How Do You Define Strength?

[00:00:00] Adam Walker: This program is supported by Amgen. Amgen strives to serve patients by transforming the promise of science and biotechnology into therapies for patients with serious illnesses. Learn more at

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.

Anyone who’s ever had breast cancer knows what it feels like to hear the words “You have cancer.” You may feel angry, afraid, overwhelmed or unsure about the future. These feelings are normal and allowing yourself to express your emotions can help you begin to cope, which is a process that requires time, acceptance and support. 

Today’s guest is someone who is accustomed to feeling fully in control of her life –  in her late 30s, she was independent, working in a fast-paced career in healthcare media relations and was extremely active and fit. Yet she became one of the 1 in 8 women to hear those words “You have cancer” and suddenly things started to feel out of her control. 

Deb Song is the Senior Director of National Public Relations and Communications at Susan G. Komen and is here today to share her story and to tell us how her experience with breast cancer redefined what strength meant to her and how she’s learned to embrace life as a team effort.  Deb, welcome to the show! Deb, welcome to the show!

[00:01:34] Deb Song: Thank you so much. I’m very excited to be here to talk with you.

[00:01:37] Adam Walker: Well, I’m so I’m really excited to talk to you. I know you’ve got a great story and I know, in particular, that you have a really great perspective and that’s, that’s what I’m looking forward to learning from today. So let’s start with your story.

Tell us about your breast cancer diagnosis and how you knew something was wrong.

[00:01:53] Deb Song: Yeah, so I was diagnosed with DCIS, which is ductal carcinoma in Situ stage three. Um, it’s actually a very early stage breast cancer, and I was very lucky to find out that it had not become invasive. Um, that was on October 1st in 2019.

Um, you know, Prior to being diagnosed, I was in the high risk clinic for about a year. Um, you know, when you are about to turn 40, it’s really good that you get your mammogram. I’m an A plus student. I do everything right. I eat right. I exercise. I do what I’m told. And so of course I follow the rules and I decided to get my mammogram, you know, working in healthcare PR,

you cover a lot of different breast cancer stories from treatments, patient stories, success stories, new options, diagnosis, and screening. So I knew it was really important to get that screening done, to set the base line. Right. So from the jump for me, um, it was kind of a cloudy, hazy, um, process. Uh, I had small and dense for us.

So, you know, a mammogram was the first baseline, but they’re like, Hey, you know what? We might want to have you continue to come back. I also had an interesting family history, which is not typically the case. So I was brought back, um, quite often and frequently had multiple, um, biopsies done that sort of thing.

At a certain point, you kind of get tired and you’re like, well, no news is good news. And kind of going through this by myself and though I’m a little bit worried, but should I be worried? All of those things are in your head. And then there was that moment where you’re following up every three months.

And then at that one appointment where they say to you, you know, what it might be a good idea to get an MRI? Um, that’s when it really hit heavy for me where, you know, you kind of know where this is going, but you’re hoping for the best and expecting the worst and really thinking to yourself, it’s not me,

I’m not going to be one of those women. There’s no way can’t be me, you know? Yeah. And so, yeah, so that was the process for me, but the day I was diagnosed, I remember distinctly it was ironically October 1st, which is the start of National Breast Cancer Awareness Month. Um, you know, I was told, you know, we’re, we, we see something on your MRI, um, you know, a lot of things on your MRI and it’s concerning.

So, um, they found a lump that I could not feel, did not know was there, I didn’t have any of the signs or symptoms, you know, no pain, nothing like that. And so after my biopsy and the MRI, you know, it was very clear to me that, um, they wanted to do a lumpectomy to stage me. So. That’s how I found out, you know, all the way till the very end, even though I was going through my lumpectomy, I just thought, no, it’s not me.

It’s going to be okay. It’s going to be okay. And then you get the phone call and it’s like, what you don’t want to hear. I mean, when you’re young, you’re fit, you know, you have the next half of your life in front of you. It’s not what you want to hear.

[00:05:11] Adam Walker: Um, no, you’re just not what you want to hear. And so, so walk me through that, that moment and kind of the, I guess the moments after that, I mean, tell me about the emotions of receiving the diagnosis. What was that like?

[00:05:23] Deb Song: That diagnosis, this moment, it was really interesting because when you get the phone call, it’s almost as though the world around you completely disappears. I remember distinctly I was at work. I was on a shoot working with a reporter at the time, and I got the phone call from, you know, I had all the anxiety didn’t sleep from the night before, you know, woke up early, worked out, went to work and I just thought, okay, I’m just going to work the day away.

It’s going to be fine. And when the phone call came in, and I was with a crew with a patient, actually cancer patient, doing a news story at the time and I remember the call came in, I had to say, you know, can I step away for a second? And so when my doctor told me, you know, I’m really sorry to tell you this, but Deb, it’s not what you want to hear.

Um, it is breast cancer. We do think it’s early stage and we’re hoping that it’s not an invasive. And so with that, we want to talk to you and set up a time immediately to go through, um, any questions you might have and talk about what our recommendations are. So at that point, you know, I just remember

being in a bit of shock, but having to keep my composure. Um, and so I had to compartmentalize, you know, I always say to myself, I’m a pretty strong person. Um, I’m very good at not showing my emotions show in that moment. You know, I remember asking questions and starting to um, get panicky and start to cry.

And that’s when I realized, oh my gosh, I have to finish the shoot. Like, so I asked my doctor if I could set up a time to meet with her and talk with her. And she said absolutely. So we set up an appointment, it took a moment and took pause and I wiped it from my mind. And I think wiping it from my mind was my way of dealing with the trauma of being told, you know, I was pretending that nothing was wrong.

Kind of reveled in that moment, you know, I was able to go back to work and focus and I continued the entire day. I remember it was like early on in the morning. I continued my day like it was nothing. And then it was that moment where I knew it was time to leave for work. And I was making every excuse not to leave work.

Um, and I left work, sat in my car and that’s when it all kind of came to me. And I remember distinctly sitting there crying, like gutterly crying, and saying to myself why me?

[00:08:04] Adam Walker: Wow. That is really tough. And so, so walk us through what happened next. Walk us through your treatment plan and how, how that affected you.

[00:08:14] Deb Song: Yeah. You know, what was really interesting? It’s like, I think the most stressful time everybody goes through is that unknown period, right. Where you’re trying to figure out what’s going on. It causing a lot of stress, a lot of anxiety, you’re hoping for the best, but expecting the worst, all of those things.

And the minute you hear it, it’s your body, your mind, and your body trying to process the information, right? So there’s a moment of complete denial. I’m going to be honest, I was in complete denial. Like, no, this can’t be, and I remember meeting with my care team and saying like, no, this can’t be like, are you sure that sort of thing?

And I mean, I looked at the MRI, I saw everything and like, you know, the information was all there. And, you know, the reality of it is I had to come to, um, emotional terms with the fact that, you know, I had six markers on one side of my chest, four on the other, my breast tissue was unreliable at this point. So with that, you know, a bilateral mastectomy made the most sense.

Um, so I came to terms with making that decision and figuring out what that means, you know, um, from that perspective. Um, so it’s interesting cause you feel that loss of control, um, when you’re not sure when you finally get that diagnosis, but the minute. You’re able to emotionally and mentally process what’s going on.

And you’re able to sit with your care team and work with them together to figure out what’s that best plan for yourself. It’s like you take the power back from the cancer, right? So it was an empowering moment for me to figure out, okay, this is the date I’m going to do my bilateral. This is what the steps are really learning about.

The process itself. I think the scary part for me was understanding. You know, they’re hoping that it’s non-invasive, but until they remove the lymph nodes and test them, we’re not going to know. And the biggest scariest part for me was, I’m not going to know until I come out of it and I get the actual pathology results.

Right. So, and then your cure, your plan can continue, or you might have to pivot. Pivoting is kind of hard for me. I, I never realized how. It’s really interesting how difficult it was for me to kind of pivot and in a sense I’m easy. I can easily do that on my day to day if I need to make an adjustment or in work, but I feel like life should be linear.

You know, I’ve always thought I was taught. You go to school, get plugged. Great, great grades. You’re gonna lay in a good position. You’re going to, if you work hard, you get your promotion, all of these things. And all of a sudden, I’m in a situation where I’m learning like, yeah, life, doesn’t always everything.

Isn’t linear. You know that there are time, sometimes sharp edges to life and you have to learn to pivot and adapt. And so in this situation, Attacking it, as I did with the rest of my life, you know, I’m going to beat cancer, I’m totally gonna do this. I’m an A-plus student, you know? And so I thought, okay, if I do this, this is going to be the result, blah, blah, blah.

So, you know, that was in my mindset. So when that moment, when my doctor said to me, You know, we think we tested your lymph nodes. They look like they’ve come back negative. We’re going to wait for the full pathology results. And it’s like days later that you’re like waiting and waiting and waiting, and you have that followup appointment and you’re told it’s like this complete moment of relief and just like pure joy.

But at the same time, it’s an absolute moment of terror because then it’s. Okay, we’ve got over this hump, but are you sure you got everything? All you can do is continue to focus on that care plan and what you need to do for yourself. Um, but what I’ve learned is, you know, the emotions you feel with it, it’s okay to feel what you feel.

You know, I think. You know, the definition of strength is really interesting because how I define strength prior to breast cancer is very different from what it is today. And so with that care plan, it really helps me figure out what I needed to do. And so I was lucky enough after my lymph node dissection and getting my pathology results, they said, you know, You’re in the clear to new forward without any radiation we’re going to move you forward.

Like I really lucked out. I was able to avoid radiation. I was avoid able to avoid any type of oral therapies. I could go straight into reconstruction. No, my doctor, literally my oncologist said to me, she was like, dad, do you realize how lucky you are? And I said, I know. And she goes, I know, you know, because for, we’ve worked together for many years on a lot of these breast cancer stories, because their outcome has everything to do with you advocating for yourself and doing what you were supposed to do, which is staying on top of your screening.

Um, Because of that, you’ve saved yourself from doing radiation. You’ve saved yourself from taking any type of oral therapies and she’s like, and we hope that you’re done, you know, and it was that moment where I was just like, wow, what I’ve been preaching for 22 years. Um, doing healthcare PR at works, you know, it’s kind of insane.

[00:13:34] Adam Walker: So you, you mentioned, uh, just now that your definition of strength has changed. Uh, can you tell me a little bit more about that?

[00:13:42] Deb Song: Oh, yeah. I mean, I would say, you know, like I said, um, I’ve always viewed myself as a very strong person. A lot of my really close friends and family, they call me, it’s funny. My name is Deb song and sometimes they jokingly call me Deb, the strong.

You know, people always say, well, Deb is very physically strong, but she’s also very emotionally strong. She’s the one, she’s the giver. She’s the helper. She’s always going to be there for you. You know, that sort of thing. Um, you know, people, I’ve always said I’m a natural born leader. I never saw myself that way.

Um, I just took pride. I’m going to be really honest. I would took pride in being physically strong and being the emotional support for my friends and family being the one that people depend on. And so what I thought of the definition of strength, strength to me is like being fully independent, you know, not having to lean on other people, being able to do everything in anything for yourself, you know, and that’s how I viewed being strong and breast cancer literally took that from me.

Like, and I’m not saying it’s a bad thing, you know, the process to figure out what I now define as strength was a long. Uh, emotional process because when you come from that mindset of like, I can do everything, I should be able to do everything. I can beat everything. Like you come from that mindset to now in a situation where you lose complete control and something else is controlling the situation you’re in.

Completely flips your world upside down. You know, now I’m in a situation where I have to depend on others to help get me to appointments, take me, get me in and out of bed, going to the toilet. You know, things like that. You know, it was just like going from one end of the spectrum to the other was the most difficult process.

And I would say a lot of people face that what I’ve learned, you know, Yeah. My definition of strength has really, really changed because I’ve learned that real strength. Is the ability to show your vulnerability and to be able to ask for help and to be able to show your emotions and be able to say to yourself, you know, I’m not okay today, or I’m having a great day or, you know, it’s okay to have the feelings that you have.

You know, that’s what I’ve learned. I was so used to. Being able to hide those and saying like, I’m a strong person you can always lean on. And now what, what I’ve learned through this journey is it’s okay. Real true strength is to be able to say, you know, I can’t do this alone. It’s okay to ask for help.

And it’s okay to feel sad. It’s okay to be upset, you know, and it’s okay to, it’s your truth. It’s who you are. You know, the other part I learned, and I was talking to my godson about this yesterday, you know? Real strength when you’re having tough days or when things are going bad is just showing up, you know, showing up for yourself.

Right. So that’s what I really learned from breast cancer and that entire year journey. Um, I learned how to show up for myself. It’s like, even when I was feeling sad or upset or, you know, depressed, it was, or. You know, angry at times, you know, or even happy. It’s like showing up for yourself and doing, doing what you need to is showing up.

And those little victories count for something.

[00:17:17] Adam Walker: Yeah. Yeah, they do. Wow. That’s amazing. I love that strength is, is showing up for yourself. That’s a fantastic definition. So you mentioned that you’re a self-described type a personality. How did you cope with having give up control through your breast cancer experience?

[00:17:37] Deb Song: Well, I don’t think I cope very well. I’m going to be really honest with the animals. Um, you know, I’m the first to admit it and that again, being a type a, and being someone who did not like to show their vulnerability, um, If it was up to me, there was a moment in my high where I’m like, it’s kind of a weird moment.

I have to laugh about this with you. Don’t because I think when I was first diagnosed, I’m like, I could totally hide this. Like, like, you know, how you think about like you hear of those weird freak store, that freak stores, I would say here. Odd situations where like, people feel that dire need to hide their pregnancy.

And you’re like, oh dear God, this person went through this by themselves, et cetera. I had that fleeting thought moment. I can hide this from everybody. Nobody needs to know, you know, that sort of thing. And I was just like, here’s my mind? Like, not like, like literally I remember the Pixies playing in my head, like, where is your mind?

Like, are you insane? Like calm down. It was kind of funny. Um, but yeah, I, I remember. Just distinctly thinking to myself like, oh, I can control this. I’m going to be on top of it. I’m going to own it. Cancer’s going to be my, you know, can I even swear? I don’t know.

I’m going to own it. Like I had this in my head. I was like, and I realized, wow, that was so cocky of me. That was just so. Ridiculous. Honestly, like it was fine. I felt what I felt at the time, but what I learned is it’s like, no, you don’t have control. Like this thing is controlling you, it’s controlling and dictating what your, what your life’s going to look like for the next year.

And I remember that moment, like I remember going into my doctor’s appointment, like for the treatment plan, like, let me make it mine. I’m gonna own it. It’s going to be fine. Blah, blah, blah. And I remember distinctly when I said to her, like, okay, now I have my diagnosis on DCIX. So what are we talking? Six weeks, eight weeks.

Like, what’s this going to look like? And she’s like, Deb, this is going to be multiple procedures and it’s about a year of your life. And when she said that I just crumbled, like, I remember just bawling in front of her where she’s never seen me like that. And I’ve known her for many years because of, we had a working relationship versus like now I’m our patient.

So I’m just in there, just bawling my eyes out. I’m like, what do you mean a year, a year, an entire year. I’m losing an entire year of my life where I can’t do what I want to do all of these things. And it’s just such a shock to the system of like then realizing, oh, I’m not in control. I am definitely not in control.

This is not my destiny. This. What I want. So when you process that and you realize, okay, it’s going to be a year, but a year can go by very quickly. And you know, every step is going to be very important to get you closer to the end goal. Right. It was kind of in my head. Um, that’s how I was able to cope, but can I be real?

I didn’t cope very well. I mean, through that entire process, um, I struggled with the fact that like I would become defiant. I remember I was telling you. Someone about this recently about, I remember the moment where I just had a complete meltdown and I said, I’m like, I’m the one in control. I’m the one that, I’m the giver.

I’m the one who helps individuals. I’m the one people lean on. Like, I’m not the one who needs help. Like, I remember distinctly saying this and having a complete freak out and my friends sitting there and just letting me have it and saying to me, You know, it’s okay to ask for help and it’s okay to be vulnerable.

You know, we’re here because we love you, you know, not because we have to be here, but it’s like losing that sense of control and independence was the toughest part for me. But, you know, as time progressed, you kind of dealt with it.

[00:21:42] Adam Walker: Well, and I know like a big part of that too, for you was, was that loss of physical activity.

Right? You talked about how active you were. I mean, I know you did done a ton of stuff, uh, in, in that, in that space. And so talk about how you were able to sort of get through that and how being sort of prohibited from that made you feel?

[00:22:02] Deb Song: Yeah, I guess again, it’s that sense of losing control, right? Being prohibited from doing what you want to do.

Um, I’ll be honest. I wasn’t the best. It was mean to my doctors. I’m probably the worst patient, um, when it comes to that. But like, I, I did, I did follow the rules in the sense when they said. You’re allowed to walk, you know, and I was just like walk. And I remember distinctly saying, walking is a function.

It’s not actually no. And she kind of looked at me. She’s like, no, for some people walking, isn’t an exercise. And I was like, okay, I’m going to make this mine. I’m going to become a power Walker. I remember telling myself this. They would be asked me, like, how physically active, what are you doing? And I was like, well, I’m doing all my therapies that I’m supposed to do for my arms, et cetera.

I go, I walk about like, started off with like three miles. Then I went to five miles. Then I went to seven miles. Um, you know, when you’re on medical leave and you don’t have very much to do. I got to a point where I was walking 20 miles a day. Um, yeah. It just, wow. And just walk around the city. Let’s say it was go time and just, it was my, it was just my time to really reflect on who I am.

What defines me? What am I okay. Within? It gave me that time to like, here’s the funny thing. As a person, I tend to emotionally avoid things, you know, like as like when I was first diagnosed, To avoid my emotions. And I compartmentalize now I had like, while you’re in treatment and you’re like, post-surgery and you’re on medical leave.

You don’t have very much else to do. So I’m like, okay, I’m gonna walk today. You know? And that alone time with those headphones in yet, I ended up really facing some ugly parts of yourself. Like all the scary questions and emotions you have in your head while you’re by yourself, walking and listening to your music.

You come to terms with a lot of things and you bring it to therapy or questions where you’re like, oh, I’m not really sure you can bring it to therapy. It’s just, it was a really interesting time for me. But when I finally did get the, all clear to actually do more exercise, because there is a certain point where you can post surgically, I was in the gym.

I started very slowly running again, lifting weights slowly. Um, and then I convinced myself I’m going to train for the marathon in between surgeries. So I started training for the mirror.

[00:24:30] Adam Walker: That is profoundly impressive. I love that. That’s pretty amazing. So, wow. Congrats on that. Uh, so, so I, I know as we’re recording this podcast, you’re waiting on some results from a scan from this week to come back.

Um, I have to imagine there’s a whole host of emotions that come along with that. I mean, talk to me, how do you, how do you deal with that? How do you stay calm while you’re waiting?

[00:24:55] Deb Song: You know, it’s hard for me sometimes to stay calm. And what I’ve learned is, you know, sometimes sharing my, um, being very open and being vulnerable, showing, being to me, vulnerability is actually, like I said, a major strength and I’m very much an open book about kind of.

Which is really, again, very funny, like I’m really an open book about what I’ve been through, um, so much. So to the point where I actually documented my whole process, like at the time, uh, you know, it’s really funny. Cause like, like I said, I went from the thought process of like, I can keep this a secret from everyone and I’m pretending like, nothing’s wrong to finally realizing like that’s not feasible at all that like, that’s just crazy talk.

At you then realizing like, this is my journey. This is what I have to do. I’m losing kind of emotionally like, oh my God, I’m gonna lose a year of my life. And what I love to you. And I remember that moment where at the time I got treatment where I worked, um, I worked for a major medical center. And so I remember talking to my team and openly telling them my diagnosis and then saying, you know, I’ve been looking around besides Susan’s you come in.

There’s not very much information for people like me as to where, what to expect, what to expect, et cetera. And so, you know, there’s only so much information you can get from your medical team, but like some of those tips and tricks, you just don’t know. So. I said, I go, would you guys be open to documenting the entire process for the year?

And then we can utilize it and put up videos and I’ll blog about it or whatnot, just to share information. And everybody was shocked by that because like, they know I’m not that open when it comes to my personal life. And like, just talking about my vulnerabilities and here I am. Serving it on a silver platter to the entire world, you know?

And so you got to see all the emotions, you know, these are people I’ve worked with for decades. You know, they were in my appointments with me videotaping and photographing. They saw a line of me. I mean, not just like my emotions, but physically of me in, during these appointments. And they were so respectful about it.

Um, but yeah, that’s what I’ve really learned again, is that. Vulnerability as a strength in sharing your emotions is key. And so with the scan right now, like I’m not going to lie. I’m having major anxiety. I gone to therapy for it, kind of losing sleep. I know it’ll come back. Okay. Like I know that, you know, it’s just that time of year.

Every six months, you know, um, it’s that moment you count it down and it feels like a doomsday. And you’re like, what if, because you know that moment where something can switch a flip of a coin, a flip of a switch, your life can change. Right. And so. That scans. It is real, very, very real. So you kind of set your way, but you learn to cope, but I’m really open about it.

Uh, you know, I tell people about it, um, because it really helps me to. Bring back that control to myself. Um, and also show that again, vulnerability and being open and honest is a strength. It’s not about.

[00:28:23] Adam Walker: It is, that’s right. It is a strength. And so this has been great. Um, I really admire your approach to to life in general and just the strength that you have.

And we’re just really appreciate you sharing that on this podcast. And so final question. Um, do you have any last advice that you’d like to give our listeners?

[00:28:42] Deb Song: So my last advice for listeners is again, you know, strength. I know we hear about that a lot. You know, people tell you when you’re diagnosed, you’re so strong.

I can’t believe you’re going through this, all this stuff. And were there moments where I was just like, oh geez, I don’t want to hear that. You know, I used to check. Such pride in being called strong. And then there’s that moment where you’re like, I don’t want to hear that I’m strong anymore. You know, I just want to be normal.

And the reality of it is, you know, there’s a beauty in defining strength and, you know, I’ve come to the. Realization that it’s important to embrace the definition of strengthened, um, and embracing the fact when people call you strong and that, you know, the definition of strength has changed for me since breast cancer.

And it’s again, that when you have a tough time, the most important thing is to show up and to show up for your shift self. And when, I mean show up, it’s like, Showing up by crying, showing up by smiling, showing about, by laughing, showing up to an appointment when even when you’re tired or exhausted, you know, I’m showing up to yoga even when you’re not feeling your best or, you know, showing up to eat a pint of ice cream, if that makes you feel better, you know, showing up is still a victory.

It’s telling, making that, mark that saying, you know, I’m here for me and taking that victory, no matter how big or small it may feel, it’s still a victory. And it’s those low moments that will get you through. And you know, really when it comes down and you can’t show up when life is easy, when you’re happy and when life is good, you’ve got to really show up when it’s hard.

Right. And that’s the hard part is showing up for yourself when it’s tough. Right. So be proud of your. When you show up and, you know, I guarantee someone who is listening right now is probably not having their best day, but you, by listening to this, you’re showing up for yourself and you’re taking a step forward and that’s a real win.

And that is real strength.

[00:30:51] Adam Walker: That is a real strength. Well, Deb, that’s amazing advice to all of our listeners show up yourself today. Deb, thank you so much for joining us on the show.

[00:31:00] Deb Song: Thank you, Adam.

[00:31:02] Adam Walker: Thanks to Amgen for supporting this podcast. To learn more about Amgen’s mission – to serve patients with a cutting-edge science-based approach – follow Amgen Biotech on Instagram and Facebook.

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,