[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.
[00:00:16] When you are diagnosed with breast cancer, the unknown can sometimes feel like the scariest part. The support of family, friends and others can help as you go through the diagnosis, treatment, and recovery. Some people find going to a support group is helpful and some people desperately long for connection with other survivors who have been through similar feelings and situations. Today’s guest, Cara Sapida, was on our show back in early 2021 and shared a poem that she had written with our listeners called Oh the Places You’ll Go Fighting Cancer. It was a poem that expressed very real emotions about cancer, the shock and reality that diagnosis can bring, and it clearly resonated with you all, as it was one of the most downloaded episodes that we’ve ever had on this show. Since we spoke to Cara last, she has continued to share the realities of her breast cancer experience through writing and has published a book called Not the Breast Year of My Life. She’s here today to tell us about this journey and fill us in on how things have been going. Cara, welcome back to the show! We are so excited to talk to you today!
[00:01:21] Cara Sapida: Hi. Thank you so much for having me. I didn’t know it was one of the most downloaded episodes. That choked me up a little bit.
[00:01:28] Adam Walker: Well, it’s a happy surprise. It’s a happy surprise. I mean, I think, you know, in all fairness there’s not very many people that are bold enough and talented enough to share a poem to an audience like this and you are both of those things and obviously more so because you’ve written a book. So, this is going to be exciting.
[00:01:46] So well let’s start out with a quick refresh for any listeners that maybe missed your first episode, and by the way, you can also go back and listen to that, why we’d encourage you to do that. But let’s refresh listeners, please, you know, introduce yourself. Give us an update on where you’re at in your breast cancer journey and what’s been happening in your life since we last talked.
[00:02:04] Cara Sapida: Okay, sure. So, it’s going to be three years coming up since I was diagnosed. I was actually diagnosed in June of 2020 at the height of the pandemic. Fun times. So I found my lump on my own. I know a lot of women that do that. Not having found it from a mammogram, but on their own have a story.
[00:02:26] So I was actually having one of those early morning stretches that feel so good in every circumstance, except for when it leads to cancer. And I just like felt it, I was stretching and I found it. And I knew in that moment beyond a shadow of a doubt I knew. And so it did come back as stage two triple negative breast cancer. And at that time in my life, I was going through a separation.
[00:02:52] I had two young kids at home. The world had shut down. Pennsylvania, at least, had shut down. Nothing was open. No bars, no restaurants, no movie theaters, no churches, there was nothing open. So when the governor said that gyms could reopen, I sprinted out of the house. I joined the gym. I worked so hard that I pulled all my muscles, and that is why I was stretching that morning, and that is why I found my lump.
[00:03:16] So I, I try to think back on it gratefully. That like, I’m so grateful that those hardships as, as horrible as they were, the world shutting down on me going through a separation. They led to finding a very aggressive lump, one of the most aggressive forms of breast cancer then, instead of waiting. You know, it could have been weeks and months. So, that, that’s how I discovered I had breast cancer.
[00:03:39] Adam Walker: Wow. That is why, and I remember that because I remember you talking about how you had to get out of the house and like you immediately went to the gym and like, I like that sticks in my memory, that conversation. It’s I totally can empathize with that. So, so how, I mean, how are you feeling now? I mean, it’s been several years. What’s going on now?
[00:03:55] Cara Sapida: Yeah, I’m feeling wonderful. Strangers were praying for me right and left, and they stopped me and they asked how I’m feeling and they hugged me, and they tell me that they were praying for me.
[00:04:07] And that means the world to me. And it was worth sharing my story and worth sharing my bald head on all of those platforms just for all of those prayers, I think. And I think writing the book has been very cathartic in my healing process. It was definitely an uphill battle. I think that a lot of people don’t realize that the healing is as big of a difficult part of the journey as the diagnosis and the treatment, and it’s very difficult, healing is.
[00:04:41] Adam Walker: And it’s, you know, that’s an interesting perspective. I don’t know that I’ve ever heard anyone say that on the show, but but now that you say it, it kind of immediately rings as true. Like, of course that’s the case, that the healing is a huge part of that journey.
[00:04:54] Cara Sapida: It is. And I think that as breast cancer survivors, there’s this unspoken expectation that once we finish treatment and we’re good to go, we’re just going to land on our feet and nobody craves normalcy like we do. But it sort of feels like we are like a baby deer on ice, just trying to get our footing. And we had been tethered to our chemo chairs and our medical team, and all of a sudden we’re just out there in the world, like expected to be normal, and it’s so very difficult, and we’re tasked with healing, and finding resiliency, and bouncing back. And it’s very difficult.
[00:05:35] Adam Walker: That, that may be one of the most vivid descriptions I’ve ever heard that we’re like a baby deer on ice. Like, that was like, that was so perfect. Like that was, I mean, wow. Like, So obviously you’re a writer, so we’re going to talk about that now.
[00:05:50] So yeah, so I mean, so yeah, so, so last time you were on the show, I mentioned earlier we, we shared that poem, which again, just is so, so brave. It took courage and just a lot of, I don’t know, just a lot of stuff. And so let’s talk more about that. Like, now you’ve written a book, which is exciting. I know you’re going to, you’re going to tell us more about that. Like, how has writing been for you? What has that meant for you? What’s that process been like for you?
[00:06:15] Cara Sapida: When I was diagnosed, I was craving connection. And because the world was shut down I couldn’t get that face-to-face connection that so many women who came before me had. You know, I pictured groups of women sitting in a circle with their bald heads, drinking coffee, like making jokes that the coffee tastes like chemo mouth, hugging one another, you can do it, stay strong. I had none of that and I desperately wanted it. And so what happened is when I wrote about how I was feeling and I put it online, I didn’t know what to expect.
[00:06:50] And what happened was I found that connection I was looking for. Women from all over the world could relate to my words and then, and then I ended up getting something from it: friendship. And that connection is so critical, that sisterhood when you are newly diagnosed and you just feel so lonely and so isolated, because even surrounded by friends and family, if you’re not going through it during Covid times, it is still a very isolating and lonely journey. And to have my words resonate with other women and then they would tell me, “I feel that way too.” It helped me. It helped me through the whole process. And so I took a lot of those little blogs and I decided one morning just to started adapting them for a book that I never thought I would publish, truthfully. But that just became more cathartic. Let’s dive in a little bit more to how I felt that day compared to how I’m feeling today. And that’s sort of what led me to have a book.
[00:07:56] Adam Walker: So, yeah. You mentioned like, and this I just want to ask a little bit more about it. You mentioned that feeling of loneliness, even though you’re surrounded by family and friends and I assume, but I’m asking to, to find out if this is a correct subject. I assume it’s because they can’t- they feel for you, they care for you, they love you. But they can’t really fully understand what you’re dealing with. Is that why it’s so lonely?
[00:08:21] Cara Sapida: That is spot on. And they want to. That’s just it. I mean, they yearn to be able to say the right things. I get that. And sometimes we interpret sympathy as pity, and we want empathy, and it is such a gray area. Nobody knows what to say to you when. Nobody knows what to say.
[00:08:43] And I almost would feel bad for people trying to find the right words. And I. Actually, when I was writing the book, I thought to myself, I hope somebody can just hand this to their significant other, to their mother, to their neighbor and say, here you go. This is what I feel like a lot of the time. And loneliness during your darkest days is a really difficult place to reside.
[00:09:07] Adam Walker: Yeah. It really is. Yeah. I appreciate that. Like people don’t know what to say and I think that part of that struggle there too is: it’s going to be different for every single person, right? Like, what might inspire you or give you strength might be seen as pity to someone else and they might not want that. And so I think the trick is, or maybe the encouragement is to know the person you’re trying to support well enough to support them in the way that they need because it’s going to be different for every single person, right?
[00:09:36] Cara Sapida: Yes. What do they need and how can I show empathy? And show that I’m here if you need absolutey- I think there’s one swear word in my whole book. I didn’t plan on saying this, but it’s about this. Like, you just want them to say to you, I know this sucks. And you’re like, “Yes! It does! In every capacity!” You know, like one swear word in the book. Sorry, mom.
[00:09:57] Adam Walker: Yeah. I mean I think, but I think when people are going through tough times, like that’s one of the best things we can do is be like, this is terrible. Like this. It really like just say what it is. This is awful. And I’m sorry that this is happening, you know, like that’s sometimes there’s nothing else we could do.
[00:10:11] So, alright, so let’s talk about your book. So, okay. Your book, Not The Breast Year of My Life. Tell me about this. What inspired you to write it? You said it was kind of adapted from some blog posts, like walk me through that whole thing.
[00:10:24] Cara Sapida: So when I- I’m a reader, I love books. When I was first diagnosed, books started showing up at my doorstep. God bless everybody in my life. They just, they were like, we know what we can do. We can send our breast cancer books. And so I had almost 50 books piled up on my dining room table in those first few weeks, and I put them on the floor, and I was just in the middle of this sea of books, and at the time I was going through each one in almost like a moment of desperation and I didn’t know what I was searching for.
[00:10:52] In hindsight, I know now I was searching for hope. And hope is so elusive at the beginning of a breast cancer experience and I couldn’t find it. I couldn’t find it in any of these books. I wasn’t getting it from medical jargon and statistics.
[00:11:09] I then all of a sudden found hope by talking to women who were on the other side of chemotherapy, women who had just finished treatment. They were back to their lives. They were back to the parent pickup line. They were in the grocery store. I met a woman who was sitting next to her mother in the chemo chair because her mother was diagnosed right after her and she had a pixie haircut. And she said she just finished treatment for stage two triple-negative breast cancer just like I did. And she said after she left that day she was going to the zoo. And I remember I was like, I want to go to this zoo. I’d never wanted to go to the zoo so bad in my life, but it was just so normal to her.
[00:11:47] And this like beacon of hope was placed in front of me. Like, this is what you can strive for to get to the other side, and I wasn’t finding that in any of those books. So I set out to write this from the perspective of: if you need a friend who has been through this before, here is what I experienced, and I hope I can help you.
[00:12:08] I hope that I can hold your hand, in a sense, as you get through your darkest days and you learn to find your footing, and you find resilience, and you strive to heal. This is the path I took and I hope it can just help you. Because without that, there’s just this big great unknown if you don’t know somebody who’s been through it.
[00:12:29] Adam Walker: Yeah. Yeah. That’s great. And I love that perspec, that approach, like the comment about the zoo. Like that strike like that, after you get through this, you go to the zoo. That seems like- everybody likes to go to the zoo. So, all right. So, so what are some of the key sort of supportive lessons that you’ve learned and you’ve shared with your audience through your book?
[00:12:50] Cara Sapida: Oh, that’s such a great question. I think that one of the biggest lessons that I wish I had learned sooner rather than later, is that you can be unapologetically angry that you were diagnosed with breast cancer and that you have this uphill battle and have no idea how you’re going to handle it.
[00:13:15] You’re completely ill prepared, and you can be unapologetically sad that you, if you’re going through chemo, going to lose all of your hair in a matter of weeks, and unapologetically sad that you find that experience harrowing because it’s awful. And you don’t have to minimize that for anybody in your life.
[00:13:38] And at the same time, you can find laughter through your darkest moments because the anger, the sadness, and even the laughter, those are all coping mechanisms that helped me get through my darkest hours. And you don’t have to apologize for any of it.
[00:13:55] Adam Walker: That’s powerful.
[00:13:57] Cara Sapida: Thank you, because we find ourselves saying like, I’m so embarrassed that I don’t love being bald. Well, who does? You know? And so many women, you know, part of their identity is in their hair.
[00:14:08] Adam Walker: Yeah.
[00:14:08] Cara Sapida: And it’s just stripped of you so quickly and you feel like you don’t want to even mention it to people because you have all- you have something bigger going on, obviously. You’re fighting breast cancer, this horrible, ugly disease, and you feel like you don’t have permission to be sad about hair loss. I find this from so many women and it’s okay. It’s okay. We can mourn the loss of that hair at the same time. We can do these things simultaneously. We can have multiple feelings at once and we can laugh about, we can laugh about it some days, you know?
[00:14:37] Adam Walker: Yeah. Oh, I love, and I love that you give permission to have those contradictory feelings. Because I feel like a lot of times, In life, we kind of have these ideas that, like the feelings are sort of monotheistic. Like, so we’re just sad because of this thing. One thing that happened. We’re just angry because of this. But like, humans are way more complex than that, right? And so we can ha we have this complexity of emotion. And so you as someone that’s been through it, giving that permission to have that complexity of emotion and that range of emotion over even a short period of time, I think is so powerful and so important.
[00:15:10] Cara Sapida: I love that. And I think, you know, I wish somebody would’ve handed me that free pass. Here’s your free pass to feel all of the things.
[00:15:17] Adam Walker: Yeah. Yeah.
[00:15:18] Cara Sapida: Feel it all. And you know, I’ll tell you, I’ll tell you a funny story about the hair loss. So, when I knew that the hair loss was coming and I think most women will be like, maybe it won’t happen to me. Maybe I’ll be the one right on this treatment plan who keeps the hair. And no, I lost it.
[00:15:36] But I remember taking my four year old, because my daughter was only two, and I remember taking my four year old. And I said, “I want to talk to you out back.” And I said, “I’m going to tell you something crazy. You know this medicine that mommy is on.” And we always used the correct word. So I said, because of breast cancer, I said, “It’s going to do something silly, it’s going to make all of my hair fall out.”
[00:15:58] And he said, “What? That is silly.” And I said, “Yes, it’s so silly. But that means the medicine is doing its job and it’s helping mommy.” And he got down off of the stoop and he took a few steps and he’s looking at me and he was quiet for a minute. I was a little bit nervous, like, maybe he’s going to be sad.
[00:16:17] Like, what if he cries? And he sits back down and he said, well, I’m still going to tell you’re beautiful. And I, ugh, I immediately cry. The next day, local barber comes to my house to buzz my hair, which was unbelievably kind of him. Found out later that his grandmother had breast cancer and that’s why he offered to do it.
[00:16:41] So he comes to my house and would make a big thing out, a big show out of it. And my son holds the clippers and he buzzes with him and my daughter’s holding my hand. And I’m not going to lie to you, it was a very difficult experience. I was pretty numb throughout it just trying to be like zen and not think about it.
[00:17:02] But afterwards… the cleanups going on, you know. Lots- I could hear people talking about how I had a lovely shaped head. I was out of it. Not really tapped in. Well my son and daughter come and sit with me and my son kept his word. He looks at me and he says, mommy, you still looked beautiful. And again, the tears come and my daughter says, yes, beautiful, like a hamster.
[00:17:32] Adam Walker: [Laughs] Ah, the best kind of compliment from a two-year-old, right?
[00:17:39] Cara Sapida: Yeah. Snapped me out. It and we laughed and I was like, ok, I’m beautiful like a hamster. Let’s go make dinner.
[00:17:46] Adam Walker: I mean, from a two year old’s perspective, that is truly a glorious compliment. I mean, they love some hamsters, so that’s pretty amazing.
[00:17:52] Cara Sapida: That’s true. I should buy her one.
[00:17:54] Adam Walker: Yeah. In all fairness, like that’s amazing. Wow. That’s such a beautiful story. And I really appreciate you sharing that. Kids have this amazing way of seeing deep truths, I think sometimes that we don’t give them credit for.
[00:18:07] Cara Sapida: For sure. And there’s so much of that weaved in my book. I mean, they really helped me through the whole experience.
[00:18:13] Adam Walker: Yeah. Wow. That’s amazing. Well, speaking of your book. I want, want to make sure we don’t bypass this question, so.
[00:18:19] Cara Sapida: Okay, sure.
[00:18:19] Adam Walker: Where can people find your book if they wanted to find your book and read these stories?
[00:18:24] Cara Sapida: So, it will be on Amazon. You should be able to find it on Amazon, hopefully.
[00:18:33] Adam Walker: Great.
[00:18:34] Cara Sapida: Yeah, hopefully you should be able to look it up and find it on Amazon. I’ll put a link to it on my social media pages.
[00:18:40] Adam Walker: Fantastic. We’ll put a link in the show notes as well. So if you’re listening to this episode we’ll make sure we have a link in the show notes for you. That’s fantastic. So, so then Cara, last question. What advice do you have for someone recently diagnosed with breast cancer or maybe even in the thick of it, and what’s something that, that they might consider doing today for themselves?
[00:19:00] Cara Sapida: Oh, that’s a great question, too. You know, I was like, I was flipping through my book and I was thinking what do I want to share? And I think that I’m going to read you a little passage that.
[00:19:14] Adam Walker: Oh, that’d be great.
[00:19:14] Cara Sapida: This is something that might help. This was after I lost all my hair and purchased a wig. And found myself not wanting to wear it, even though it was very expensive and beautiful. And so I said:
[00:19:29] “Waking up the next day, there was a brief, peaceful moment in time before I remembered my new reality. Grief I’d only begun to learn can be so startling in the morning, it feels like an ambush. Whether you call this a fight, a battle, a journey, a marathon, an unfortunate life obstacle, a health setback, or whatever feels right to you. The part of this experience where you lose the hair is harrowing. It’s broadcasting to the world that we are sick.
[00:19:51] It’s broadcasting what we may have been hiding well, that can no longer deny to anyone, including ourselves.”
[00:19:57] And I go on to say how after I purchased that wig, I put it on and got all dolled up to run errands. And I looked in the rear view mirror and I felt, you know, whole again for a moment. And I really thought it looked lovely, and yet something felt off.
[00:20:14] And in that moment I wrote,
[00:20:16] “I didn’t want to conceal evidence that I was fighting cancer. I didn’t care if people did a double take when they saw me, I felt inauthentic. What if I passed another cancer fighter in the produce aisle and they had no idea we had this connection in common? Misery doesn’t love company.
[00:20:30] It craves compassion. It seeks encouragement and moral support. At the very least, we’d smiled knowingly at each other, and I didn’t want to miss that opportunity if it presented itself.”
[00:20:41] And then I said,
[00:20:41] “I left the wig in the car and headed toward the grocery store. This time I caught my reflection in the front window and made eye contact. Even if I ran into no other cancer fighters, I saw myself.”
[00:20:53] And I share that because I just want women to remember that you were more than this diagnosis. You are more than your battle with breast cancer. We are mothers. I say this all the time. We are mothers, and we are wives, and friends, and you know, I’m a storyteller.
[00:21:13] I’m a journalist. I like to cook. I love to bake. I’m so many things that I don’t want this to define me, and I don’t want this to define you. And if you’re struggling to find resilience and you are struggling to figure out how to be after a breast cancer diagnosis, I encourage you to try to get back to who you were.
[00:21:35] Find those moments where you feel like yourself again, and in those moments you’ll realize you’re finding resilience. You’re remembering who you are. This doesn’t have to define you. This was a moment. This is a blip in the radar. Gather up that strength, and get fighting ready for the next chapter of your life. You already fought through this.
[00:22:00] And one last thing, I think that if you still can’t figure out quite how to get there, tap into the mental fortitude that comes through this experience. Maybe you didn’t sign up for the cancer marathon because none of us did. And I always say, you know, I’m not a runner. I- it feels like I’m at the starting line in a pair of flip flops and a broken Walkman.
[00:22:29] I don’t want to run this cancer marathon. But you do it, step by step, and when you get through the other side, there’s no way you don’t have a new found mental fortitude. And I think that’s a little secret in the breast cancer community, the sisterhood of women who we know we are so strong. Look what we got through.
[00:22:47] And we did it together. We did it relying on one another, talking to each other, supporting each other, and knowing how harrowing and difficult it was. And now that we’re on the other side, we are never taking any of life’s moments for granted.
[00:23:03] Adam Walker: That’s amazing, amazing advice. We’re absolutely going to have to have you on the show yet again very soon.
[00:23:11] Cara Sapida: Okay.
[00:23:11] Adam Walker: But in the meantime, Cara, thank you so much for joining us on the show today. Thank you for sharing your story.
[00:23:15] Cara Sapida: Thank you for having me. I appreciate it.
[00:23:19] Adam Walker: Thanks for listening to Real Pink, a weekly podcast by Susan G Komen. For more episodes, visit RealPink.com. 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 @AJWalker or on my blog, AdamJWalker.com.