Ask for help like it’s your job. Outsiders looking in may have no concept of what you’re going through. I’ve been on both sides of the coin; no pun intended. People want to help you, but often they don’t know how. Make it easy for them and more joyful for you by providing details on how others can assist. The minute I offered up ideas, in poured the love, laughter, and connection I needed.
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 Penny Casselman.
Penny Casselman is a transformation coach, author of How To Get A Free Boob Job — and other insights from a breast cancer adventurer, motivational speaker, and Olympic-level optimist. She helps humans reconnect with their dreams so that they can overcome obstacles and stop drifting through a life they’re simply surviving. Penny’s sparkling, optimistic, and honest approach empowers clients to uncover surprising new choices allowing them to turn their impossible challenge into an adventure worth living and create a life they love.
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’m about as Midwest as you get. I grew up in Fort Wayne, Indiana — a decent-sized city. My dad’s side of the family was Eastcoast and white-collar, while my mom’s side was Midwest and farmers. I’m one of two and will always be the big sister to my little brother. We’d ride bikes, build cushion-forts in the living room, and argue as to who was right on any given topic; we had a normal childhood until it wasn’t. Unfortunately, at the tender age of eight, I lost my mom to metastatic breast cancer.
There’s not a lot I remember about my mom, just moments, here and there. I remember the purple tattoo marks on her head for radiation placement and her wig, which sat atop a white styrofoam head on her bedroom dresser. At the time, I had no concept of the severity of her disease; she battled for five years. But to me, she was my mom and continued to dote on my brother and me.
In the years after her passing, my life seemed almost as normal as any other kid’s; weekends filled with friends and trips to the mall, attending sleepovers, and playing Putt-Putt. During the summer, I’d hang out on the family farm where I learned to crochet with my Grandma, drove a tractor to help my uncle till his fields, & climbed trees to help my aunt pick cherries. All things considered, I couldn’t imagine a more robust childhood.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
This question is tricky! Have I mentioned I’m a sucker for inspirational and motivational quotes? I’d love to share three of my favorites; picking only one doesn’t seem fair.
“Feed fear a suckit sandwich.” ~ Jen Sincero
I love this quote for many reasons. First and foremost, it’s fun to say! You can get behind it with verbal gusto, and adding hand motions helps embody the meaning. Next, it illustrates the absurd. Fear is imaginary; it’s a feeling, not a fact. This quote helps me keep things in perspective when the going gets tough, and it always does. And last but not least, it reminds me to keep moving forward. We’ve all heard that growth and success lie just beyond your comfort zone, and what guards the exit from your comfort zone? Fear. I love the imagery; I mean, who hasn’t dreamt of winding up and stuffing a suckit sandwich in the face of fear? Hand raised!
“Tell the story of the mountain you climbed. Your words could be the page in someone else’s survival guide.” ~ Morgan Harper Nichols
-I discovered this quote a few years back while scrolling on social media. It resonated with me so profoundly since I was providing updates to family and friends during my cancer adventure. When I decided to turn my updates into a memoir, not only did I lean on that quote when I was feeling the weight of publishing a book, I also knew it had to be the opening quote. I’m happy to share that my memoir, How To Get A Free Boob Job — and other insights from a breast cancer adventurer, was published in October 2020.
“When life slams the brakes on your dreams, control what you can, celebrate what you’ve got, and let go of what you’ve lost.” ~ Penny Casselman
-This last one’s all mine. There are so many instances in my life where this rings true; the death of my mom, my divorce, my three corporate downsizings, and, of course, my cancer diagnosis and subsequent adventure. Those three pillars helped me navigate my landscape and plot a bright, bold, and brilliant path forward in each moment of change.
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?
Absolutely. I write about this in greater detail in my memoir; however, here’s the brief version. I was always upfront with my primary care physician and OB-GYN that I had lost my mom to breast cancer. Armed with this knowledge, I had mammograms starting in my late twenties. What became routine was the subsequent letter I’d get from the attending radiologist stating I’d need to come back for an ultrasound due to my dense breast tissue. I had become numb to the request. When I received another letter in May 2017, I wasn’t surprised and booked a seemingly routine follow-up. As this ultrasound was finishing, the radiologist on duty came in, took a spin with the wand, and uttered, “We’ll be with you every step of the way.” Those words were a confirmation for me. I knew, deep down, that I had cancer.
A few days later, I returned to the same clinic to have a biopsy taken. Every day I waited to receive the definitive results, I would tell myself I had cancer. Here’s the thing, hearing the words you have cancer from a medical professional, while you sit half-naked in a cold and sterile doctor’s office, covered up in a pale blue gown built for two, is not the same as telling yourself while standing in front of your bathroom mirror.
What was the scariest part of that event? What did you think was the worst thing that could happen to you?
Easy — that I could die. Not only had I already experienced losing my mom when I was eight, but in 2016, I lost a close friend to ovarian cancer. I knew all too well what a diagnosis of cancer can mean.
How did you react in the short term?
I immediately went full steam ahead with making doctor appointments. I became laser-focused. I wanted to know from the expert authorities everything I could on the subjects. Information like the exact type of cancer I was facing, what part of my treatment was in my control, what I could expect from surgery, and what was necessary to ensure I would lead a long, happy, and healthy life. Returning to total health became my job, and I took it seriously.
After the dust settled, what coping mechanisms did you use? What did you do to cope physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually?
Physically: Napping, stretching, and walking; in that exact order. I mentioned this earlier, but I’m a doer. I’ve also been an athlete my entire life, and one of my favorite activities is stretching. Stretching during my cancer adventure helped me feel like I was active, even when my body hadn’t entirely caught up to my previous activity levels.
Mentally: It was all about writing and sharing my health updates and planning my next DIY project. Writing helped me process everything I was going through and allowed me to maintain focus on my future. Planning projects and executing small steps to support them is like meditation for me. I grew up helping my dad with projects all over the house; from painting to electrical and plumbing, we were always on to the next improvement. Those projects always gave me a great sense of accomplishment.
Emotionally: I let myself feel all the feels. Most days, I stayed busy and active, but there were many days when everything felt heavy. And when those days came, as I knew they would, I rode them out. Sometimes I binged a show on Netflix. Other times I cried myself to sleep. I knew my adventure would feel short in retrospect, so, along the way, I let my body and mind experience everything they needed.
Spiritually: It was all about maintaining connections. It took me some time to realize people needed an invitation to connect with me. I know how lost I felt when watching my friend navigate her cancer journey. When a request came for help or to stop by for a visit, I made it happen — this made me felt helpful and supportive. Armed with this insight, I began asking for help from my network and in poured the offers of assistance and support. Those personal connections were the reason that my attitude and outlook continued to sparkle.
Is there a particular person you are grateful towards who helped you learn to cope and heal? Can you share a story about that?
I found the strength to cope and heal within the walls of the cancer center at my hospital, where people were navigating the same sense of the unknown. Every person helped to illuminate my path. The medical staff, doctors, nurses, and fellow cancer patients played a part in my mental and physical recovery.
I share many stories in my memoir; however, here’s one you won’t find inside the pages. Her name was Jo. We both were assigned Mondays for our treatments. Although our cancers were different, our chemo infusions had us both losing our hair. I like to be in control so, one night, while relaxing at home, I decided to buzz off all my hair. Jo, on the other hand, couldn’t bring herself to cut her hair. When we first met, sitting next to each other in the communal chemo room, her head was nearly bald, with scattered long black hairs down to her neck; she always wore hats, but she showed me what was underneath this day. I never wore hats or wigs, and Jo commented I looked good with my hair buzzed.
A few weeks later, we again found ourselves seated in the communal room and, this time, Jo took off her hat to show me a clean-shaven head. She said I was her inspiration and that seeing me happy, with a buzzed head, gave her the courage to walk into a barber and ask for a haircut. Jo said her story so touched the barber that her cut was on the house.
It’s in Interactions like that, and many more I write about in my memoir, that became the coping and healing insights I needed during my adventure.
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 think it boils down to cancer, in cahoots with the universe, urging me to put pen to paper, write often, and a lot. My cancer would take a cue from Jen Sincero and tell me to “Feed fear a suckit sandwich!” It’d also take a page out of Morgan Harper Nichols playbook and routinely whisper in my ear, “Tell the story of the mountain you climbed. Your words could be the page in someone else’s survival guide.” Not only did the act of writing help me get out of my head, focus on gratitude, and aid in my recovery, I also hope it helps others feel seen as they navigate their journey.
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?
My top three things:
- I look good with a buzz cut. I count myself fortunate to have a smooth and symmetrical-shaped noggin’. No one cared if I had hair or not. The good news, my hair grew back. If I can walk around nearly bald for four months during the fall and winter in Cleveland, I can do almost anything.
- I can write. Never in a million years would I have thought to hold the vision of writing a book. It wasn’t on my bucket list, and I never dreamed about it. Yet, here I am, a published author. Your mind is a powerful organ capable of so much more than you likely give it credit; I’ve ignited a spark within me since this experience, and I plan to see how bright I can shine.
- I’m ready to create the #beflawsome movement. The idea is that despite our bodies, actions, or thoughts having flaws, we’re awesome regardless. And those same flaws are precisely what makes us awesome. My genetic composition is flawed. I may have missteps while running my business. However, regardless of realized or perceived imperfections, I know what I have to offer the world is still pretty awesome!
How have you used your experience to bring goodness to the world?
I put my story out into the world, hoping it will provide insight, guidance, and inspiration for those facing a similar journey, either themselves or through a loved one, that they are not alone. I wanted to give everyone a peek of what it’s like to navigate a genetically driven breast cancer diagnosis; and how someone facing cancer can befriend change and move forward with heaping scoops of gratitude, all covered with sprinkles of humor. I hope that every person who stops to ponder my story leaves with a smile.
What are a few of the biggest misconceptions and myths out there about fighting cancer that you would like to dispel?
If you have cancer, it’s not simply “cancer.” Cancer is an umbrella term and, although that word is descriptive enough to alert what’s happening at a cellular level, it’s not defined enough to be helpful. The easiest way I can describe it is cancer is like a Jenga game. We can both have a tower standing at the same height, but mine may be missing one block at level twelve. The towers may look identical, but one missing block can call for a drastically different path to knock down the structure.
Every person’s diagnosis is uniquely theirs. What works for one may not work for all, even with the same type and stage of diagnosis. When it comes to cancer, there are so many moving parts that every individual must listen to their body and take action when it feels right. Control what you can, and leave the rest to the experts.
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.
- Have an attitude of gratitude. There were many days when even the most mundane activities like taking a shower, getting out of bed, or going for a walk, felt heavy and overwhelming. Taking a moment to reflect on all the things I was able to successfully experience helped me shift my mindset from lack to grace and ease.
- Learn to make change your friend. When I found out cancer had decided to take up residence in my breast, it wasn’t on my list of activities for the day. The chance you’ll experience an additional change in life? 100%! Do things now that make you happy and learn to embrace a life that’s shaken, not stirred. Life is short and precious, so don’t settle and drift through with an attitude that it’s just fine; take time to envision, plan, and create a life you wake up and love. For me, this looked like releasing my type-A need for scheduling activities by the hour and embracing a go with the flow attitude.
- Create a list of things that light you up. Navigating and surviving cancer is not a sprint; it’s a marathon. When you experience tough days, and you’ll have many, it’s nice to have a list of activities that can help to lift your spirits at the ready without having to exert brainpower. Here are some examples of items I had on my list: watch some trashy TV, eat a big bowlful of key lime pie ice cream, call your best friend, or step outside and let the sun warm your face.
- Embrace your flawsome. Cancer will always take something from you, be it physical or mental. It might be visible to others or hide in the shadows for your eyes only. But whatever cancer takes from you, embrace the concept that you’re awesome, exactly how you are because it’s true! My body no longer looks like the one I was born into, and I’ve got more scars than I can count using both hands; but regardless, I’m flawsome.
- Ask for help like it’s your job. Outsiders looking in may have no concept of what you’re going through. I’ve been on both sides of the coin; no pun intended. People want to help you, but often they don’t know how. Make it easy for them and more joyful for you by providing details on how others can assist. The minute I offered up ideas, in poured the love, laughter, and connection I needed.
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?
I want to help create a world where you can embrace being flawsome as a fun, joyful way of life, no matter what life throws your way. I know that circumstances can change instantly, and I’ve spent my life turning the most baffling challenges into opportunities. Today, I help my clients do the same by reconnecting them with their dreams and guiding them to uncover astonishing new choices they couldn’t see. So that, no matter what stagnant mindset or challenging circumstance blocks them from moving forward, they can step into an adventure worth living and create a life they love. #beflawsome
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. 🙂
Jen Sincero. Her writing resonates with me. Her stories are entertaining, insightful, and reflective. Her life is an epic manifestation of everything she desires. I met her during my cancer journey at a local bookstore. It wasn’t long after my chemo had concluded because I was still sporting a nearly bald head. I made sure I was first in line, got a picture, and she signed three of my books. I’d love to think having a private lunch and rubbing elbows with her would cause some of her fairy dust to fall on me!
How can our readers further follow your work online? www.PennyCasselman.com
Thank you so much for sharing these important insights. We wish you continued success and good health!