Find an outlet: Whether it’s a sport you love, a hobby, or just spending time with loved ones, having a space to take your mind off your diagnosis will be a welcome relief. In the early days of my diagnosis, those words, “You have cancer,” consumed me. It was all I could think about during the day when I was trying to function and at night when I was attempting to sleep. I a hiatus from horseback riding at that point in my life, but looking back at it now, that would have been the perfect time to return to a place that had always brought me so much inner peace during stressful moments. I knew I needed to find a way to exercise my body and keep my mind calm, so I decided to try yoga. This wasn’t my first attempt with the practice, but it was the first time that it resonated with me — and also offered me an hour or so where I was able to detach from my reality.
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 Vanessa Steil.
Vanessa Steil never imagined that a thyroid cancer diagnosis at the age of 26 would lead her down a new career path as a Board Certified Patient Advocate, health coach, and wellness blogger. She started her site, Living in Steil (pronounced “style”), in 2014, shortly after her diagnosis as a way to share her story and offer resources to other patients and survivors.
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 grew up (and still reside) on Long Island, about an hour outside of New York City. As an only child, I was very active and loved being outdoors. When I was five years old, I started figure skating, and was instantly a natural on the ice. My parents quickly nurtured my talent and enrolled me in skating lessons and competitions. Then, after a day at summer camp, I was introduced to horseback riding, which led to a two decades-long love affair with horses. From the age of eight on, every spare moment I had was spent down at the barn. There was something about the sport — and being surrounded by such majestic creatures — that gave me a sense of peace in my own life. I credit my years as an equestrian with my work ethic, dedication, and in some ways, my ability to survive and thrive after receiving a thyroid cancer diagnosis in my mid-20’s.
When I initially went off to The American University in Washington, DC, I had every intention of becoming a lawyer. But life has a way of interrupting your plans sometimes. Eight years after hearing those fateful words, “You have cancer,” I’ve dedicated my personal and professional life to advocating for others. I’ve sat across from doctors and have felt lost and confused and thought, “What’s next?” Now, I share my story through my blog, Living in Steil (pronounced “style”), as a way to offer hope and resources to other patients who find themselves in a similar situation.
Professionally, my diagnosis has been somewhat of a silver lining. It transformed me from someone who was navigating my career options and trying to find my niche in my 20’s, into a person on a mission who is passionate about advocating for others in my 30’s.
Today, I am a Board Certified Patient Advocate and health coach who seeks to empower wellness warriors to learn, grow, and heal one post at a time through my blog and social media platforms.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
One of my favorite mantras is, “You can’t pour from an empty cup.” The takeaway being that you have to make time for self-care. Whether you’re a working mother, a busy entrepreneur, or juggling it all, you have to take care of YOU. The sentiment has certainly resonated with me in my own life and something I constantly remind myself of when I’m feeling overwhelmed. Aside from being a thyroid cancer survivor and navigating my own health journey, working full-time during the day and blogging at night, I’m also the sole caregiver to my 93-year-old grandmother. While being a caregiver is incredibly rewarding and an honor, caregiver burnout is very real and drives home the importance of self-care that encompasses mental, emotional, and physical well-being.
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 was diagnosed with thyroid cancer in 2013 at the age of 26. It was a complete accidental finding made by the new gynecologist I was seeing. In March, I had gone in for what I thought would be my routine annual exam (fun fact: I almost canceled the appointment because I had a scheduling conflict). Since this was the first time I was seeing this doctor, he asked me a bunch of questions, including, “Do you mind if I perform a neck check?” The question caught me completely off guard, but I agreed. That’s when he discovered that I had a nodule on the right side of my thyroid. I was in disbelief, but not immediately alarmed. In that instant, I remembered that my grandmother’s doctor had discovered a benign nodule on her thyroid that was routinely monitored, and I knew of other people who had a similar case. It wasn’t until the gynecologist began rattling off a litany of next steps that I began to grow concerned. Among them, I was to go for blood work, a neck ultrasound, and make an appointment for a consultation with an endocrinologist.
A few days went by before I made all of the recommended appointments. Afterward, my gynecologist called me to let me know that my blood work revealed that I had sub-clinical hypothyroidism (meaning, that eventually I would begin to suffer the effects of having an underactive thyroid and would need to take a synthetic thyroid hormone replacement medication to help the gland function properly). He also noted that the neck ultrasound detected a nodule greater than 1cm and he recommended I talk to the endocrinologist about undergoing a Fine Needle Aspiration (FNA) biopsy.
A couple of weeks later, I found myself sitting in front of my new endocrinologist. He was polite, thorough, and made me feel as comfortable as one could have at that moment. After answering my questions, he sent me on my way for an FNA biopsy, and I was off to the next appointment.
A month after the initial appointment with the gynecologist, my worst fears were confirmed. On April 2, 2013, I — along with about 60,220 other Americans that year — was diagnosed with thyroid cancer. Despite the seemingly large number, I felt like a party of one.
What was the scariest part of that event? What did you think was the worst thing that could happen to you?
In an effort to educate myself and see what I was facing, I did something people who’ve just been diagnosed with cancer are advised against — I Googled my diagnosis. I feverishly scoured everything I could find on the Internet, from reputable websites to patient chat rooms. The wealth of information, coupled with the horror stories that I came across, made the reality that I was desperate to deny even scarier.
Once I’d come to grips with my reality and finally decided on a surgeon, I scheduled my operation for early May 2013. But again, deep denial and fear left me paralyzed. I had convinced myself that I would die in surgery or, at the very least, that the diagnosis was somehow incorrect and I would undergo a thyroidectomy for nothing. At the suggestion of worried friends, I rescheduled the surgery for a later date.
How did you react in the short term?
I can still remember the moment the endocrinologist, in his monotone voice, told me that I had Papillary Thyroid Carcinoma, the most common type of thyroid cancer. I will never forget what popped into my head next. As I sat across from him, I silently thought, “Well, at least it’s not thyroid cancer.”
But, that was exactly what it was….
In the early days after my diagnosis (and perhaps for months following), I was only able to tell people that, “It” was thyroid cancer. Putting the words “I have” before the diagnosis made it too personal, too real. To me, it was this mythical thing, not an entity worthy of being named.
After internalizing the news, there were days where I allowed myself to feel optimistic and then there were the days where my diagnosis was more difficult to endure. And then there were those one-off days where I was sure the diagnosis was somehow a mistake.
After the dust settled, what coping mechanisms did you use? What did you do to cope physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually?
I found yoga and meditation offered me a lot of peace during my cancer diagnosis and recovery, and both are exercises I still regularly practice eight years later. Blogging has also helped me find my voice and process my experience in a cathartic way that has allowed me a forum to share the resources that I found helpful with others who could benefit from them.
Is there a particular person you are grateful towards who helped you learn to cope and heal? Can you share a story about that?
While there were many thoughtful people that positively impacted my cancer journey, it was a friend and mentor in particular who went above and beyond by reaching out to his own network to ensure I got the care I needed. Fortunately for me, a phone call with his brother-in-law who was a retired endocrinologist led me to select a head and neck surgeon that would preventatively remove the lymph nodes in my neck as part of the thyroidectomy procedure. I didn’t know it at the time, but that decision ultimately saved me from having to undergo a second surgery or needing more post-surgical treatment. I am forever grateful to have had a friend like this in my life at the time and I continue to be thankful for his guidance and support over the years, but more importantly, his friendship.
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?
If cancer had a message for me it would be: You’re stronger than anything in this world that could impede your path.
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?
Cancer was the scariest teacher I’ve ever had, but it taught me the most lasting lessons: It showed me that I am stronger than my struggles, revealed strengths I never knew I had, and directed me down a career path I didn’t even know existed.
To know that your health can be taken away at a moment’s notice has a way of putting life in perspective for you in an instant. One minute, I was a healthy 26-year-old, and the next, I was a thyroid cancer patient. My diagnosis taught me not to sweat the little things and to start each day with a grateful heart. None of us know how long we have on this Earth or what can happen day-to-day. We should all strive to keep those we love close, tell them often, and enjoy each day to its fullest.
My diagnosis and wellness journey made me redefine my priorities and reframe what success looked like. To me, life is about, How can I make a difference? How can my story resonate with and inspire someone? That mindset is what led me to become an advocate and it’s what continues to drive me as survivor.
How have you used your experience to bring goodness to the world?
My cancer diagnosis helped me to create an entirely new career path for myself, one that both empowered me and continues to fulfill me. After recovering from my thyroidectomy, I suspected I was not alone in the feelings of sadness, anger, denial, fear, and frustration, that I had felt when I was diagnosed…and that sparked an idea. How can I use what I’ve learned from surviving cancer to help others? Instantly, Living in Steil, a blog to empower wellness warriors to learn, grow, and heal was born in 2014. For someone who didn’t so much as even have a Facebook page at the time, this was a big step to publically share my story with strangers on the Internet.
What began as a therapeutic side-hustle quickly turned into more than just a place to house my health journey. I expanded it into a lifestyle and wellness site to appeal to a larger audience who may or may not have had cancer. Within a few months I had brands reaching out to me as an influencer and I had created an online community where others could connect and share their story. To this day, the most meaningful messages are the ones I receive from other newly diagnosed patients who stumble across my blog in their research and tell me that my words resonated with them.
As an advocate, a personal highlight emerged In September 2019, when my story was included in the cancer survivor book, TOUGH: Women Who Survived Cancer. To have my words incorporated in the book and to be amongst 37 other inspiring survivors was a true honor.
What are a few of the biggest misconceptions and myths out there about fighting cancer that you would like to dispel?
As a thyroid cancer survivor, I used to cringe when someone would say, “At least you have the ‘good’ cancer.” I was fully aware of the spirit in which the sentiment was intended, but as someone who had just received a cancer diagnosis, I can tell you that the “good” cancer is the one you don’t get. My daily synthetic thyroid hormone replacement pill, the scar on my neck that’s still visible eight years later, and the “scanxiety” I feel before bi-annual blood work and neck ultrasounds, serve as constant reminders of what is my past, present, and future.
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.
- Find an outlet: Whether it’s a sport you love, a hobby, or just spending time with loved ones, having a space to take your mind off your diagnosis will be a welcome relief. In the early days of my diagnosis, those words, “You have cancer,” consumed me. It was all I could think about during the day when I was trying to function and at night when I was attempting to sleep. I a hiatus from horseback riding at that point in my life, but looking back at it now, that would have been the perfect time to return to a place that had always brought me so much inner peace during stressful moments. I knew I needed to find a way to exercise my body and keep my mind calm, so I decided to try yoga. This wasn’t my first attempt with the practice, but it was the first time that it resonated with me — and also offered me an hour or so where I was able to detach from my reality.
- Utilize your community: When friends and family learn of someone’s cancer diagnosis, they immediately want to do what they can to help. But they may not know where to start and newly diagnosed patient’s may not know what help to ask for. In my case, I had friends who made it their mission to do what they could to help me take my mind off my diagnosis and made time for weekly lunches and outings. For an hour or so once a week I was returned to my status as a regular person. When I reflect on my diagnosis, those moments are what I remember so clearly.
- Join an online support group: One of the best things I did when I was diagnosed with thyroid cancer was join an online support group. It helped me to feel less alone, allowed me to connect with other people who were going through a similar time in their lives, and offered me a safe space to ask questions and have my voice heard. It also gave me a sense of connection without leaving my home and the privacy I needed to feel comfortable sharing my story. Some of the people I met in those online communities have become great friends and to this day still follow my wellness journey and check in with me when I go for annual scans and doctor’s visits.
- Change your narrative: The words we use to describe our situtation in life often dictates our mindset. Being told I had the “good” cancer didn’t make me feel any better about my diagnosis and in some ways, it felt like it diminished what I was going through. When referring to your own diagnosis, it can be helpful to avoid thinking in terms of metaphors like “fighting” or “battling” cancer, which can often seem more militant than uplifting. Find words that encourage you and reframe the context of your diagnosis to one of empowerment.
- Allow your diagnosis to change you: As we go through life, we learn to adapt to change (even if you can’t see the good in it at first). A cancer diagnosis is a significant life event and will teach you so many things about yourself — and living life — if you allow it to. It might show you that you need to slow down and spend more time with your loved ones. Or, it could help you realize that you’re in the entirely wrong career field and lead you to a more fulfillling path. In my case, it was the latter. I had spent years trying to find my niche and a role that I was passionate about. It was only after undergoing a cancer diagnosis that I realized I felt most fulfilled when helping others. That realization is what launched my blog, led me to build my community on social media, encouraged me to pursue a health coaching certificiate from the Institute for Integrative Nutrition, and sit for the Board Certified Patient Advocacy Exam. Most siginificantly, my cancer diagnosis led me find my true purpose in life — and that has been a beautiful thing.
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?
If I could inspire a movement that would be most beneficial, it would be one that allowed everyone to feel empowered to advocate for themselves, and in turn, their loved ones. As a cancer survivor myself, and also a caregiver to my grandmother who is a 2x breast cancer survivor, I’ve seen firsthand how important advocacy is in the medical field. As anyone who has gone to a doctor’s appointment knows, there’s paper work and insurance information that needs to be completed prior to the appointment, a detailed health history taken while you’re waiting, and then follow up’s from your appointment with your doctor. With an aging population in this country and a complex medical system, it’s even more crucial to be able to advocate for yourself and your care as a patient. I hope that by sharing my own transition into the role of a patient advocate, I can inspire others to take control of their healthcare and overall wellness.
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. 🙂
One of the people who have been most influential (but doesn’t know it!) in my career and financial success has been Suze Orman. I started watching her show on CNBC at the time after graduating from college. Each week, I studiously listened as she reiterated the importance of an 8-month emergency fund, instilled in me that I should live below my means but within my needs, and signed off each episode by saying, “People first, then money, then things.” I remember thinking how proud Suze would be of me when I started by side-hustle as a blogger, and from time to time when I want to buy something, I first ponder as to whether Ms. Orman would approve or deny me. It’s funny how someone whom you’ve never met could have such a profound and lasting impact on your life, but that’s exactly what Suze Orman has done for me after years of watching her show and reading her books.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
You can find me on my blog at www.livinginsteil.com and on social media at @livinginsteil.
Thank you so much for sharing these important insights. We wish you continued success and good health!