Adam Walker (00:03):
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 Walker (00:14):
A breast cancer diagnosis can bring a wide range of emotions, including shock, fear, sadness, and anger, the support of family, friends, and others can be helpful as you go through diagnosis treatment and beyond. Thankfully, there are support groups to help you navigate breast cancer easier and to improve your quality of life during and after treatment. Today’s guest has dedicated her life to helping motivated patients overcome the challenges of breast cancer and to invest in their social, physical, and emotional wellbeing here today to share her breast cancer journey and how it has impacted every area of her life is Beth wellness. Beth, welcome to the show.
Beth Wilmes (00:55):
Oh, thank you for having me, Adam. I really appreciate it.
Adam Walker (00:58):
Love the work that you’re doing. Know how critically important all of this is, but to start with, let’s talk about your breast cancer journey. What can you tell us about your diagnosis, your treatments, and what was happening in your life at the time?
Beth Wilmes (01:13):
Sure. So I was 35 years old when I got that call that was almost five years ago. And yeah, I had a six, a four and a one-year-old at the time. And to save that call was unexpected is an understatement. But ultimately I was diagnosed with stage two estrogen, positive breast cancer, and my journey included a double mastectomy, chemo, radiation, and two unexpected surgeries due to complications from reconstruction and then the development of lymphedema. So it’s been quite a journey.
Adam Walker (01:48):
Wow. That is, that is quite the journey. And so, you know, you mentioned a diagnosis when you’re young, also young children. How did you handle that news and, and what helped you be able to kind of process what was happening?
Beth Wilmes (02:02):
Yeah, I mean, I was definitely shocked. I had felt a lump, like a lot of women and when I called my OB about it at first, they said, Oh, I’m sure it’s just a swollen lymph node. You know, call us back in a couple of weeks if it doesn’t go away. And I remember my husband saying, see, you know, I told you it was nothing to worry about. But I think I just intuitively knew. And so I called them back and I said, you know, can you please order me my first mammogram? I had never even had a mammogram before. And they said, sure. And I went and the next day I got that call from my OB and she, I was actually sweeping my kitchen floor. When that call came through and she asked me, what are you doing?
Beth Wilmes (02:42):
And I said, I’m sweeping my floor. And that’s when she told me that the biopsy had come back positive. And I just remember asking her, does that mean that I have cancer? And she paused. And she said, yes. And, and then I remember her saying that she wouldn’t want to have treatment if it were her. And I was kind of in a state of shock at that point. But I remember asking her, you mean, it’s so advanced that you would decline treatment if it were you. And she told me, Oh, I don’t know about that. I just meant I know what you’re going to have to go through and it’s going to be really difficult. And yeah, it was a very shocking and just shocking moment for me. And so I remember putting, you know, hanging up with her, she told me my next step was to go find a breast surgeon.
Beth Wilmes (03:27):
I hung up the phone and my husband works out of the house and he happened to be coming down the steps to refill his coffee. And I just remember looking at him and saying, I just got the call. I have cancer. And both of us just kind of sank to the floor and just sat there and disbelief. So yeah, initially, I mean, I was absolutely shocked and I think that we had probably about 20 minutes to process that information before I had to go pick my kids up from school. Oh man. Yeah, it was, it was crazy. It was a crazy moment. And everybody who gets a diagnosis has that moment when they get that news. So it was, it was very shocking initially. But then I very quickly moved into the sense of just feeling deeply motivated to do my best with what I’d been given and to move past it. So those early moments are very scary and very dark and your mind goes to the darkest place imaginable, but I also felt very motivated to use this experience for good, very early on in the, in the process.
Adam Walker (04:26):
Wow. So you, you mentioned a minute ago, you know, having to receive that information and then 20 minutes later, go, go pick up your kids from school. And, you know, obviously I think we all know raising children kind of takes a village and, you know, but I would imagine even more so when you’re going through something like this, I mean, what was your support system like and what did having them there mean to you?
Beth Wilmes (04:50):
Well, this is something that I feel it was a real blessing for us is that I was incredibly fortunate because all of my family and my husband’s family live in the same town as us. So we were surrounded by family who were immediately willing to jump in, in any way that we needed. And so yeah, once I started treatment, when I was, you know I knew I wasn’t going to be feeling well from chemo. I had relatives picking my kids up and taking them and doing things with them to kind of give us a break and give the kids a break. And people bringing meals. We had lots of friends rally around us, our church family rallied around us. So we were not short on support and I really credit that to, as one of the reasons why I was able to not just survive the experience, but thrive after it was because all those people, you know, surrounded us and, and provided us emotional support, but also practical support.
Adam Walker (05:42):
Mm that’s really, really important. And, and talk about, you know, were you able to find resources to connect with other women who had been through or were going through treatment similar to yours?
Beth Wilmes (05:53):
You know, it’s interesting. I had, after my diagnosis, I had a woman who I was just an acquaintance with. We weren’t really friends. We had a mutual acquaintance in each other and she called me up out of the blue and said, Beth, you know, I really want to introduce you to a friend of mine. She was diagnosed with breast cancer in her twenties when she was in law school. And so I said, okay. And that’s when she introduced me to her friend, Stephanie and Stephanie had been through everything that I had gone through. And she said, Hey, listen, you know, I’ve been there. I know what this is going to be like for you. And I’m happy to support you. And so basically mentor you through the process. And so that’s what she did. She, she was available to me, we communicated mainly through text messaging.
Beth Wilmes (06:34):
She was a young mom. I was, you know, young mom. And so we were both busy and I was trying to balance treatment with living my life and she was doing the same. And so but she became a resource and a lifeline to me and I could text her anytime I needed, you know, a confidence boost or I had a question for her she was there and that really did. It, it was really invaluable. And I think, again, it planted a seed in my mind that it’s incredibly important to have that connection with somebody who understands what that process is like. Yeah.
Adam Walker (07:07):
Yeah. I can certainly imagine that that would, would really help. And, and they, they, they have full empathy right. For what you’re going through.
Beth Wilmes (07:13):
Oh yeah. A hundred percent. And it’s just very encouraging to see somebody who’s been through that tunnel and is on the other side flourishing and living their life. You know, they kind of become this beacon of hope to you that that can be you too. So I think it’s, I think it’s huge.
Adam Walker (07:28):
Yeah. Yeah. That’s, that’s, that’s wonderful. So you mentioned you had breast cancer at a pretty young age and unexpectedly young age, I think. How did that change the course of your life?
Beth Wilmes (07:39):
Oh my gosh. Well, I mean, I think finding out that you have cancer, it was just a traumatic experience in general, but particularly when you’re younger, if you haven’t experienced a lot of adversity yet I think it can be, you know, even more shocking, but as I mentioned, I, I kinda knew I wanted to use my experience to, you know, show my kids what it looked like to be faithful in a storm and to use the experience to kind of become a stronger and more compassionate person. So I really early on adopted that mindset of okay. Yes. You know, I think, I think it’s like less than 10% of patients are under the age of 45. It might even be lower than that, you know, when they’re diagnosed with breast cancer. So I was definitely in the minority, but I just knew that this was something I was handed and I would do the best with it that I could and try to become a stronger person for it. And that was, that was really always the goal.
Adam Walker (08:33):
That’s great. That’s great. And I have no doubt that you are a stronger person for it. So I know that you speak a lot about support and you’ve devoted your work to provide emotional support for women when they need it the most. Tell our listeners a little bit more about that.
Beth Wilmes (08:48):
Yeah. So my experience showed me that cancer is just as much an emotional battle, is it as a physical battle? But I believe in cancer care very little time is spent on the emotional component. And that’s really was the catalyst for starting faith or fire, which is my non-profit that I have now dedicated to helping newly diagnosed patients. I wanted it to be available to patients to provide that type of emotional support. So we have three programs. The first is a peer mentorship program that was based basically on my experience with Stephanie, it’s done primarily through text messaging to be low maintenance and unobtrusive. And we pair a newly diagnosed breast cancer patient with a thriving survivor just to encourage them during the treatment process. We formed a partnership with build a bear and we provide bears to children impacted by breast cancer as a yeah, it’s so cute.
Beth Wilmes (09:42):
I mean, I get the cutest pictures of these kids with these bears. And the other day, a mom told me that her daughter loves her bear so much that her teacher gave her special permission to bring it to school. So it’s just, you know, a tangible source of emotional support for these kids. And it also makes mom feel better. Sometimes they use the bears to explain the diagnosis to their children. Sometimes they provide them at the height of chemo. But we have that partnership and it’s been great being able to do something for the children impacted. And then finally I have a podcast myself called besties with breast, which is me and another young survivor, just talking about our experiences validating the patient experience, and then just talking about how we try to intentionally pursue our best life after diagnosis. And it’s really just meant to, to foster a sense of community and to to reach women who might otherwise feel alone.
Beth Wilmes (10:35):
So, so that’s kind of what we’ve done to walk alongside women in active treatment. But more recently, and this is kind of exciting for us. We, we started to recognize that women needed support and survivorship and that’s something, you know, more and more women are living after breast cancer and living longer and living better lives and survivorship is becoming more important and quality of life as well. And so we did some market research after working with some patients and found that really only 19% of patients felt equipped to transition into survivorship. And most of them wanted to make positive changes to their fitness and the nutrition and their emotional wellbeing, but weren’t always like sure where to start. And so we really wanted to kind of help with that. And so in response to that need we’ve recently started a new survivorship support network that patients can join once they’re done with active treatment and transitioning into survivorship. And it’s a private online group for women who are motivated to make these positive changes and to forge this community with other survivors to basically live their best life after treatment. And that’s on our survivorship page of the website which is faith through fire.org. So yeah, that’s, that’s what we’re doing now to really help emotionally, both during active treatment. And then after in the transition to survivorship. Wow.
Adam Walker (11:59):
I mean, Beth, it sounds like you’re just doing a tremendous amount of really important and really wonderful work. I really appreciate the work that you’re doing there. So I guess my last question, what final advice do you have for breast cancer patients that might currently be feeling overwhelmed or full of anxiety and fear?
Beth Wilmes (12:18):
Sure. Well, I’d say first of all, if you’re an active treatment ask, you know, ask us to be matched with a mentor in our program because they’ll encourage you. I was the type of patient that when I first got diagnosed, I thought I can do this by myself. And I was very self-sufficient, I’m kind of a pick yourself up by the bootstraps kind of girl. And I really thought I I’ve got a handle on this, but the bottom line was is that I, I didn’t, and I benefited tremendously from letting other people help me. And that was a new skill for me. That was hard for me to do. And so if that resonates with you, if you’re somebody that’s very self-sufficient and you’re used to doing things for yourself I’m going to encourage you to just lay down some of those roadblocks and allow other people to enter in and walk beside you and help you. I think you’ll be glad that you did. And then, you know, if you’re a survivor, but you’re struggling with your quality of life after treatment, or you just want community of other women to laugh with and to help you with your goals then join our network on the survivorship page. And we’d love to have you. But really, I just want women to know that there’s other, other survivors out there that have been where you are and, and are willing and waiting to help.
Adam Walker (13:27):
That’s right. That’s right. There, there are communities of people that are ready and able to help and to make a huge impact and difference. So Beth, this has been just amazing, really inspiring a love, the work that you’re doing in the passion that you have behind it. And really just appreciate you joining us on the show today. Thank you.
Adam Walker (13:46):
Thanks for listening to real pink, a weekly podcast by Susan G Komen for more episodes, visit real pink.com and.org for more on breast cancer. Visit komen.org. Make sure to check out at Susan G Komen on social media. I’m your host, Adam, you can find me on Twitter at AGA Walker or on my blog. Adam J walker.com.