Most breast cancers are not related to genes or family history. However, if you have been diagnosed with breast cancer, your family members, especially sisters, daughters and mothers may have an increased risk of getting breast cancer. When cancer does affect multiple generations in a family, the impact can be far greater reaching than just the physical symptoms. Our guest today lost her mother to cancer at an impactful time in her life, was diagnosed with breast cancer 7 years ago, and is raising two daughters. Here to share the ways this has impacted her family, as well as how she’s been able to use her experiences to help other people and to build meaningful relationships is Dara Kurtz. Dara, welcome to the show….
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. Most breast cancers are not related to genes or family history. However, if you’ve been diagnosed with breast cancer, your family members, especially sisters, daughters, and mothers may have an increased risk of getting breast cancer. When cancer does affect multiple generations in the family, the impact can be greater reaching than just the physical symptoms. Our guest today lost her mother to cancer at an impactful time in her life was diagnosed with breast cancer seven years ago, and is raising two daughters here to share the ways this has impacted her family, as well as how she’s been able to use her experiences to help other people and build meaningful relationships as Dara Kurtz, Dara. Welcome to the show.
Dara Kurtz (00:58):
Hi, I’m so happy to be here. Thanks for having me.
Adam Walker (01:01):
This is going to be a great conversation. I appreciate you joining us today. So let’s start. Tell us about your story. I know when you were 42, you heard those words, you have cancer. Talk about that. What was that like after having seen senior mother pass away from cancer?
Dara Kurtz (01:18):
So my mom passed away from melanoma, which is a form of skin cancer. It wasn’t breast cancer. And when I was 42 out of the blue, one day, I was fine. And then the next day I was hearing words like cancer, mass biopsy surgery, and it was devastating at the time. My kids were 11 and 14 and, you know, having been through what it feels like to lose my mom, it was really the worst possible diagnosis that I could get. And I remember being on the table and the surgeon saying to me, Dara, we have to prepare because I really think this has cancer. And I was just sobbing. And I was saying to him, I can’t have this because I know what it feels like to live in the world without your mom. And I can’t put my daughters through this. And so it, it was really devastating because it brought up so much of what I had been through with my mom that I thought that I had resolved when I really hadn’t even started working through a lot of it. And it really just kind of brought it all up.
Adam Walker (02:26):
I can only imagine how difficult that must have been and talk for a minute. Like, what was it like for your daughters? You mentioned they were 11 and 14. They’re watching you go through cancer. They know that your, your mother passed away from it. Like what was their experience?
Dara Kurtz (02:39):
I mean, I really appreciate that question because it was so challenging for them to look at me and to see me go through. And I went through chemo and surgery and I want him to be as aggressive as possible. And I had so much going for me and that we found it relatively early, but at the same time, I really looked like a cancer patient and felt like a cancer patient. And just seeing me like that was really, really hard for them. And then knowing what they they’ve seen me kind of travel through my life. My mom passed away a few weeks after I had my first child. And so they know they’ve seen me cry. They’ve seen me miss my mom. They’d seen me, you know, talk about her and talk about how much I wish she was here and all of those things.
Dara Kurtz (03:30):
And so it really was affecting, I think so much more than we all sort of talked about at that time, because when you get a diagnosis like that, like out of the blue, I mean, you kind of go into this, like, okay, we’ve got to, how can we solve this problem? Right? Like, what is our treatment plan? What are the doctors saying? You know, you just kind of focus on like getting through the day, getting through the plan. And while we did all have counselors and mental health has just a really important, I’ve always felt like that was so important. My mom was a counselor. And so I really think the whole entire world, everyone should have a counselor. Think how amazing that would be adjusted. Right. We would all be so grounded, but you know, it wasn’t until later that, and it’s been seven years since we went through this, it wasn’t until later that a lot of these other things started coming out in terms of like the fear and anxiety that my daughters had on such a a whole nother level of seeing their mom go through it.
Adam Walker (04:35):
Yeah, I can, I can only imagine. And, and, you know, you, you have a book and you talk in that book about grief and about how you were stuck in grief for a long time and had a lot of guilt regarding your diagnosis, you know, versus your mom’s. Can you tell us a little bit more about that?
Dara Kurtz (04:53):
Yeah, so I hadn’t written this book yet and I didn’t write, I am my mother’s spot daughter. It came out this past September. And so thanks to a random sequence of events. I found a Ziploc bag of letters, which were, the letters were written to me the first time I went to sleep away camp when I was nine, until I graduated from college. And they were mostly written by my mom and it wasn’t until 20 years after her death that I found this bag of letters and sat down. And finally, like one night had the courage to open it because I was so worried that opening that bag of letters was going to bring back all the pain and the sadness and the guilt that I had worked so hard to overcome. And so it wasn’t until I was writing this book that I started to really see how I had been stuck in grief for 20 years, how I was so guilty about the diagnosis that I had versus the diagnosis that my mom and, you know, all of these things that I really didn’t fully understand, grasp, see, and finally give myself permission to release until I wrote the book.
Dara Kurtz (06:10):
But I remember my dad was here when I’d first gotten diagnosed. And you know, my whole family was like in survival mode and my dad and my stepmother came and they were here. And I remember just calling and saying, dad, can you, can you come into my bedroom for a second because I’m literally losing it. So he came into my bedroom and we were sitting on my bed and I was just like, dad, I feel so guilty about, you know, this diagnosis because I’m so lucky. And that’s when I really realized that there’s luck in cancer. You know, it’s not the diagnosis that anyone gets, but my mom, she w she had, you know, the kind of statistics in terms of what she was told. You know, this is your plan, and this is what you’re going to go through. And the odds were just so against her from, you know, day one. And, and so that grief, that grief and that guilt followed me around for a long time. And you know, I’m, so I’m so grateful that I found those letters and that I was able to kind of get had that experience and, and really finally pushed myself to acknowledging and releasing all of it, because, you know, I can be a happier version and a more joyful version of myself today because I’ve given myself permission to not hold onto that pain and the guilt and the grief.
Adam Walker (07:40):
Oh, that’s so good. That’s so good. And it’s so important that we give ourselves that permission to keep, to keep moving forward. So what, what are some of the tools that you used to help you move forward after going through breast cancer and to keep you grounded and remain paused?
Dara Kurtz (07:56):
Yeah. So after I went through everything and the doctor said, okay, Daraa, it’s time to get back to the business of living. I did not even know how to do that anymore. I had no idea how to do that or what that meant for me. And I remember the last day of my radiation and I was done with everything. And I remember just crying inside the hospital in a little chapel right off of the room, the main lobby. And I had never been in this chapel, like through the whole entire treatment plan, but I, somewhere to, like, I was sobbing and I just remember feeling like a sitting duck. I remember feeling like, okay, we’re done with everything, but like now what, what’s the plan? Okay, I’m going to be monitored, but, you know, that just felt really scary. And so I knew that I had to do a lot of work on myself.
Dara Kurtz (08:52):
I knew that I had to find my peace because if I was gonna make the most of the rest of my life, I had to make peace with what happened. And so for me personally, it looked like going to counseling. It looked like writing in a journal every single day, starting to meditate. I spent a lot of time walking in the woods and I’ve always been a big exerciser and you know, burning calories on a treadmill or doing P90X didn’t feel as important anymore as just getting out in what, in the woods and, and walking outside. And I started practicing Kundalini yoga, which has been a game changer for me. It’s kind of yoga, but it’s super weird and it’s all about energy, but life-changing so anyone listening to this, you know, message me. Yeah. But, you know, I just, I did a lot of work on myself and then of course eating as cleanly as possible and trying to figure out what that meant.
Dara Kurtz (09:55):
And just taking care of my mental health, as well as my physical health and being careful who I surrounded myself with and giving my permission myself permission to not be around toxic people. And, you know, some of my friends changed a little bit through that, but also just, I quit my job and I started my blog crazy, perfect life and started writing. And so for me, writing has really been a way for me to not only maybe use my story to help others, but to kind of get, get a lot or figure out or connect with my feelings as well in a way that other people I think can relate to.
Adam Walker (10:39):
So let’s talk more about writing. I know you’re a big fan of writing letters, and I think maybe I have some insight now as to why talk about the three types of letters and why you feel it’s so important.
Dara Kurtz (10:52):
So after I found that bag of letters, there were over a hundred letters inside and I dumped them out on the table behind me that you can see. And I just started, started sorting them. I mean, I did had no clue what I was going to do or that I was going to write a book about it or anything, but I ended up realizing that there were three kinds of letters. The first kind, I call it the, just because letter. And those are letters that my mom wrote to me just because she was thinking about me. I was at camp, she was missing me. I was at college. She just wanted to check in with me, tell me what was going on in her life. And the beauty of that is that I really got to know my mom from my adult perspective, because I got a glimpse into what her life was when she was raising her kids.
Dara Kurtz (11:37):
And, you know, some of them were written on random notebook paper. Some are written on cards, you know, some had words crossed out or spelling mistakes. It’s so not about perfection. They were just written from her heart, you know, and I share those letters because like I said, I got to know my mom better because of them. The next kind of letter is the special occasion letter. And those are letters that were written. Maybe I had a big birthday, a sweet 16 when I graduated from high school college. When I got engaged, when I got married, you know, just really intentional writing because they were proud. They were, the purpose is to show the recipient that you’re proud of them or what you hope for them. And so there’s a little bit more intention behind them. And then the third kind of letter is what I call the legacy letter.
Dara Kurtz (12:31):
And that’s a letter that is to be read upon the death of the writer. And my mom wrote a legacy letter to me, the morning of her funeral. My dad came in to the bedroom and said, Dara, here’s a letter from your mom. She wanted me to give us to you the morning of her funeral. And she had written once my brother, as well as to my dad. And, you know, that is such a beautiful, just such a kind and generous thing to do for the people that you love. It also taught me that it’s better to write that kind of letter when you don’t plan on passing away when you are. Okay. Because my mom was really, really sick when she wrote that letter. And because of that, she wasn’t able to say to me what I know she would’ve wanted to say to me and things that she had said to me in all the other letters that I have.
Dara Kurtz (13:21):
And so it just kind of taught me that there’s a way to put a lot of intention behind writing a legacy letter. And I talk a lot about that in my book and share a lot of journal prompts and ideas and different ways you can structure it because if the purpose is for it to be the last thing that someone that you love reads, you do want to put a little bit of time and intention behind what you want to say to them, but it’s an unbelievable gift. And I encourage everyone listening to this to consider doing something like that for your family.
Adam Walker (13:55):
Yeah. That’s a, that’s an amazing gift and really, really amazing advice. And what a gift, you know, from your mother and all the letters, honestly, I mean, what a gift in, in the digital age that we live in, it certainly makes me want to scribble down more notes and more letters.
Dara Kurtz (14:11):
You know, I’m glad you brought that up because a lot of times people will say to me, well, Dara, my handwriting, isn’t so good. Or, you know, I don’t really like writing. Can I type it on the computer? And, you know, here’s the thing, there’s no rules about how you write a letter. Do I personally think that there’s something really nice about holding a piece of paper that my mom held and looking at her handwriting? Absolutely I do. But you know, if you’re the kind of person that says, well, I just want to type then type it and print it out and send it through the mail. But thing about email is that a lot of times we have the intention of saving a special email and we don’t, it gets lost in the craziness of the hundreds and thousands of emails that we have, or we get a new computer or, you know, we can’t remember what file we put it in. So for me personally, I think there’s something really beautiful about printing it out and giving it to someone or even mailing it. And I promise you nowadays for someone to go to a mailbox and have a surprise letter, like just because letter, you will make their day and I promise you, they will be so excited.
Adam Walker (15:22):
Yeah. And, and it’s a really good excuse to get into fun things like fountain pens and stationary and fun, things like that. Right.
Dara Kurtz (15:29):
I’m obsessed with pens and stationary. I mean, right. There’s no surprise there. Yeah. Okay. I’m going to pen right here, pens. They are $18 on Amazon. They are not expensive, but they are my favorite pens, but yes. I know a lot of people are into the whole fountain pen thing. Right.
Adam Walker (15:48):
That’s right. Well Dara, this has been so great. Do you have any final advice that you’d like to share with our listeners?
Dara Kurtz (15:57):
I always have lots of advice. You know, so many things, first of all, if you’re diagnosed with cancer, it’s not a death sentence. You have the ability to navigate through that challenge and get through it, get to the other side. What it will do is it will, even if you don’t believe this, now I promise you, it will show you just how grateful and how blessed you are to be alive. And you won’t take things for granted, and it really will impact your life in a lot of positive ways that I know for anyone who’s just recently diagnosed. It’s hard to see that, but I promise you, it really is the case. You know, don’t hesitate to ask for help if you’re going through a hard time. I think that sometimes we don’t want to ask for help, but it’s okay if you are not okay.
Dara Kurtz (16:50):
And it’s okay to say that and lean on people and let people be there for you. I think it’s really important to take the time, to tell the people that you love and care about how you feel no matter what you’re going through, even if you’re not going through anything. I think that it’s really important. And maybe that’s what Corina has shown all of us that life is fragile. And that it’s never too late to say. I love you to the people that you care about. And you know, what, if that means doing that through the handwritten word, then I think that’s just the cherry on top of the ice cream sundae.
Adam Walker (17:28):
That’s right. That’s right. And and Dhara, so I know you’ve got a website and they’ve got a book. How can our listeners find and connect with you if they want to do that?
Dara Kurtz (17:37):
Yeah. So my website is crazy, perfect life.com and you can check out my books. I have my first book crushed cancer, and there’s a workbook to go with that. That’s the book that I needed when I went through breast cancer that wasn’t available. And then my recent book, I am my mother’s daughter is all about life loss and love and how you can connect more and grow your relationships. And it’s about my story with the bat, the bag of letters, and you know, all of those things, people can receive five free gifts when they purchase my book. And that’s all on my website as well. And of course, social media, I’m on Instagram at crazy perfect life and on Facebook at crazy perfect life. So I’d love it. If you reached out to me, if you have any questions I love hearing from people.
Adam Walker (18:27):
This is great. I think you just got one new follower today. That’s going to be great. Well Dara. This is so great. Thank you so much for your time.
Dara Kurtz (18:36):
Thank you so much.
Adam Walker (18:38):
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 my blog. Adam J walker.com.