Finding Empowerment After Breast Cancer

[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.

On this show, we often talk about how lives are changed after breast cancer, how a survivor’s life takes on a new normal. There can be many challenges that come along with that – from self-esteem to navigating relationships, and even sometimes the shifting of life priorities. Today’s guest has been through a whole host of changes in the decade since her breast cancer diagnosis, including a divorce and a career shift that brought her to Komen to make a difference in the lives of others facing breast cancer. Here today to share how she was able to find empowerment following her breast cancer diagnosis is Nikki Panico. Nikki exemplifies the power of living as her truest self and believing that she can do anything…and she has some great stories of doing just that. She is a shining light and I want to bottle her energy up and share with all of you, so let’s get started. Nikki, welcome to the show!

[00:01:10] Nikki Panico: Thank you, Adam. I’m so glad to be here.

[00:01:12] Adam Walker: It’s going to be great. I’m looking forward to hearing what you have to say and just hearing your stories about your experience. Let’s start let’s, let’s go ahead and sit the stage by sharing your breast cancer story with our listeners, and can you give us an overview of your family history and kind of what your experience looked?

[00:01:29] Nikki Panico: So my breast cancer journey really started with my mom and her sister, my aunt. They both died within a month of each other of stage four metastatic breast cancer. So in 2008, in February, my mom died of the disease, and then April, her sister died of the disease. So my grandparents lost their only two children within a month, both from stage four breast cancer.

And then I was diagnosed myself the same year they died. I was 39. I was living in the suburbs of Philadelphia with my husband and we had a three-year-old son, Brandon. I was diagnosed at an annual mammogram. I had heard from my mom’s doctor and she said, tell your girls to start getting mammograms at 30.

Because this was my mom’s second diagnosis with the disease. So my annual screening at age 39 found the breast cancer. Because of my family history. I opted for a double mastectomy. I had chemotherapy, numerous reconstruction surgeries. I was fortunate. I had a great job, good health insurance, access to some of the best doctors in the country, supportive family, friends who really helped me every step of the.

[00:02:57] Adam Walker: Wow. That is I, I, I can only imagine, you know, those two losses and then followed by your own diagnosis. That’s just profound. So I, I understand, you know, we alluded to it in the intro. A lot of changes have happened in your life since the diagnosis. Can you tell us about some of the big ways that your life looks different now than it did then?

[00:03:21] Nikki Panico: I did have a lot of change. Both immediately. The first being I moved from the suburbs of Philadelphia to Milwaukee, Wisconsin. My hair was still growing out. That’s how soon I moved midway across the country. My former husband is from Wisconsin, and we had decided that we would raise our son in the Midwest.

So it was a very difficult move. As I said, it was not too long after finishing my last chemo and still dealing with the loss of my mom, my aunt, my breasts was a very difficult move. So that was very quick After treatment. I’d say the next biggest change was my career. I moved to Milwaukee, Wisconsin without a job.

My background for 25 years had been working with older adults. My master’s degree is in gerontology. So I was looking for a job with older adults. At the same time, I was looking as very inspired by my family’s experiences with breast cancer. So I began looking for opportunities to help others. Battl.

Thought maybe I could help them. So I started to volunteer for Susan G. Komen. They’re raised for the cure in Milwaukee and I started doing a Susan G. Komen three day where you walk 60 miles in three days. And I raised an exuberant amount of money. So I knew I was, and it was making me feel really good and it was healing, but I knew I needed to have an even bigger impact on the disease and lo and be.

The job became available to oversee Susan G. Komen in Milwaukee and then overseeing it across the state of Wisconsin. So this disease really was a huge, led to a huge career change. And I’ve been with Komen as an employee over a decade now.

[00:05:29] Adam Walker: And, and we mentioned, I think, too in there that, was there also a relationship changed during that time as well?

[00:05:35] Nikki Panico: Yeah, so, one of the most. Difficult changes was that I got divorced, and I just want to start by saying that my former husband was a hundred percent supportive of me every step of the way in my cancer diagnosis and in helping my mother through her end of life and her death. However, because of all that I lost in breast cancer, Really, I became I became a broken soul.

I mean, really, I was lost. And I always say that there was another person, there was something, a third person in our marriage, , but it wasn’t an individual, it was breast cancer. And I felt my only way to save myself was to to get divorced. That was just a couple years after my di diagnosis, but it was very much related to to the disease and where I was in dealing with that.

[00:06:48] Adam Walker: Gotcha. Wow. What were some of the things that you felt at first when you were in treatment and newly into survivorship? I think it would be helpful to talk about some of the struggles.Because many of our listeners will be able to relate to those.

[00:07:04] Nikki Panico: What is my new normal? What is my new normal? That was the question that just radiated out of every ounce of my being.

You know, first I was with my cancer team quite often, and then suddenly just like that you don’t have any visit for many months at a time. And when treatment’s done, you know, I really felt. Wow, I’m no longer fighting cancer and worry sets in. I felt alone again, that lost feeling without the support of my cancer team.

And I became anxious and sad and for me, emotions that were put aside during cancer treatment because you’re just like in warrior mode, come flooding back all at once. So again, being overwhelmed. Great sadness on loss, anger. They’re just some of the lingering side effects that I had. I felt it in my body.

My spirit was tired. But I want listeners to know that all of those feelings make sense. You’ve just been through an incredibly difficult time. You’ve had to make some major life decisions. Your body’s just been assaulted by cancer and its treatments. So your outlook and your whole way of life have changed, at least for a time.

So facing those feelings, learning how to deal with them was vital for me. I don’t expect everything to go back the way it was before I was diagnosed, but you know, my advice is give yourself, your family, those around you time you will get through it. Just like it took time to adjust to a cancer diagnosis.

You can adjust to life after cancer. So, that’s the first thing I think that was. That I really struggled with. The second thing helped happened a little while later that I think it’s important. I really want to mention this because I talked about it a lot over the years, and that’s after my marriage ended.

I knew I was ready to find some companionship. I turned to online. And the minute I decided to look for a relationship, finding a man who would be okay with my breasts was paramount on my mind because I did have a double mastectomy. I had no nipples, I had massive scarring. Because I think, gosh, maybe three or four surgeries, I’ve kind of lost count to try to reconstruct my.

So as I moved forward the first few dates there was great relief because none of them led to a second. So I didn’t have to worry about being intimate with anyone. But there was a turning point when my nipple-less breast brought an evening to a standstill. I remember the date like yesterday and it was quite some time ago. This very handsome, confident, witty, well-dressed man.

And after a couple hours into the date, he was getting very flirty, insinuating he was eager to get physical. Even so bold as to opening my jean jacket and grabbing my breast, and I was mortified. Not just for you know, the panic of that grab, but also, oh my gosh, how is someone going to, how am I ever going to show my breast.

I decided to really spend some time thinking about that, my self-esteem. I ended up talking to others who dated after a mastectomy. They could. I knew other breast cancer survivors could provide some insight. And I think, you know, I have some real life altering insights that I’d love to share. The first being that your self-esteem takes a lot longer to grow back than.

You’re not ugly, you’re not undesirable, you’re not ruined as I thought myself to be for so long. It really takes time to acclimate to the battle scars that will become part of your backstory. And this information really, it doesn’t mean that you have to be dating. I mean, you might have this with your very loving, supportive, significant other.

I think also as women, we need to not for one minute think that we’re being shallow for caring about intimacy after mastectomy, post-cancer body changes, and body image issues are real. So know it’s normal and know you’re not alone. Every scar, every bald head, every dark circle, every prosthetic breast, and every reflection in a mirror that you might not recognize anymore tells a story.

So look deeper than skin, hair, and yes, even breast. You are who you are in the bones, and that’s where you have the potential to shine the brightest. Communication’s key. Again, whether it’s with a spouse, someone new, your decker, you’re dating. But don’t shy away from having open conversation about your fears or concerns or how you want to be touched.

When the time for intimacy arrives, you know, men takes cues or your partner will take cues from you. So it’s important to be strong and competent. Cause if you’re uptight or negative and project all those things about your cancer experience, they’re going to pick up on that. However, if you project that you love yourself, you’re proud of yourself, and you consider yourself a warrior, and really believe that you’re amazing.

That’s how hope you too. And remember, you survived the words. You have breast cancer, you’re a superhero, you’re fearless. You can overcome anything. You’ve gained strength, courage, and confidence that you don’t even know existed.

[00:12:53] Adam Walker: Wow. Those are fantastic tips. I really appreciate you sharing that. I know that, I know that comes from a very deep and thoughtful place. So I, and, and I think this kinda leads to this next question, part of this next question. You’ve gone from I think you called it brokenness to empowerment. And I think probably part of your tips there are part of the answer to this question, but how did you make that shift into really feeling comfortable and being your true self? Walk us through how you were able to make that transition.

[00:13:29] Nikki Panico: Yeah. I was, as I said earlier, I felt like a lost soul. Really so lost and I will say it takes. It took time. It didn’t happen. Oh, the minute treatment was over. I, you know, moved right away to empowerment. It really took time. A lot of therapy, no really, that, I always say reach out to whoever you have to, but these are strategies that I learned to tackle negative self-talk. The biggest hurdle to overcome on the road of self-empowerment is the internal negative self-talk that we repeat to ourselves. And there’s many ways to do it. I’m going to tell you, I started in very little ways. I wasn’t ready to jump on a podcast or read a book. I just put a sticky note in my bathroom mirror that said, you are loved.

You are special. You are smart, you are loving, you are kind. Little words like that. And then I’d change them and I’d put them also just a sticky note and I’d write it and put it on my computer screen. You are worthy. You got this. You are loved. You are beautiful. You are. and it starts with little ways like that to improve your self-talk.

We hear it all the time, self-care, self-love. If you don’t take care of your yourself first, how are you going to be able to take care of others? But it’s true. It really is. And so how do you get to the place where you get into in habit? It’s a habit of putting yourself and your needs. Upfront, not on the back burner.

Again, easier said than done. I try to really live at a grateful, in a grateful place. And again, you know, I’m not a big journaler, but I do have a journal and I try to make it simple for myself. Just three things. Three could be three. Three sayings, three things that happened. At the end of the day, even when I’m exhausted, I turn to my night table, I grab my gratitude journal, and three things, and it could be as simple as I loved when my coworker said Good morning with a huge smile.

It doesn’t have to be a long litany of it. It’s really just simple things. I loved how when I go went to, I’m so grateful for when I took my car in for an oil change. They got me in so quick with a great customer service. So grateful that although my son lost his basketball, He was still happy. He made six points, whatever it is, just three little things and that helps you live in a very grateful place.

That simple yet powerful tool will send you away on, well on your way to be more empowered. And the last thing I try to do is really finish something, literally anything. Finish something each day. And when you do take the time to. Really take in what you accomplished. How many times do you say, I’m going to go for a walk today’s the day I’m going to go for a walk.

Just and don’t, you know, it’s okay that it’s not 30 minutes, it’s 10 around the block, three times. But you completed it. But just revel in in something that you’ve been putting off for a while and you haven’t found time to do, but just a way to. Reading that book. And it doesn’t have to be, you know, and give yourself grace.

It doesn’t have to be, I’m going to complete that book within the next month. It doesn’t have to be this immediate gratification. Cause I think you get hung up on that. Right. Yeah. But just a sense of completion. Whatever that looks like for you.

[00:17:45] Adam Walker: I love that. I love, I mean, and, and, and it reminds me that I do need to go on that walk today. So thank you for that reminder. So, so that’s that’s the how that you made that shift to empowerment. I want talk a little bit about the why, you know, why is it important that people get to the point internally being empowered, and how do you think that translates into the rest of your life and rest of their lives?

[00:18:10] Nikki Panico: Well, as I mentioned, I was living in a place of just going through the motions. I think it’s really easy to get caught up in both the business and busyness of life. And I wanted to add really meaningful, purposeful live my life that way with meeting and purpose. And it did require sacrifices. But it’s always better if your suffering has meaning.

So if you perceive that it’s teaching you something or changing you in a positive way, there’s a reason to keep going. So, you know, my personal journey of self-discovery through my breast cancer disease definitely was not easy. It took time and lots of internal work to be able to celebrate grace and positive thinking.

You know, and I’m not always perfect at it, but I definitely know how to. Reset myself back to those areas that I just talked about with gratitude and accomplishing things and tackling negative self-talk. I can reset if I get down and not living. Real intentional, but I think most of us take life for granted, and a d a diagnosis of cancer can really make people look at their life.

Am I living my life in a way that is most fulfilling to me? Are there things I can change or improve? And for me, there was, that’s so good. That’s my why, I guess.

[00:19:49] Adam Walker: No, that’s great. I mean, and, and I wrote this down, you said it’s always better if your suffering has meaning to it, which I thought was really, really thoughtful and profound. So you’ve already mentioned a few things here but I wonder if there’s any more, tell me, are there any big things that you’ve done for yourself since you’ve gotten to this place of empowerment and what has that meant to you?

[00:20:12] Nikki Panico: Yes, and, and to just to give it, I want to give a real example of the suffering, and I mentioned my divorce to a really wonderful man.

And I, I look at our son and I look at our relationship and we are so, so absolutely healthy in how we go about life and raising our son and being a family for our son. And it took a, it was suffering to get to that place, but I knew there was a better place. So that’s just one little example. So some things that I’ve done to myself since I’ve gotten into a place of trying really hard to celebrate grace and positive thinking.

And again, I’m not perfect, but I know how to reset when I’m not perfect. But two things that I’m really so proud of. One is I lost 60 pounds. I was o I was over 210 pounds four years ago, and I lived that way for quite some time. And that for me, at five six, that I was definitely defined as obesity.

And I know. From being so involved working at Susan g Komen with breast cancer, that obese women have a higher risk of being diagnosed with breast cancer compared to women who maintain a healthy weight, especially after menopause. And I have been in menopause and being overweight can also increase the risk of breast cancer coming back.

So I thought I’m inviting breast cancer to reoccur in my body because I am. And it took, it took 18 months and it, I went really slow and really healthy. And for the most part I’ve maintained that weight loss. So I kind of go up maybe 15, then I go back down. But I’m not perfect, but I’m nowhere whatsoever near, near 210 pounds.

So, and I found exercise. I was never someone who exercised. But I found something that worked for me and I’ve kept that going for three years, which seems insane. So I think, gosh, if anyone can, if I can do it, anyone can.

[00:22:29] Adam Walker: Yeah. That’s great. Well, I mean, you mentioned exercise, like I feel like with exercise you always have to find what work. There’s so many options, like so many options out there. Yeah. For exercise. And you just get like, there’s something that will work for almost everybody. You just gotta find what that something is and double down on it. Right.

[00:22:43] Nikki Panico: Right. And I’ll tell you, I’ll tell you, I started with Pilani. And I’m going to laugh because the PLOS class I joined, you got to lay down so I thought, this is the exercise for me. I’m laying down! So it didn’t feel so, yeah. Now after, I think it was a year of doing that, then I said, okay, now I can find something where I stand up .

[00:23:19] Adam Walker: I love that. I love that. Well, that’s good. Well, I’m glad that you found what’s working for you. Mean, and that’s always the key for that is what works for you.

[00:23:27] Nikki Panico: Well and then the best Oh, that I just love is I learned how to ride a motorcycle at 51 years. Wow. I bought a Harley David What? I learned to ride a motorcycle at 51 years old and I just bought a Harley Davidson South Town motorcycle.

[00:23:47] Adam Walker: That’s amazing. That’s like, so that what you’re telling me is there’s hope for all of us that dream of riding motorcycles, we could still do it.

[00:23:55] Nikki Panico: Absolutely. Safely and yeah. You know, so at the heart of it, I really believe, I’ve done so much work on myself, , and I believe at at the heart of life. We’re all just searching for meaning and real connect. Yeah. And even years after my breast cancer diagnosis, I’m still doing that because you change and I’m constantly soul searching.

Maybe a little too much. I don’t know if it’s such a thing, but I, two years ago, two summers ago, I was really at a place where I was again searching for meaning. Especially over the summer. I thought, oh, I kayaked. But I was looking for a group. I was looking for people again, that connection. Right. And I was single, so I started, went back to dating and, but I started to look for folks who rode a motorcycle so I could ride behind them. I was looking for a man who ra, wait, that sounded really bad. I gotta rephrase that. So over the years, I had ridden on the back of Harley Davidsons with men I was dating.

So I started to do that again two summers ago. And then but the truth was I really wasn’t interested in dating. So I said, well, why am I doing this ? I love my life. I’m not looking to share it right now. So why am I looking for someone to date just so I could ride behind their Harley Davidson? So I said to myself, it was just like, ah, I can ride my own.

I’m going to go get my license. I’m going to go take a class. And learn how to ride well, the one class turned into four classes because I really wanted to learn as much as I can. It’s a sport and it’s a dangerous sport if you don’t know the skills. So, so that’s what I did and I love it. I love it.

And I bought a Harley Davidson motorcycle and so, I don’t need to ride behind the back of anyone. I’m in control. I’m no longer just along for the.

[00:26:09] Adam Walker: Wow. That’s fantastic. I love that. I love that. All right, so last question. Do you have any final advice for our listeners, maybe something you wish you would’ve known or some tangible things they can do today to start feeling empowered in their own lives?

[00:26:26] Nikki Panico: Adam, I think my thoughts, final advice for our listeners, based off my personal experience when breast cancer treatment ends, that’s kind of the beginning of a new chapter. You had your chapter with your diagnosis and treatment. This next chapter, it can bring happiness and hope for sure, but also can bring worries and fears.

Know that no two people are alike. No two breast cancer survivors, no two people battling breast cancer are the same. Each person has their own way of coping and learning to manage these emotions. It takes time. It takes patience,

so be okay with that. It will take a while for you to figure out what does that new chapter look like. Be kind to yourself. Don’t beat yourself up. Don’t compare yourself with any other person. You are you. You’re beautiful. You’re. And you will be able to be empowered and find your truest self after breast cancer.

Hopefully some of the strategies I shared on figuring out your new normal and no self negative talk, self-care, self-love. Be grateful. I’ll make a difference in your.

[00:28:05] Adam Walker: That’s such good advice. That’s such good advice. And then of course, if you’re so inclined, take some classes and buy a motorcycle. Right. So that’s the thing.

Absolutely. I mean, I mean in all I say it, but like, that’s a pretty great lesson, honestly, like that you, at the end of this very trying experience can. Learn a whole new sport and have a whole new adventure. Right. I think that’s, yeah, that’s one thing that I learned from talking to you is like, there are, there, there can be new adventures ahead if you choose for them to be right.

[00:28:38] Nikki Panico: Absolutely. You really can do anything you’ve been through breast cancer, you have fought that you can do and make anything happen.

[00:28:49] Adam Walker: That was great. Well, Nikki, thank you so much for your time. Thank you for, Just sharing your story and just being real with us and. Hopefully we can chat again sometime.

[00:28:59] Nikki Panico: Yeah, that would be great. Thank you for having me, Adam.

[00:29:07] 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,