Liz Benditt of The Balm Box: “Treatment Plans are up for discussion ”

Treatment Plans are up for discussion — they are not a directive. Given my age and general good health, Doctors almost always recommended the MOST aggressive treatment plans for me — but ultimately, I was the one who made the decision regarding what I was willing to put my body through. I focused on the odds. We are lucky […]

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Treatment Plans are up for discussion — they are not a directive. Given my age and general good health, Doctors almost always recommended the MOST aggressive treatment plans for me — but ultimately, I was the one who made the decision regarding what I was willing to put my body through. I focused on the odds. We are lucky to live in the age of information. There is great research and data on a patient’s odds of a recurrence or complication for most standard cancer treatments like surgery, radiation, chemotherapy, and hormone therapy. This is SO subjective! For example: for me, engaging in hormone therapy post-breast cancer would reduce my odds of recurrence by 50%. That sounds high, right? But in reality, post-lumpectomy and radiation treatment, my odds of recurrence were about 15%. 10 years of hormone therapy would take my odds of a breast cancer recurrence down to 8%. This is such a personal and subjective decision — are the side effects of hormone therapy worth an 8% reduction? Some women would say YES, absolutely! Others say, NO, not worth it!

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 Liz Benditt.

Liz Benditt is a 4-time cancer survivor. She is President and CEO of The Balm Box, a self-care and gifting site for breast cancer patients. In addition to teaching undergraduate business marketing courses at University of Kansas, Benditt also serves on the Education First Shawnee Mission board of directors, and volunteers with The Mainstream Coalition and National Charity League. She lives in the Kansas City suburbs with her husband and two children.


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?

I was born in Southern California but moved around a lot as a kid — we lived in San Diego, Los Angeles, Chicago, and State College Pennsylvania by the time I graduated from High School. I earned my bachelor’s degree at Boston University, moved to Orlando Florida to work for Disney for a few years before heading back to California to earn my master’s degree at University of Southern California. While I was earning my MBA, my parents relocated to the Kansas City metro area and my mother was diagnosed with Breast Cancer. I wanted to be closer to her, so after graduation I accepted a position at Hallmark.com and moved to Kansas City. My friends in Los Angeles thought I was crazy to move to “flyover” country — but within a few years of moving to the Midwest I met my husband, bought a house and had a few kids. I adore our community and cannot imagine living anywhere else.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

I love this quote from Zig Zigler, “Fear has 2 meanings — Forget everything and Run, or Face everything and Rise.” I actually jotted it down on a sticky note for my office and look at it daily. I am at a crossroads in my life and career, taking a huge leap of faith based on an idea that I could fundamentally change ‘get well soon’ gifting, making it better for patients and gift buyers alike. Leaving the security of full-time employment, cutting our household income in half, with two kids still in the house who will eventually need college tuition, in the middle of a global pandemic… it is A LOT to take on. It is terrifying and exhilarating. Run or Rise — those are the options — and every day, I proactively choose to Rise

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?

Well, I’ve had cancer FOUR TIMES, and the diagnosis was different each time. The FIRST time I was diagnosed with cancer was in 2009. I was at the pool with my family and my baby son was napping while laying on my chest. Because of my unique position, cradling my son on my chest with my legs bent to hold him in place my mother had a clear view of a mole on my upper thigh. She didn’t like the look of it and nagged me for weeks to have it checked out. I finally succumbed and made an appointment with her dermatologist. It turned out to be melanoma. Because melanoma is a fast-moving cancer, I went from diagnosis to surgery in 4 days’ time. I was told that if the cancer spread, I’d have about 1 year to live. If it hadn’t spread, no big deal. Lucky for me, it had NOT spread — we stocked up on sunscreen, wide brimmed hats and SPF swim shirts and tried to get back to ‘normal’.

11 months later in 2010, a routine breast cancer screening required a biopsy. While the surgeon was feeling my breast her fingers traveled up to my neck — she found a lump on the side of my neck and booked a biopsy for both breast and neck. At that time the breast biopsy was negative, but the neck biopsy turned out to be thyroid cancer. I fell into a teeny-tiny category of patients with a rare surgical side effect called “hypo-parathyroidism”. That side effect landed me back in the hospital for a few weeks and was (and still is) very tricky to manage. I’m lucky to work with a phenomenal endocrinologist who is open to a combination of traditional and non-traditional treatments to keep me healthy. By 2012, I was back to ‘normal’ — I ran my first half-marathon, started a new job, drove carpool, and volunteered in my kids’ classrooms. Cancer was in the rear-view mirror.

Fast forward to 2015 — in a routine bi-annual skin cancer screening the dermatologist biopsied a questionable piece of skin on my nose. It was basal cell carcinoma. While not life threatening, the size and placement on my face made for a complex 2-part plastic surgery to remove the infected skin while maintaining the integrity of my nose and face shape.

About 18 months later my annual mammogram showed some pre-cancerous cells. Rather than biopsy them immediately, the doctor waited another 6 months to check again. The cells had multiplied so I went forward with a biopsy — which brings us to my last (hopefully!) cancer diagnosis — breast cancer in Fall 2017. I had a lumpectomy followed by 35 radiation sessions in late 2017 and spent much of 2018 recovering from severe skin damage caused by radiation treatment.

What was the scariest part of that event? What did you think was the worst thing that could happen to you?

My reactions to my diagnoses have evolved over time. Certainly, being diagnosed with melanoma skin cancer when my children were 3 and 1 years old was absolutely terrifying. I had an agonizing weekend, waiting for the call to let us know if the cancer had spread or if it was contained. I’m a planner by nature, so I definitely thought about how I would spend my last year with my family and mourned what my children’s lives would be like without their mother. The best part about overcoming surgery at home with oblivious and demanding toddlers is that there was not a ton of time to ruminate on “worst case scenarios” between diapers, stories, snacks, playtime, and baths. I do recall feeling my lungs expand when we got the “all clear” call from the surgeon. I think I had been partially holding my breath all weekend. That call cut off the melodrama playing out in my head and allowed me to snap right back into the daily grind of being a working parent.

The next time I thought about dying was when I went into hypocalcemic shock post-thyroidectomy. I couldn’t feel the muscles in my hands, arms, or face and couldn’t speak or move. I was very, very scared that I was going to be ‘stuck’ that way forever. That took me to a very dark place. Again, luckily, it was not long until the medical team started an IV calcium drip and I immediately started feeling better. Once I knew there was a treatment for the side effect, I was able to manage the recurrences more calmly, with more confidence that it was only temporary.

After overcoming the terrors of melanoma and hypocalcemia, I was far calmer about my basal cell and breast cancer diagnoses. The experience and knowledge that I made it through two prior medical dramas gave me tons of confidence that I would persevere. By the time I was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2017 I was angrier and more annoyed than scared. I was confident the surgeries and treatments were going to stink, but that I would eventually be okay.

How did you react in the short term?

My immediate response to ALL of my diagnoses has been to track down DATA and INFORMATION. What are the key markers of my diagnosis? Where does my tumor fall on the scale of “small/no biggie …..to…. huge/dead woman walking”?? What are the different treatment options? Are there holistic alternatives to surgery and/or medications? What are the medical outcomes and odds of recurrence for people following different treatment paths and do those paths differ by patient age, gender, and relative health of the patient at diagnosis? I found myself reading a ton of scholarly articles not meant for people without medical degrees and typed up pages and pages of notes and questions.

For me, information was comforting — knowing what to expect and having a prepared list of questions gave me a sense of CONTROL over my situations. I’m not sure that all that research really made a significant difference in my medical outcomes, but it certainly was helpful to me mentally and emotionally.

After the dust settled, what coping mechanisms did you use? What did you do to cope physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually?

I am a PLANNER and a bit of a control freak. So once my treatment plans were locked in and I exhausted my need for information — I spent a lot of time preparing for surgery and recovery. I shopped, arranged childcare, cooked meals, got ahead on work projects — basically I stayed very busy. In the moment, I did not do anything in particular to prepare myself mentally, emotionally or spiritually. Those emotions snuck up on me in the years post-surgery.

Is there a particular person you are grateful towards who helped you learn to cope and heal? Can you share a story about that?

My mother is a rock star — her grace under pressure, ability to know when to listen or lecture, to fill in all the little life-gaps that happened when I was suddenly down for the count — all of that. She is my touchstone and pillar of support.

I got the melanoma phone call on my way to work on a Tuesday morning. This was the cancer diagnosis that very well could have been a death sentence. We wouldn’t know whether I was a goner until after the lymph node biopsy taken on the same day as the surgery would confirm if the cancer had or had not spread.

At the time, my father was working on a long-term project in Asia and my mother was LITERALLY boarding a plane headed for China to reunite with my dad, who she hadn’t seen in a month. I told her about the diagnosis and that the doctor wanted to schedule the surgery no later than Friday. She hung up the phone, turned to the flight attendant, and demanded they let her off the plane. The gate was closed, and they were about to pull away from the gate — to this day, I’m not sure what my mother said or did — after all, this was after 9/11 when security was heavily enforced. But she was able to get off the plane and come home. She was with me for all the pre-op consultations and surgery, at my side during post-op, and once home, hovered near the sofa to fetch me drinks and ice while I recovered from surgery and waited for the Monday phone call that would tell us if the cancer spread and I was going to die.

To this day, I am so phenomenally grateful for her presence that week and weekend. She was so very calm, held my hand, and regularly reassured my husband who was barely able to contain HIS panic. She was the voice of reason, the adult in the room, while staying warm and compassionate and comforting.

I think I learned how to face my fears with calm and grace through her example. That week where she talked her way off a plane en route to China, to skip a much-anticipated trip to stay home and be a nursemaid, to quietly support me and my family — there are no words to convey my gratitude.

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?

I’d like to think my cancers taught me to sloooooow down. There is no rushing through recovery — you must wade through it slowly, with patience. I am pretty much the least-patient person on the planet. Once I make a decision — whether it’s a meal plan for family dinner, how to attend 3 events in one night, or booking a beach vacation I’m ready to GO FORWARD FULL STEAM AHEAD. I plan out the most efficient route and MAKE IT HAPPEN.

Cancer taught me that sometimes the most efficient routes cut out necessary rest stops. Skipping those rest stops makes the route longer, more miserable, and difficult for me and everyone around me.

For me, slowing down meant leaning into self-care and allowing myself to be less efficient with my limited time and resources. It meant learning how to say, “no” I cannot take on that project or “sure” I can take that on, but it will take me twice as long as normal to complete it. Pre-cancer, admitting to needing time for rest and recovery was unthinkable. Post-cancer, it’s a learned life habit.

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 learned the discipline of gratitude.

Despite having had cancer 4 times in 10 years I remain grateful — I genuinely see myself as lucky! I see the hardships that so many go through because of even a single cancer diagnosis — from losing jobs, to bankruptcy, to crumbling marriages and unsupportive friends and family. All four times, in every way, I was SO lucky, and ergo SO grateful.

  • I was never at the risk of losing my job(s) — I worked with phenomenally kind and generous leaders that gave me enormous grace to take time for treatments and recovery without penalizing my career trajectory or income.
  • I had comprehensive insurance coverage — our out-of-pocket costs were affordable. Cancer did not come close to bankrupting our family.
  • My marriage is rock solid — never once did my illnesses crack our relationship. My husband was and is my #1 fan, and firmly supported every one of my treatment decisions — even those I chose not to pursue. He came to all my consultation appointments, asked thoughtful questions, and made goofy dad jokes to lighten the mood in the room. We were (and are!) a team.
  • My support system is amazing — I have an incredible network of girlfriends that rose to the occasion again and again to support me and my family. From meals, to carpools, to chatty visits I felt supported and cared for — all four times.
  • As mentioned above, my mother is a rock star — her stalwart support and ability to stay calm under pressure have made ALL the cancer treatments so much more bearable.

How have you used your experience to bring goodness to the world?

I launched www.TheBalmBox.com in Fall 2020 to support cancer patients and caregivers with *functional* self-care and gift boxes for breast cancer patients!

The idea for The Balm Box started when I was undergoing radiation treatment for breast cancer. It was incredibly difficult to predict what tools I would need to go through and recover from radiation until I was in the middle of it, scrambling for bra-alternatives, aluminum-free deodorant, and burn salves. A nurse made me a mini-pillow to hold between my seatbelt and breast so that the belt wouldn’t chafe. There was no central resource, website, or retailer known for all this ‘stuff’ and I found myself up late at night researching page 20 searches on google and amazon looking for solutions. Most of the cancer-treatments and gifts online were pink ribboned cute/sassy t-shirts and mugs — I wanted relief not stuff.

The challenge with most cancer treatments is that patients do not know what they are going to need to help them self-soothe until they need it RIGHT AWAY. I wondered — where is the resource for cancer patients to proactively plan for treatment and recovery side effects?

It didn’t exist.

It wasn’t until 2020 that the moons aligned and gave me a quiet few months at my desk at home during the Pandemic to really build out the idea into a legitimate business plan. I started by sending out a survey to friends and family to validate the idea — the survey went viral and collected almost 600 responses.

My market research revealed that I was most definitely NOT alone in my frustrations and there was a huge level of interest from both cancer patients and caregivers. I was not the only person frustrated by the total lack of functional self-care and gifting options.

The Balm Box launched in Fall 2020 and has grown so much in the past year! We’ve helped HUNDREDS of patients so far, and I am so thrilled with the market response to the business!

What are a few of the biggest misconceptions and myths out there about fighting cancer that you would like to dispel?

  1. Cancer is so very often TREATABLE — it is not always an automatic death sentence. So many folks FREAK OUT after being diagnosed with cancer. But not all cancers are alike, and certainly many are more fatal than others. Just the single word “cancer” does not ALWAYS equate to DOOM AND GLOOM. After surviving 4 cancers — I’m still very much alive and well!
  2. “Kicking cancer” tote bags and coffee mugs are great for folks once they are DONE with their treatments and on the road to recovery. But when patients are in the middle of treatment, hurting, exhausted, and mentally drained — those t-shirts and tote bags are not always inspirational. In fact, they can be the opposite — like pressure filled pointer fingers, making patients feel the need to appear sunny and cheerful when they feel anything but. Don’t pressure patients to be a picture perfect rockstar spouting motivational quotes and dancing to tic tok videos. Sure, there will certainly be a small portion of patients who love that stuff and genuinely find it meaningful — but be careful — most of us do not. Our TheBalmBox.com market research backs this up.

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. Treatment Plans are up for discussion — they are not a directive. Given my age and general good health, Doctors almost always recommended the MOST aggressive treatment plans for me — but ultimately, I was the one who made the decision regarding what I was willing to put my body through. I focused on the odds. We are lucky to live in the age of information. There is great research and data on a patient’s odds of a recurrence or complication for most standard cancer treatments like surgery, radiation, chemotherapy, and hormone therapy. This is SO subjective! For example: for me, engaging in hormone therapy post-breast cancer would reduce my odds of recurrence by 50%. That sounds high, right? But in reality, post-lumpectomy and radiation treatment, my odds of recurrence were about 15%. 10 years of hormone therapy would take my odds of a breast cancer recurrence down to 8%. This is such a personal and subjective decision — are the side effects of hormone therapy worth an 8% reduction? Some women would say YES, absolutely! Others say, NO, not worth it!
  2. Information is power and gave me more confidence in my choices. To actively participate in my treatment plans, I needed a care team willing to include me in the upfront planning. I interviewed and selected doctors who were willing to collaborate with me as a partner — I did not want a medical overlord. In my ongoing cancer journey I have met some brilliant, skilled medical professionals that were horribly arrogant and dismissive. One made me cry in his office. No matter their stellar credentials, I refuse to work with other humans that are mean, rude, or downright creepy. I am incredibly fortunate that I live in a major metropolitan city and could choose from a variety of doctors, all covered by my health insurance. Learning to actively interview and select care teams that aligned with my values and personality has been a game changer.
  3. Nurse Navigators are worth their weight in gold. Inevitably, most cancer patients will work with more than one doctor at a time, and sometimes it is not clear when to call which doctor with a question or issue — enter the Nurse Navigator. Not all medical centers keep Nurse Navigators on staff, but I was lucky that my local hospital includes a small team of Nurse Navigators. These professionals have been a phenomenal resource. Especially during my breast cancer treatments, my nurse navigator acted like a neutral third party who helped answer questions, made recommendations on the timing between appointments and guided me to the right specialists for my specific diagnosis and medical history. She was warm, smart, resourceful, and sympathetic. Having a medical professional who was only accountable to ME, not one of my doctors, who would listen to my concerns and provide thoughtful insights and suggestions was invaluable.
  4. Self-care is not selfish. As a working mother during all four of my cancer diagnoses, I was so much more attuned to taking care of others before myself. My personal time was never a priority, smooshed into the edges of the day before anyone woke up or after everyone was asleep. Cancer treatments are almost always exhausting — I found myself needing to rest at least 2–3x more than pre-cancer. That leaves a lot fewer waking hours to squeeze everything else in. The reality is that some things must go — whether it’s early morning workouts, making homemade dinners, attending every kid’s orchestra concert or soccer game, finishing the laundry or all the above — you will not be able to do it all and will have to prioritize where to spend your finite time. Taking care of YOU, prioritizing YOU while undergoing treatment is the fastest path to recovery. One of my favorite items in some of The Balm Box packages is a literal credit card entitled, “The Cancer Card: The Exclusive Membership you always never wanted”. I encourage all cancer patients to flash that card at will — use it to skip the dishes, retain control of the TV remote, order pizza, or have your teenager fold the laundry. (It builds character — I promise!) It may seem anathema — but prioritizing yourself in the short term will ensure you are around to prioritize others in the long term. That’s not selfish — it’s practical.
  5. Saying Thank You Goes a Long Way. Do you know how often your radiation tech or oncologist is asked about THEIR day? (I actually don’t know for sure, but I’m guessing not a lot!) We are all humans — medical personnel included — and human beings appreciate being appreciated. Aside from simply being kind, showing appreciation for your care team is the very best way to ensure you get the best care. Want that ideal early morning appointment slot? Need an extra tub of free lotion? Want a hospital bed next to the window? People bend over backwards to help patients that are personable and gracious. Seriously — being kind, saying thank you and asking people about themselves is one of THE best ways to help yourself! Win-Win!

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?

Education is power! I am a hu-uuuuge advocate for the importance of supporting public education in our country. Learning how to learn and cultivating critical thinking skills are essential tools for productive adulting. Supporting public schools should be a non-partisan issue. There is no better investment than our children’s education.

I leaned on my education as a patient, parent, and now small business owner. I am grateful for the teachers who invested their time and energies in me, who cultivated a lifelong love of reading and encouraged me to keep asking questions. Through my advocacy work with Education First Shawnee Mission and Mainstream Coalition in Kansas, I hope to continue to grow support for further investments in public education and would love to see more grassroots organizations around the country follow suit.

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. 🙂

I am a huuuuge fan of Hoda Kotb, the NBC Today Show Anchor. I could not agree more with her perspective about cancer — she’s quoted as saying, “Cancer survivors are blessed with two lives. There is your life before cancer, and your life after. I am here to tell you your second life is going to be so much better than the first.” She’s talked about how overcoming cancer gave her the confidence to fight for her dream job at NBC. It’s been so very true for me, as my cancers gave me the confidence to leave my corporate career and become an entrepreneur. She is whip smart, passionate, funny, and sassy — I am a total fan-girl and would LOVE to take her out to lunch!

How can our readers further follow your work online?

Check out The Balm Box at www.TheBalmBox.com, or on our socials: Facebook @TheBalmBox, Instagram @BalmBox, Twitter @BoxBalm.

Thank you so much for sharing these important insights. We wish you continued success and good health!

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