An Olympian’s Story of Feeling Betrayed by Her Body

[00:00:00] Adam Walker: 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.

Healthy lifestyle choices, such as being physically active, maintaining a healthy weight and eating a balanced diet are linked to a lower risk of breast cancer, yet no one knows exactly why one person gets breast cancer and another doesn’t. Everyone is at risk. In fact, the two most common risk factors for breast cancer are being a woman and getting older. Today’s guest was blessed with a body that had served her extremely well – it helped her win a bronze medal at the Olympic Games, to navigate a successful, decade long career on Wall Street and brought two healthy babies into the world.  Despite being a top-level athlete, having no history of breast cancer in her family and not being a carrier of the BRCA genes, Lauren McFall Gardner was diagnosed with stage 3 breast cancer at the age of 40. She is here today to share her story and the impact that breast cancer had on her life and her vision of health.  Lauren, welcome to the show!

[00:01:12] Lauren Gardner: Thank you. It’s honor to be here.

[00:01:14] Adam Walker: I’m very excited to talk with you. We’re going to, I’m going to get into your breast cancer story, but because I mentioned you were an Olympic athlete, let, let’s at least share with our guests like what you did in, in the results of that for just a second here.

[00:01:26] Lauren Gardner: Oh, I appreciate that. Yeah, so I, the, the story in my family is that I fell on a pool when I was six months old and they turned around and I was breast str. So I, always loved the water. They used to call me little tad pole because I would spend hours playing in the pool. And my mom had done water ballet at Cal Berkeley in the sixties, which is sort of like the early days of synchronized swimming.

So when I was eight years old, she took me to like sort of an Esther Williams type, water show, in Santa Clara, California. And I loved it. I already loved dancing and I loved swimming. So it was the perfect combination. I won my first national championship when I was 11, so, You know, thought, Oh, I should stick with this.

And then I, so I swam for 16 years and then I made the 2004 Olympic team. I was the team captain and we, we won a bronze medal in the Olympics and it was amazing.

[00:02:22] Adam Walker: Wow. That is amazing. Synchronized swimming is such a profound and interesting sport, and just the precis. It takes is just so remarkable. I’m, I’m just profoundly impressed with that story. That’s a thank you for sharing that with us. I appreciate that. Yeah. So let’s dive in to your breast cancer story. Can you start, can you just set the stage for us, telling us about your diagnosis and what was going on in your life at the time?

[00:02:45] Lauren Gardner: Sure. So, I was actually, so after the Olympics, I went to college. So I was a 25 year old sophomore in college. But I, I found a lump, I was about, I was 27, I guess, at the time, and I found a lump in my left breast. And so I went to the school doctor and they referred me out and turned out I actually had D C I S, which back then they called precancer.

And so because it hadn’t broken the cell wall, they suggested that I do a lumpectomy. And then because I wasn’t a carrier of the gene and I didn’t have any of the BRCA gene and I didn’t have any family history, they sort of just sent me on my merry way. And I really didn’t think much of it. And, I was supposed to get mammograms and I was pretty good about doing that.

But then when I started having kids, you know, I was pregnant and or nursing for like five years, so I couldn’t go and get a mammogram. And if I, if I’m really honest with myself, I probably could have guessed there were some symptoms, but I just thought it was like getting older or, you know, just nursing or, you know, whatever.

But I, I think, so my ob gyn, I think knew something was up, so she pushed me really hard to make an appointment. So after you’re done nursing, you have to wait six months for a mammogram. And it was on the sixth. On the day, six months from when I stopped nursing, I got a mammogram and they caught it and I had a nine millimeter tumor stage.

[00:04:07] Adam Walker: Wow. So what was it like to receive that diagnosis? Just kinda walk me through your immediate thoughts, your immediate emotions.

[00:04:14] Lauren Gardner: You know, it’s interesting, I was listening to one of your previous pro podcasts in the one of the guests and you asked the question, what was it like when you heard you have cancer?

And I actually burst into tears in the car listening to you asked that question of this, this woman you had on. And I realized, I actually didn’t remember the moment I was told I had like really blocked it out. I was in like pretty severe denial about it, but I. You know, I thought about it a little bit more, and I do remember it, but I really like, I just checked out, like when my doctor called now, this woman had like, been with us through a lot, delivered both of my children.

We were really close with her. And so if I was going to get the news from anybody, it was, it was from her, I guess. But I just, I just checked out. I just, I couldn’t, I didn’t know anybody that had breast cancer. I didn’t know what that meant. Like, I think my first thought. Oh my God, my children will grow up without a mother.

Like that’s the first place I went, and thank God my husband was there. So he was the one, like asking questions, I think, and kind of like figuring out like, what are next steps? But I just, I mean, I just kind of went into shock. I just, it, it just didn’t even occur to me that was even possible, you know?

[00:05:21] Adam Walker: Yeah. Yeah. So, all right. So when I think of Olympian, I think of tough. I think of dedicated, I think of. Tons of practice and grit. And so I guess my first question is like, does that idea of an Olympian resonate with you? And if so, how did that transfer into helping you navigate treatment and all that sort of stuff?

[00:05:47] Lauren Gardner: Yeah, you know, it’s funny because. My oncologist was so cute. He was like, Well, you’re an Olympian so you’ll be fine. I’m like, Well, I’m really good at synchronized swimming. I don’t know that it translates, I guess in theory to your point, like tough and all of that and you know, just the idea of like high achieving cancer treatment.

Strange to me. But, you know, yes, certainly. You know, I think that because I’d already had those experiences, Pressure and, you know, physical strain, and just sort of, I did have a lot of skills and tools for that sort of, that mental toughness to just go like power through it. But, you know, I, I think for a lot of, a lot of my life, so much of how I define myself was through achievement, right?

Get good grades, go to a good school, like win a national championship at 11, win an Olympic medal. Like, achieve, achieve, achieve. And when I was going through cancer treatment, I couldn’t achieve in the same way. Right. And so I, I think kind of what shifted for me was like getting my confidence in my self worth from growth.

You know, like really thinking about, you know, how could, how could. Experience changed me, helped me grow. Like what are some habits that I can adjust? What are some ways I approach my life that I can adjust? Because I just didn’t understand why I got cancer. Like, it just didn’t make any sense to me. And, it wasn’t like, you know, the Olympics was something I chose to achieve.

I wanted to like give up my whole life and my body and everything to it. I didn’t really want to do that. Like, I remember thinking. Okay. Well, like when, like when I got diagnosed, I thought all this, I won’t tell anybody. No one will know and I’ll be the only person that doesn’t lose their hair during chemo.

I dunno why I thought I’d be able to circumvent that. But, yeah, I mean definitely my athletic training helped and, and it was interesting because my teammates really stepped up. It was like we were back in the pool, like jumped into those same roles of just. Everyone being there, everyone having the same goal of like supporting me, getting me through it, like, you know, being there on the days I was super down.

And so it was sort of beautiful to be living that experience again, that sort of, that team, that team mentality to tackle this, this really awful thing.

[00:08:14] Adam Walker: So I take it then that you and the team have stayed in touch over the years then, and, and presumably there’s a good relationship there. And so they, as you mentioned, like they were a support system for you. What, like what did the rest of your support system look like with your, your family or friends?

[00:08:30] Lauren Gardner: Yeah, you know, it was difficult. My parents had passed away, a couple years before my diagnosis. So, you know, that would’ve been sort of my knee jerk, right? Was to have the support of my parents and they weren’t.

 My husband’s incredible. He, you know, really helped me. I, I grew up a Christian scientist, so I didn’t have a lot of, knowledge of like the medical world. Mm. So my husband was really wonderful in helping me sort of navigate all of that. Obviously my o b GYN who had found it was like incredible and sort of quarterbacked everything for me.

My teammates were so sweet, and not even just from my Olympic year, So like all the past Olympians, like in 2000 and 2018, they would all send me these cute care packages of like comfy pajamas and socks and coloring books and snacks and, and it was just, I felt like the whole sport of synchronized swimming, like people just really stepped up to support me.

And I, I remember thinking like, I don’t, I don’t want to talk to people about this. Like I don’t want to share this story, but I. You know, for a lot of my teammates and a lot of people that were in that community, in that athletic community, a lot of people really seemed sort of moved by my experience and I thought, you know what, If there’s even just one person out there that hears my story, who like me, is working out, eats healthy, you know, living life, has a good support system, you know, feeling healthy.

Not a carrier of the gene. No, he, you. Even if there’s one person hears that and goes, Okay, wait, maybe I should just go get my mammogram. Like just to make sure, then it’s totally worth it to me.

[00:10:12] Adam Walker: Yeah. Wow. I mean, that, that is, that’s totally worth it. And that’s, i, I, I hope why you’re sharing your story here now as well, and it’s really beautiful the way you talked about, like the whole sport supporting you and, and coming alongside you.

 That’s just a really, that’s a really beautiful thing. It’s kind of an interesting behind the scenes look at, you know, an Olympic team. So you mentioned this earlier and, and I, and I, I wonder if you’ll revisit it just a little bit. You mentioned that your mindset went from achieving as an Olympian to growing in, in, in your, I think it was your metric for success changed.

And so we, we hear guests often talk about how they learned something about themselves throughout their treatment, throughout their diagnosis. That’s obviously something you learned. I wonder if you could e elaborate on that a little bit more or tell us some other ways that you’re thinking in life have changed.

[00:10:58] Lauren Gardner: Yeah, I think. Yeah, so, so much of that achieving a lot of, a lot of the effort felt really external, you know, it was like push and go and show and talk and always be sort of in motion and you know, I didn’t have a choice. I mean, you’re just like flat on your back and you can’t do anything. So I had to really work sort of inward and.

I know it can, it, like, it always sounded cliche to me when people are like, Just be really present. Right? And like, just be really grateful for where you are. Of course, of course. But like, wow. I mean, I felt like I was punched in the face by that. Like, and even now people go, How are you? And I’m like, I’m alive.

So like everything else is gravy because it just put so much in perspective. And I think probably the biggest, biggest, biggest thing for me was g. Some days I would be really mad. I had this, my, my best friend got me this gratitude journal. I’d be mad, I’d be like, I don’t know. I guess it’s great that I have eyeballs.

I don’t, you know, I’d be so mad cause I’d be just feel like crap and I’d lost all my hair and, you know, felt terrible. But it, it really became a habit. And I noticed that all those, all those sort of moments of. Thinking about what I was grateful for helped me think about all the ways I had grown and changed and, you know, really helped me be more present and really helped me be more grateful for where I was and what I had.

And I think too, I remember thinking, oh my gosh, like when I lose all my hair and I can’t work out and I can’t really do my job very well, people still like me. Like, will I still be. and I was really surprised to find that, yeah, I, I was still me and people did still like me, and that was really shocking that I didn’t have to be doing stuff for people to still want to be in my life and support me and love me.

[00:13:00] Adam Walker: That’s an interesting point. I mean, like, it sounds, I mean, almost like a shift in identity, right? From being from, from your identity, at least partially being wrapped up in what you do, whether that’s work or home or whatever, what you do shifting to who you are as a, as a person at the core of who you are, Right?

[00:13:16] Lauren Gardner: Totally. Yeah. Thank you for articulating that.

[00:13:19] Adam Walker: That’s what, yeah, that’s, well, you said it. I, I just summarized it. So and well, and I wonder too, do you, are you, do you mind talking a little bit more about gratitude? Like I’m, I’m curious like. How that played out for you? How the gratitude journal worked? Did you write a lot?

Was it bullet points? Like, I’m always, I think gratitude’s so important. And so underrated a lot of times that we, we can easily just kind of gloss over it and I don’t want to do that. So do you mind just talking a little bit more about that?

[00:13:45] Lauren Gardner: Yeah. It’s funny. So when I was growing up, my mom every morning would write three things she was grateful for and she’d always try to get me to do it and I’d be like, Ugh, you know, kind of the same thing.

Like, I’m too busy, I have to go like study or get some practice. I just don’t have time for this mom And it, I always think she must be laughing that that was the thing. It was such a tipping point for me. And so this it, this journal that my, my best friend Becky got me, it’s it’s bullet points. It’s just three bullet points.

And I thought I can do that. I can think of three bullet points every day. And I just keep it by my bed and sometimes I have to do it at night because I just, you know, whatever. But, it, it got to be just like a, an easy habit. And sometimes it would just be a mental list if I couldn’t like physically write it.

But yeah, it was like, I can do that. I can think of three things I’m grateful for, and it turned my whole day around. Yeah. Well, as I said, not all days was, I like really, you know, right?

[00:14:44] Adam Walker: Yeah, no, I mean, that’s great. Like, it, it’s, it’s funny that you mentioned it because, I actually started this habit about a year ago where at the top of my daily sort of planning journal, I’ve got three dashes and that’s for three things that I’m grateful for to start the day with.

And what I love about it is, If it was, if you were just listing one thing you’re grateful for, like, that’s kind of easy. Like I’m, I’m grateful for date night last night with my wife, or like something like that. But when you have to list three, you actually have to like, think a little more about it and be more thoughtful about what’s really good in your life that you have to be grateful for.

And it sort of forced you to dig to that level that’s a little deeper and have real gratitude. And so I’ve really found a lot of value. So I love that, that, that your journal is three points. That’s kind of amazing.

[00:15:24] Lauren Gardner: Yeah. And it would be, and it would be funny that like sometimes it would just be like, I’m really grateful for these fuzzy zebra socks that my friend Tiffany got me. Yeah, and like, how funny, I would never, I would’ve sailed right through fuzzy zebra socks. Any other time in my life. But boy, in that moment it was like the thing, it was the thing that was most grateful for.

[00:15:43] Adam Walker: That’s and fuzzy zebra socks on. Cold days are just the best for mean, Let’s just be real.

They’re the best honestly. It’s a thing. It’s a thing. Yeah. Well, last question, and this is so great and I really appreciate all you share with us. What advice do you have for our listeners, any key takeaways or something that was particularly helpful for you throughout your experience? You know, maybe other than fuzzy zebra.

[00:16:06] Lauren Gardner: Yeah, that was, that’s definitely my first thing. Get some fuzzy, fewer socks. I think, it’s, you know, it, I, I get asked this a lot and I, I think that the best advice I can give is to trust your instincts. And I think that that resonates, like, If you feel something’s off in your body or you think something’s weird, trust your instincts.

Go get it checked. If you know, don’t let someone talk you out of it. Don’t let yourself talk you out of it. Listen to that. Still small voice. And then same thing when you’re going through treatment. Trust your instincts. If you’re feeling like you need to just rest that day or you need to just cry that day, like, just listen to your instincts because you, you probably have the answers to what you need.

And then I think when that, when you have that, it, it allowed me, it made it easier for me to ask for help. Cause I never, I never was good at that. I was always the one everyone depended on. Right. I was the captain and I, you know, I’m mom and you know, I’m the boss and be trusting my instincts helped me realize.

I can’t do this today, and I’m going to have to ask for help.

[00:17:10] Adam Walker: Yeah. And that’s okay, right? I mean, like trusting your instincts is okay, and recognizing that today is a day where I’m just going to, to stay here and stationary. Like that’s okay. Like we, we need that and we need permission to, to allow ourselves to do that.

Right? Totally. Yeah. Well, Lauren, this is great. Your, your story is inspiring. The work that you’ve done. I mean just the Olympics and, and every just so inspiring. Just thank you for coming on the show today. Thank you for sharing your story with us and thank you for inspiring us a little bit.

[00:17:41] Lauren Gardner: Thank you so much. I appreciate it.

[00:17:49] Adam Walker: Thanks for listening to Real Pink, a weekly podcast by Susan G Komen. For more episodes, visit For more on breast cancer, visit Make sure to check out at Susan G Komen on social media. I’m your host, Adam, you can find me on Twitter @AJWalker or on my blog,