“Having cancer does make you try to be better at everything you do and enjoy every moment. It changes you forever. But it can be a positive change.” – Jaclyn Smith
Beauties, today’s post is a very special one with a fierce and fabulous woman who I’m fortunate to call my dearest friend, Julie Liams. As we come to the end of Breast Cancer Awareness Month, I’m honoring two very special women this week who are incredible warriors and survivors of breast cancer. Each of these women, Julie and Cathy Williamson, have touched my life as they inspired me and helped me to understand the challenging journey of overcoming breast cancer. Each of these fierce sisters have experienced two vastly different types of breast cancer along with double mastectomies. Each one has a unique lesson and message to share to help us to become more aware and to prevent future cases of breast cancer.
But their responses to breast cancer were remarkably similar: bravery, courage, and releasing into love.
Today, I’m highlighting Julie’s story as she is a very recent survivor with extremely valuable lessons to share that will, undoubtedly, save lives. Her story is one of courage, grit, grace and gratitude. It always amazes me how a life threatening experience, with all its painful challenges, inevitably results in sparking gratitude in the survivor.
Even to those of us untouched by cancer, it feels that breast cancer is always close at hand. Alarming statistics tell us that 30 percent of cancer diagnoses will be women with breast cancer. Most of us have a family member, friend or loved one who has faced this painful and terrifying journey.
It has always been a mission dear to my heart to use my platform for good and to help to educate and raise awareness around issues like breast cancer. Having almost lost my life to lyme disease, I understand how precious life is. Survivors like Julie and Cathy have so much wisdom and experience to share with us. It is my hope that, today, Julie’s story will find its way to the women who need it most. And, let’s not forget that men experience breast cancer as well. Julie’s deeply touching personal journey can touch us all and help us to appreciate our lives in a new light. What I know for sure is that Julie’s story will open your heart to living a life dedicated to wellness and to seeing your individual life through a new set of eyes, ones that are profoundly grateful for life and being, as Julie shares so beautifully.
Please read on and share Julie’s inspirational story as well as her lessons and wisdom shared to help raise awareness and to prevent more women (and men) from having to walk this painful path. Stay tuned for Friday’s story sharing my friend, Cathy Williamson’s inspirational journey.
Catherine: Julie, can you take us back with you to the moment your doctor let you know that you had breast cancer? What was going on inside of you? What was that like for you?
Julie: It was during the height of the Pandemic when I felt a strange lump in my left breast. The next morning, I called my doctor and she wanted to see me the very next day.
My husband reassured me that it was probably nothing. During the breast exam, my doctor and I made small talk through our masks when she pulled her hands back quickly, gently helped me sit up and said, “I’m going to talk tough with you now, okay? This isn’t good.”
It was all happening very fast, so it was a little surreal. Zoom was my workplace at the time, so no one knew when I was at the radiologist, or at the ultrasound, or having the biopsy. Because of COVID, no one was allowed inside the hospital, except the patient, so I was going to have to go it alone. The most difficult and lonely time was waiting for the lab results.
That phone call came when I was shooting on set. I work in the Motion Picture Industry, as a “Propmaster”, supplying props on kid’s television shows. I love my job, and honestly, I would do it for free. (Please take that out!) Caller ID said it was my doctor and I had already missed several of her calls. At the same time, the producers were asking if I had a slide whistle. I did. How easy would it have been to run for that clown prop? I could no longer ignore her calls. I answered the phone, her exact words, “It’s as we suspected…cancer”.
I actually had not suspected.
Catherine: Wow! I cannot imagine how that felt. That must have been a huge shock for you. Looking back now, would you have done anything differently if you had known you were at risk for breast cancer?
Julie: Yes, balance!
I thought that because I exercised, I was healthy, but if you ask any of my friends, french fries and ceasar salad were my meal of choice. And wine! Who doesn’t love the event of picking the wine, the anticipation of opening and drinking, the shared social experience?
I was diagnosed with Invasive Ductal Carcinoma Stage 2. The tumor was estrogen sensitive HER 2 negative. Basically, my cancer ate estrogen. So the sugar, wine, and excess empty carbs all turned to sugar in my body and that overload of estrogen was a King Henry feast for a fat, drumstick shaped tumor that had breached my chest muscle wall and invaded my lymph nodes.
I was waging war with myself on a cellular level. After a double mastectomy, removal of nipple, skin, pectoral muscle and four lymph nodes, I consider myself breast cancer-free. Today, I eat more nuts and less fried foods. I drink more water and no more alcohol (okay, I will have a glass of champagne to celebrate the New Year). Oh, and no more sugar. It’s a poison and increases the risk of breast cancer.
Catherine: There’s a great deal of wisdom in what you share. Clearly, this experience has changed the way you live and prioritize your health and wellness and I’ve seen those changes take place in you! What else do you wish for other women who may be at risk to know?
Julie: Time. We all think we have more time than we do. In a world where the only constant is change, you have complete control over early detection. It won’t matter how much money you have if you don’t have your health. Since time is money, the more time you have on this planet makes you rich.
Catherine: Isn’t that the truth? Time is finite, isn’t it? We must learn not to take our precious time here on this planet for granted. That brings me to my next question as we always seem to be short on time. What would you say to a woman who continues to put off scheduling her annual mammogram?
Julie: You are not alone. I get it. Only 70% of women are currently on their annual mammogram (every year for over 50). Why do we procrastinate when it comes to being proactive with our health? Early screening at Stage 1 breast cancer is 80-95% treatable! Stage 2 odds are lower and continue to drop off dramatically from there. Early detection will maintain the quality of your life.
My breast cancer doctor said the tumor had been growing for about two years… two effing years! Now, I am on hormonal therapy for the next seven years with a 15% recurrence. I can not rewrite history, but I can offer the suggestion of early detection. So don’t be me. Do one thing: just make the appointment. If you don’t have insurance, the American Cancer Society’s website (www.cancer.org) has a national list of health centers that offer free screening near you. It’s okay to be afraid, but you have to be proactive if you want an excellent and treatable outcome.
Catherine: That is such a critical message! Being proactive is life saving, isn’t it? I know you’ve been shouting that message to the rooftops! Please share with us how your life has changed since your diagnosis and double mastectomy?
Julie: Spiritually, I appreciate life a lot more. Looking at it in an eternal light changes your perspective. I don’t know how to describe it, but I cry more. Sunsets, baby orangutans, my family. Maybe because I am overwhelmed with the beauty of life, being a survivor. Physically, I had 4 lymph nodes removed from my left arm, so my veins don’t work so well. That means no heavy purses, no shots or blood drawn on that arm, no jacuzzi or blood pressure cuffs because it puts me at greater risk of swelling and of Lymphedema.
Catherine: Those are a different kind of tears, aren’t they? Life is so very precious. What has been the hardest part of being a breast cancer survivor?
Julie: Being a breast cancer survivor.
Catherine: Bam! You are so right. And, so fierce ! Tell us what has surprised you the most about your journey through breast cancer including the diagnosis, double mastectomy, and treatment?
Julie: How difficult it has been. The surgeries, the procedures, the pandemic. I don’t think I understood the gravity of what was happening. After surgery, I mentioned to my breast cancer doctor that my armpit felt like I was smothering a porcupine in there. She explained that it might be that way for the rest of my life and I explained that it hurt! She took my hand and in her sweet calm voice replied, “I think we did a good job of getting all the cancer”. After that, I zipped it, locked it, and put it in my pocket and thanked my lucky stars.
Catherine: It sounds like you have a very wise and compassionate doctor. I would love to dive into your role as a mother and how that’s been impacted. You’re a mother of three with a young daughter at home. What do you want her to know most of all about your journey? Is there anything you have shared with her that can help her and other young women in the way of protection and prevention from breast cancer?
Julie: Alcohol is a poison and our culture glamorizes alcohol abuse. Studies are coming in showing the link between women, alcohol, and cancer. Women endure. I guess my message to my daughter was that everything was going to be okay. In the entire timeline of humankind, there has never been a better time to have cancer. With all the advances in medicine, it’s hard to keep up. At first diagnosis, there was talk of harvesting skin the size of a football from my back to use in breast reconstruction, but by the time I had surgery a year later, new techniques made it outdated.
Catherine: Wow! I didn’t know that. And, back to the alcohol. You’re so right that we have glamorized something that can be very unhealthy for us. Making wellness a priority is vital to our health. Oh, and balance too, as you said earlier.
Let’s take a moment to dive into the emotional side of your experience. What has been the most difficult emotional part of this journey? How does your inner world differ from your outer world? In other words, are you putting a brave face on while dealing with challenging emotions, anxiety, fear, etc on the inside?
Julie: It’s a new path that I am currently navigating. There are times that I allow myself a pity party when I am alone, huddled in a ball on the floor in the shower. But feeling sorry for myself does not serve me, so I’ll allow it for only for a minute or two…after all, California is currently in a drought.
Catherine: You can have a pity party with me any day! Tears can be so healing. Is there anything else you would like to share with us?
Julie: Gratitude. Gratitude for you, Catherine. Gratitude for your platform that you use for good. Gratitude for my women friends who supported me when I was weak, who called me everyday when I was stumbling, showed up with food for the family when I wasn’t hungry, flew in from out-of-state to bring me a green smoothie, took me to every medical appointment and waited outside in the car, held my hair when I felt like vomiting sitting at my desk at work, and the women who carried my load when I could not.
See? Now, I’m crying.
Catherine: “The women who carried my load when I could not.” You make me weep. Women. It is who we are and the essence of our being. It is what I have learned throughout these past few years. Every time, it feels like the world is ending, I am grateful for the women that are always there to pick me up. And, I am so grateful for you because you are one of them! I wish you were right here so I could give you the biggest hugs. Your story is incredibly powerful! You are one fierce and beautiful survivor. Sharing your story as openly and bravely as you have will help so many women behind you on this journey. Thank you, Julie!
Beauties, if Julie has touched anywhere near as much as she has touched mine, please share her story, her lessons and her wisdom with someone you love. Hit the share button on social media. Shout her grit, grace and gratitude to the rooftops. We can only hope to save a life or to prevent a new case of breast cancer through Julie’s powerful story and journey.