It’s the darkest nights that produce the brightest stars. Focusing on the good things in a bad situation can make it easier. You may be bald from chemo, but now you can try a shorter hair do. Hospitals and treatment rooms can be a drag, but you’re meeting new people, some of whom might just become great friends. Treatment is difficult, but how fortunate are we that it exists! In addition, what doctors learn from you could save lives in the future.
Cancer is a horrible and terrifying disease. Yet millions of people have beaten the odds and beat cancer. Authority Magazine started a new series called “I Survived Cancer and Here Is How I Did It”. In this interview series, we are talking to cancer survivors to share their stories, in order to offer hope and provide strength to people who are being impacted by cancer today. As a part of this interview series, I had the pleasure of interviewing Judy Pearson.
Judy Pearson is a storyteller and a cancer survivor. She learned that helping is healing and has spent her survivorship sharing that lesson. And in a remarkable twist of fate, that lesson is now reaching thousands.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! We really appreciate the courage it takes to publicly share your story. Before we start, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your background and your childhood backstory?
As a Michigan girl, I’m a Spartan for life, having graduated from Michigan State University. I’ve always loved a good story. And while it took me a few career choices (as a high school French teacher, a basketball coach, an advertising executive and a voice-over talent), that love led me to become a published author. I write biographies about little known people who have done extraordinary things in their lives. One of my books has even been purchased for a movie.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“It’s only in the darkest night that you can best see the stars.” The quote is attributed to many authors, but it’s the meaning that’s the most important. When we feel we’re at the bottom, when everything seems as though it’s slipping away, that is the moment you’ll most clearly see the way forward.
Let’s now shift to the main part of our discussion about surviving cancer. Do you feel comfortable sharing with us the story surrounding how you found out that you had cancer?
I had just married the man of my dreams (after a couple of divorces). I was living on the shores of Lake Michigan and had two grown sons of whom I was (and still am) extremely proud. Two months after a clean mammogram, I found a lump in my cleavage. A biopsy confirmed it was Triple Negative Breast Cancer, rare and extremely aggressive.
What was the scariest part of that event? What did you think was the worst thing that could happen to you?
(Laughing out loud) Scariest part? All of it was scary! I thought about my own mortality. Death was not in my immediate plan. I had so much more to do, so many more stories to tell. I wanted to love my husband into old age, enjoy my sons’ successes, and watch my grandchildren grow.
How did you react in the short term?
And then I realized that if I hadn’t found that lump myself, if it had been buried more deeply in my breast tissue and not noticeable till my next mammogram, death would have been a certainty. Clearly, this wasn’t my end. It was an experience that had meaning. And I was going to make it mean something for others, too.
Ironically during surgery, there was indeed more cancer found that the mammogram had completely missed. I have dense breast tissue (as do about 40% of all women). Mammography has difficulty detecting anomalies through dense tissue.
After the dust settled, what coping mechanisms did you use? What did you do to cope physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually?
Research! As I mentioned, I’m a biographer and do a lot of research for my books. I’m also someone who likes to be well-prepared for any contingency. Therefore, I had thoroughly researched my disease, reconstruction and treatment. But at no time did it occur to me to research survivorship. I just assumed at the end of it all, the old Judy would jump out of the chemo cake!
But the old Judy was no where to be found. Replacing her was a woman with night sweats, joint pain, brain fog, chronic fatigue AND insomnia. My oncologist offered more drugs to offset those, but I declined. It was the chemo drugs — which, I’m grateful to say, saved my life — that had gotten me there in the first place. I wanted to know what else was coming. So I began researching survivorship, and discovered other women survivors who were using their gifts of life and experience for the greater good. By helping others, they were healing themselves.
There is real, scientific research that has been done on the health benefits of volunteering. And it just makes sense. When you take the focus off yourself and your problems, and shine your energy out to others, your challenges seem to take a back seat.
Is there a particular person you are grateful towards who helped you learn to cope and heal? Can you share a story about that?
Without a doubt, it is my amazing husband. I actually told him he should probably get out of our new marriage as fast as he could. I might die and my personal landscape would be completely altered. I insisted this new world was NOT what he had signed up for. But he took my hands, looked me in the eyes, and said this was EXACTLY what he had signed up for. And we have slogged through the ups and downs together ever since.
In my own cancer struggle, I sometimes used the idea of embodiment to help me cope. Let’s take a minute to look at cancer from an embodiment perspective. If your cancer had a message for you, what do you think it would want or say?
NOTE: Happy to answer this one, but my answer would be similar to below. So as not to repeat myself, I skipped it. Please advise.
What did you learn about yourself from this very difficult experience? How has cancer shaped your worldview? What has it taught you that you might never have considered before? Can you please explain with a story or example?
I’ve now met thousands of cancer survivors. And almost all of them have said what I’ve often said over the last decade: cancer was the best worst thing that ever happened to me. Two years before the disease came to call, I had gone through a difficult divorce (after 15 difficult years of marriage). I recovered to have a wonderful new life with my new husband.
Cancer has been the same, difficult but life-changing for the good. I thank God and the universe every day for all my blessings. I’ve learned there’s not a minute to waste in life. I have jettisoned toxic situations and relationships. I focus on what matters to me (and those I love).
Psychologists often refer to it as post traumatic growth, the reverse experience of post traumatic stress. And boy, have I grown!
How have you used your experience to bring goodness to the world?
I like to think so. When I discovered the “helping is healing” theory, I began volunteering, too. My volunteering experiences led me to create A 2nd Act, an organization whose sole mission is to celebrate and support women survivors of all cancers as they give back to the world around them. Our annual fundraising is a live, professionally produced storytelling event, with an ever-evolving cast of eight women survivors sharing their 2nd Acts (how they’re giving back after cancer).
And A 2nd Act led me to a woman who became the inspiration for my latest biography, From Shadows to Life: A Biography of the Cancer Survivorship Movement. It begins with President Richard Nixon signing the National Cancer Act on December 23, 1971 (this year will be the 50th anniversary). The act infused unprecedented amounts of money into cancer research. But survivors faced horrible discrimination and isolation. A group came together to launch and lead a survivorship movement, much like the women’s movement and the AIDS movement. This is their story.
What are a few of the biggest misconceptions and myths out there about fighting cancer that you would like to dispel?
First, that survivorship begins at diagnosis, as that’s the moment we begin surviving cancer. There’s no magic three or five year goal line to receive that title. The founders of the survivorship movement created that definition 35 years ago and it is accepted by the medical community today.
Secondly, as both my organization and my new biography clearly illustrate, cancer doesn’t end when treatment does. Whether you have no evidence of disease, or you’re told you must live with your cancer, the changes you’ve undergone are now a part of the fabric of your life. However, as I mentioned above, some of those changes can — and should — be used for good.
Fantastic. Here is the main question of our interview. Based on your experiences and knowledge, what advice would you give to others who have recently been diagnosed with cancer? What are your “5 Things You Need To Beat Cancer? Please share a story or example for each.
1. As I said at the outset, it’s the darkest nights that produce the brightest stars. Focusing on the good things in a bad situation can make it easier. You may be bald from chemo, but now you can try a shorter hair do. Hospitals and treatment rooms can be a drag, but you’re meeting new people, some of whom might just become great friends. Treatment is difficult, but how fortunate are we that it exists! In addition, what doctors learn from you could save lives in the future.
2. Did you know you can even eat an elephant a bite at a time? In this case, the elephant is cancer, and at the outset, it can seem like a daunting, never-ending journey. But breaking it down to one day at a time makes it feel more manageable. I posted a sticky note in our bedroom with the number of chemo treatments I had left. Watching the number go down was greatly stress reducing.
3. One of the founders of the survivorship movement talked about the importance of “veterans guiding the rookies.” In other words, there are always survivors who can benefit from your knowledge and experience. Even if you’re newly diagnosed, you’re already a veteran. There will be others diagnosed tomorrow who could avail themselves from what you learned in the early stages. And for long-term survivors, you have lots of experience to share!
4. And if you jump on the “veterans guiding the rookies” bandwagon, you’re also on the “helping is healing” bandwagon. It’s a win/win for everyone. And as we stress in A 2nd Act, your 2nd Act doesn’t have to be big or cancer-related. Whatever makes your heart sing will have the healing benefits.
5. Finally, never forget to live life fully every day: smile more; take time to smell the roses; help a neighbor in need; give yourself the gift of joy.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the greatest amount of people, what would that be?
Since the cancer survivorship movement has already been launched, I’ll claim the 2nd Act movement. It doesn’t matter what life challenge someone has faced, creating a 2nd Act by using the knowledge learned will help others with their challenges
We are very blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them. 🙂
There are MANY people I’d like to have time with. But at this moment, I’d love to have a one-on-one with the documentary producer Ken Burns. As a history buff, I’ve been impressed with all of his series. I’d like to know where his ideas come from, what makes his creativity thrive, and why he chose his profession.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
Prologues to all of my books can be found at JudithLPearson.com. And to learn more, and to see the stories of our amazing storytellers, visit A2ndAct.org.
Thank you so much for sharing these important insights. We wish you continued success and good health!