the hardest battles of their lives: the fight against cancer. Since I started working with breast cancer patients, my priorities in life and the way I practice medicine have changed. It’s made me look deeper into their eyes to understand what they’re going through, not only physically, but mentally and emotionally. It’s made me focus on them as individuals, not just on the cancer.

I can see through the mother’s eye how hard it is to think about her kids when going through treatment. It’s taught me how resilient a person can be. I look at priorities in my life differently now. I don’t dwell over trivial issues. I concentrate on what matters—my kids, my husband, my friends and my faith. It’s made me a stronger person with a bigger heart who appreciates life more.”

—Tania Cortas, breast cancer expert with Arizona Oncology

I became the strongest and best version of myself


“I vividly recall sitting on the floor of my shower with water and tears streaming down my face trying to figure out: Why me? On my son’s first birthday, I was diagnosed with breast cancer at 33. My life flashed before my eyes as I struggled with the question of whether or not I was ready to die. It didn’t take me long to conclude, that I was, in fact, not ready—I had a young child to live for! I knew I had to muster the strength to get out of the shower and take care of my family. But nine months of chemotherapy and a year of surgeries, first to remove my breasts and then reconstruct them, left me weak, bald and hopeless. I heard that food could have powerful healing attributes, so I decided to investigate and read everything I could get my hands on.

My journey lead me to convert to an all plant-based diet and a daily habit of drinking a green juice. The results were amazing and undeniable. I was so enthusiastic about my fountain of youth that after practicing corporate law for 18 years, I left my practice and began my mission to get a green juice into the hands of every American every single day, and Daily Greens was born. Breast cancer has forced me to pick myself up off that shower floor and push forward for my son.”

—Shauna R. Martin, founder and CEO of Daily Greens

Attitude is everything

“November 1 was the day my doctor called me to tell me I had breast cancer. Funny thing was that I had been running weekend camps for women, children and families who had been diagnosed will all types of cancers for years before that devastating phone call. Sitting around camp fires listening to the stories and concerns of the survivors gave me great insight into the cancer world. I learned the importance of a positive attitude—if you think you can’t get through it, you can’t. And if you think you can, your determination will get you though.

One day a woman told me, ‘I don’t know why people think I’m so courageous, I’m just doing whatever it takes to live. I don’t have a choice.’ What she didn’t realize is that she did have a choice. She chose to fight. It takes courage, and some days more than you can muster. During cancer I made a long list of things I would never complain about again if I could only have the opportunity to do them again—like raising my arms above my head, doing dishes, vacuuming a floor, driving a car…the list was endless. Thirteen years after my second diagnoses, I’m still grateful to get up each morning and do simple things others take for granted.”

—Peggie D. Sherry, two-time survivor who runs a camp for women, children and families touched by cancer


Jenn Sinrich is an editor in New York City, a self-proclaimed foodie always looking for the healthier version of all recipes, a passionate lover of all things cheese, a friendly New Yorker, Bostonian at heart and proud Red Sox fan. Love cats? Cheese? Mac n' Cheese? Follow her on Twitter and Instagram.