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Everyone affected by breast cancer knows the physical hardship it can bring. What’s less commonly talked about, but also important, is how breast cancer affects patients’ and survivors’ mental health.
The rigors of treatment breast cancer treatment — while life-saving — are difficult, leaving many women depressed, anxious, or feeling alone. From anxiety about the future, to the stress of treatment, it’s totally normal to feel a mix of intense emotions after a breast cancer diagnosis. To help us better understand how to cope with the mental and emotional impact of breast cancer, Abigail “Abbie” Letts O’Brien joins the podcast. Abbie has enjoyed a two decade career in higher education and hospital fundraising, including five years supporting the hospital which treated her for breast cancer. She is the author of the blog My Life in Pink, www.mylifein.pink.
Abigail “Abbie” Letts O’Brien was born and raised in the suburbs of Philadelphia, PA. She holds a BA in English from Gettysburg College and a MSEd in Higher Education Management from the University of Pennsylvania. In 2000, she relocated to Connecticut. Abbie has enjoyed a two decade career in higher education and hospital fundraising, including five years supporting the hospital which treated her for breast cancer.
In 2012 at the age of 35, Abbie was diagnosed with stage IIB breast cancer and underwent chemotherapy, a double mastectomy and radiation. In May 2018, Abbie’s cancer returned with metastases to her spine and pelvic bones.
Abbie currently resides in West Hartford, CT with her husband of 15 years and their three children, Jack, Elin and Van.
She is the author of the blog My Life in Pink, www.mylifein.pink.
Abbie also maintains exceptional talents in sarcasm and stubbornness, and she is deeply passionate about the US Women’s National soccer team, the Philadelphia Eagles, the Red Sox, Taylor Swift, the Avett Brothers and 2018’s “A Star is Born”.
Speaker 1: [00:00] Thank you to Sideways Eight for sponsoring this podcast.
Adam: [00:07] From Susan G Komen, this is Real Pink, a podcast exploring real stories, struggles, and triumphs related to breast cancer. We’re taking the conversation from the doctor’s office to your living room.
Adam: [00:20] Everyone affected by breast cancer knows the physical hardship it can bring. What’s less commonly talked about, but also important is how breast cancer affects patients and survivors mental health. A history of mental illness can be exacerbated by a breast cancer diagnosis and the rigors of treatment while lifesaving are difficult, leaving many women depressed, anxious, or feeling alone. From anxiety about the future to the stress of treatment, it’s totally normal to feel a mix of intense emotions after breast cancer diagnosis. To help us better understand how to cope with the mental and emotional impact of breast cancer I want to walk them to the show Abbie Letts O’Brien.
[00:57] Abbie was born and raised in the suburbs of Philadelphia. She holds a BA in English from Gettysburg College and an MSED in higher education management from the University of Pennsylvania. Abbie has enjoyed a two-decade career in higher education and hospital fundraising, including five years supporting the hospital which treated her for breast cancer. In 2012 at the age of thirty-five, Abbie was diagnosed with stage 2B breast cancer and underwent chemotherapy, a double mastectomy, and radiation. In May of 2018, Abbie’s cancer returned with metastases to her spine and pelvic bones.
[01:32] Abbie currently resides in West Hartford, Connecticut with her husband of fifteen years and their three children, Jack, Ellen, and Van. She’s the author of the blog, “My life in Pink”, www.mylifein.pink. Abbie also maintains exceptional talents in sarcasm and stubbornness. She is deeply passionate about the US women’s national soccer team, the Philadelphia Eagles, the Red Sox, Taylor Swift, the Avett brothers and 2018s A Star is Born. Abbie, welcome to the show.
Abbie: [02:01] Thank you, Adam.
Adam: [02:02] I like the end of the bio, the best. Specifically the stubbornness, the sarcasm in like the many things you are very passionate about.
Abbie: [02:10] Yes, it is.
Adam: [02:10] It’s not just one thing, it’s not just one team, it’s the series of things. I imagine you’re very busy keeping up with all these teams and everything.
Abbie: [02:20] In nine days we’re heading to France to go to the women’s World Cup so…
Adam: [02:24] What! Oh, that’s amazing. That sounds excellent. Where is it being held in France?
Abbie: [02:29] All over seven or eight different locations, but we are going to station ourselves in Paris.
Adam: [02:33] I mean if you’re going to station yourself anywhere in the world that’s probably a good place to station yourself.
Abbie: [02:39] I think so.
Adam: [02:39] So I love that. I love that. Well, Abbie, I can’t wait to hear more of your sarcasm and maybe some of your stubbornness and so let’s dive in. I’ve got a whole bunch of questions I’m very curious about, so the first thing, can you just tell us a little bit more about your story? So I gave your overview in the bio, just fill in the gaps for us a little bit.
Abbie: [02:56] So in October of 2012 I was resting on a Saturday afternoon with my almost one-year-old son. He was napping on my chest and I had a dream that my breasts hurt and I found a lump. So in November, I went in for a mammogram and an ultrasound and nine days later I was in chemotherapy for breast cancer.
Adam: [03:18] Wow, that is extraordinarily fast.
Abbie: [03:23] Yeah, it was. They moved really fast I think for a number of reasons. It was relatively large and also I think being young and having young children I think they felt they needed to get me in there and start working on shutting down the disease as quickly as possible.
Adam: [03:41] So nine days from diagnosis to beginning treatment, that has got to be just incredibly hard just from your mental capacity, right?
Abbie: [03:49] Actually I think it was better for my mental capacity.
Adam: [03:53] Okay.
Abbie: [03:53] So most patients will tell you that the worst part of a diagnosis is the waiting game, so sitting around and waiting to find out if the biopsy is cancerous or not. Waiting around to see if the PET scan has shown cancer has gone to other parts of the body is the worst and then waiting to take action. You feel like the disease is spreading all over your body and attacking you while you’re sitting around doing nothing so I think getting you in quickly actually eases the mind because you feel like you’re actively beating and attacking the disease.
Adam: [04:25] Okay that actually makes sense.
Abbie: [04:26] Yeah.
Adam: [04:27] Well talk to me just a little bit about the impact on your emotional and mental health. Like you said, you went from resting on a Saturday afternoon taking a nap with your one-year-old, which is blissful until they wake up and scream and you went from that to being in treatment. How did that affect you?
Abbie: [04:44] Kind of like what I said before the wait was the worst part. That was when I was most mentally vulnerable I would say is you don’t know what to expect and it’s all very new. As much as everybody is affected by cancer with a family member or a friend when it hits you, it’s very surreal. Your mind just takes you to very dark places so up until I started treatment that’s where I was a very dark place. You start thinking you should be planning your funeral and you’re going to be dead so quickly and who’s going to raise my kids. Those are the things that go through your mind until treatment and then once you get treatment, whether it’s going straight into chemo or getting surgery first, that’s when you hit warrior mode.
[05:29] Certainly with my experience and I have heard it from many friends and family members who’ve also experienced this, you hit a mode where you’re like, let’s do this. I’m going to take this on and I don’t care about my hair, I don’t care about the side effects. I’m ready to hit the ground running and attack. When my husband and I look back on it at times. It’s a very dreamlike recollection because your mind, even though you’re there and you’re fighting the adrenaline through you I think makes it very cloudy to reflect on because you’re just go, go, go. Treat, treat, treat.
Adam: [06:03] So speaking of that kind of warrior mode, I love how you frame that warrior mode. How does your psychological health really affect and impact your physical health as you’re going through that?
Abbie: [06:14] Absolutely, we listen to physicians and we see it all over the news, but depression isn’t a mind thing. It’s a total physical body thing. It keeps people from getting out of bed. It keeps people from showering and brushing their teeth and keeps me in sweatpants and doesn’t get you outdoors. And we all know that physical activity and just getting up and getting out of bed, those things improve your mental health, so everything on you is going to fail. It’s not just the mind that fails, but your physical health is going to fail. You’re not brushing your teeth. You’re not cleaning yourself. You’re not feeding yourself right. You’re not getting in the nutrients by eating right. I think we’ve come to a place in our society where we talk about it a little bit more and people recognize depression as a disease and as something that doesn’t have quite a stigma, but I think there’s still always is a little bit of that where people wonder about depression and why can’t you just get out of your own mind when it’s so much more than that.
Adam: [07:10] It’s more all-encompassing than that I think is what I’m hearing you say.
Abbie: [07:13] Absolutely.
Adam: [07:14] Was there anything that you did in particular that helped you to cope with the diagnosis?
Abbie: [07:19] I think actually during all of the treatment it was the treatment. What might seem kind of odd when you stop treatment that the depression set in for me.
Adam: [07:27] Okay.
Abbie: [07:27] So I did everything, four months of chemotherapy, I did a double mastectomy and then I did radiation and when I came out of that you leave the hospital and you know when you do radiation you’re at the hospital every day for five straight days. You just take the weekends off and you do that for five or six weeks. Then these physicians, these nurses, all of these people in the hospital become your family in that short time and you kind of go home and you twiddle your fingers and you go, what do I do now? So that was where the depression set in for me and apparently it’s very common, is you kind of feel like, what do I do now?
[08:00] That was when I really was like, “What do I do with this?” I thought, “Should I write a book? Should I start a foundation for breast cancer?” My thoughts are like, “Okay, we have a million of those, million books on breast cancer what am I adding that isn’t already out there?” So that’s when I finally went back to work for the hospital that treated me to fundraise for them. That was my way of keeping my mental health and feeling like I was doing something active to not only help myself but to help others who are going through what I had just been through.
Adam: [08:30] So it sounds like you kind of went back to actively defeating something, but just in a different way. So now you’re actively defeating it in a larger scale and by fundraising for this hospital that helped to treat you, which is kind of amazing. That’s really fantastic. So if someone is facing a breast cancer diagnosis right now, how do they seek support? How do they get help? What should they be thinking about right now?
Abbie: [08:52] You have to be your own advocate I will tell you that. Certainly the social workers and the nurses and the physicians, they will tell you things, they’ll help you, but sometimes they leave things out. There’s tons of patients, they’re busy all the time and what you need, you need to ask for because it’s there, it’s just not necessarily something that they might have mentioned. If you worried about your nutrition and what you should eat and are there things that cause cancer or the way I prepare foods, ask to see the nutritionist. If you’re dealing with mental issues like I certainly did and you’re really concerned about talking with somebody, reach out to the social worker. Help them, help you find a mental health professional. If you’re concerned about getting more information about your options, ask your physician I’d like a second opinion.
[09:39] And if a physician ever tells you not to get a second opinion, that is a bad physician. Every physician will tell you a second opinion is not about questioning their ability to diagnose you. It’s about you exploring all of your options, but it comes down to the patient and their home support system. A spouse, a sister, a parent or best friends to helping you advocate for yourself. You’re fighting for your life and you should never be embarrassed to ask a question and ask for more resources and if the place you’re being treated doesn’t have those things, find a place that does.
Adam: [10:11] That’s right and there’s one thing I want to see if we can just zero in on for the people listening that either are in a dark place and struggling or they love someone that is in a dark place and struggling. What one piece of advice for them? What can they do maybe even today to help them get into a better place?
Abbie: [10:28] A gentleman that I worked with one time, he was an older gentleman eighty-five, but incredibly active. You never would have said he was eighty-five and I said, “What keeps you so spry?” And he said, “If you rest, you rust.” So if you are in a dark place, get up, stand up, and it’s as easy as that. Take one step, get up. If you can get up, you’re not going to die. If you can get out of bed, if you can get off the couch, you’re not dead. So that’s my first piece of advice.
[11:05] The other piece is reach out. Start with a family member, your best friend or if you don’t want to talk to somebody that you actually know, Google a therapist and you aren’t going to find the right therapist the first time. You’re not going to find the right therapist the second time speaking from my own experience, but you’ve got to find the right person. Talking about it or writing about it in a journal, putting those fears out of your head, onto paper, or sharing them with somebody else they leave your body. So stand up, just talk or write about it some way, some outlet. I mean some people go to those, I don’t know what they’re called those rooms where you can throw things around and break stuff. Find a way to exercise the demons in your mind and let them out.
Adam: [11:53] I love that, that’s amazing, amazing advice. Abbie, this has been really encouraging and inspiring. I really appreciate your time. Thanks for joining me on the show. Love to have you back again sometime.
Abbie: [12:04] I would love to come. Thanks so much, Adam.
Adam: [12:06] Thanks for listening to Real Pink, a weekly podcast by Susan G Komen. For more episodes, visit realpink.komen.org, and for more on breast cancer, visit komen.org. Make sure to check out @SusanGKomen on social media. I’m your host, Adam. You can find me on Twitter @ajwalker or on my blog, adamjwalker.com.
Speaker 1: [12:28] Thank you to Sideways Eight for sponsoring this podcast. We all want to break through the noise on the Internet and stand out. Sideways Eight is a digital agency on a mission to improve communication through marketing. Whether they’re working with tech companies or national nonprofits, Sideways Eight helps you showcase your value while making it easy for people to find you. Sideways Eight services include website design and development, website care plans, digital marketing strategy, branding and messaging, SEO, pay per click advertising, and more. To learn more about highlighting the work your organization is doing, head to sideways8.com/komen. That’s s i d e w a y s, the number eight.com/komen
This episode was made possible by Dragon Army. Dragon Army is a purpose-driven agency on a mission to inspire happiness through positive relationships, impactful work, and doing good. Learn more at: https://www.dragonarmy.com/.