Cancer flat-out sucks. So no one would blame these women if rather than Stand↑2Cancer they just wanted to Sit↓2Cry. Yet after the tears dried, these four smart, strong ladies showed how they not only stood up to cancer, but also started kicking butt by making big changes in the way we view health. Cancer or not, their inspirational stories can also help you—whatever your obstacles.
In January 2003, Kris Carr was a successful actress with two commercials that aired during the Super Bowl. But within a month, everything changed. On Valentine’s Day in 2003, she was diagnosed with epithelioid hemangioendothelioma (EHE), an extremely rare but slow-moving cancer that affects the lining of the blood vessels in the liver and lungs. The diagnosis also came with news that doctors had found 24 tumors in her body. Most people have never even heard of of this disease—it accounts for less than 0.01% of all cancers—yet hers was already at a stage IV. Doctors told her it was "incurable and inoperable."
"I felt like I was punched in the stomach by God," she said in an interview with Scientific American. "Cancer is such a frightening word. How could this be happening to me? Cancer happened to other people. I was young and vibrant. I was the ‘Bud Girl,’ for Christ’s sake. I felt like I was staring down the barrel of a gun, waiting to find out how many bullets were inside."
The Turning Point
"This whiskey tango foxtrot moment (that’s military lingo for WTF?!) sparked a deep desire in me to stop holding back and start living like I mean it! I wanted to feel better, love harder, and enjoy my life more fully." So the aspiring actress decided to go on a pilgrimage and film the whole thing. She eventually turned the experience into an award-winning documentary Crazy Sexy Cancer (Oprah's a fan!). It also generated four books where she reveals everything she learned about herself and healthy living in the process.
"It taught me how to listen to my brilliant inner guide, brought me back to nature (my church), the garden and kitchen (my pharmacies), and connected me more deeply with the people and animals who set my heart ablaze," she explains.
Now she calls herself a "cancer thriver" instead of survivor and writes on her blog, that nearly 10 years later, "My life is truly, madly magical—even with cancer. If I can pull that off, just imagine what you can do!"
"I learned that a nutrient-dense, plant-passionate diet rules, the Standard American Diet destroys (everything), stress sucks (all life-force), exercise is non-negotiable (great for your head, heart, cells, and ass-ets), joy is utterly contagious, and having fun must be taken very seriously."
In November 2010, Melanie was told she had chronic lymphoma. Despite having multiple tumors, at the beginning she says she didn't feel any pain, discomfort, or interference with her life. "I don't feel sick. In fact, I feel stronger and healthier than ever," she said in an interview with More magazine at the time. "So I said this is just a computer glitch and I need a reboot."
The Turning Point
Things got real when she started chemo. In anticipation of her hair falling out, Melanie took the opportunity to chop off her long, blond waves into a funky, asymmetrical 'do. "It made me feel like a superhero version of myself," she says on her blog. In addition to the hair, she also made it a point to wear what she likes to call "superhero cuffs," stacked bracelets to remind her what she was fighting for.
On the day of her chemo, her doorman gave her one more, telling her the bracelet was given to him in Africa to remind him to be strong. "He has had it for many years and he wanted to give it to me, to offer me strength." Looking at the bracelets she realized that even though that day she would put on a new one—a hospital ID bracelet—she would take it off afterward, and she'd remain her superhero self.
Now the former lawyer focuses her attention on her wellness and helping others, working full-time as a (wildly popular) indoor cycling instructor and trainer at SoulCycle. She was the first-ever student to become a Master Instructor.
"We can’t spend our lives anticipating, guessing, and then being attached to that imagined idea. We have one life to live. Just know how you want to be and be it. It really is that simple."
Rushing to the airport to pick up her mom, Valérie got a strange phone call from the oncology ward at her local hospital. The person calling wanted to discuss her emergency surgery that was scheduled for the following day. She was suspicious as she didn’t remember taking any tests and was feeling perfectly fine. But it turned out not to be the world's worst prank call: A test she'd taken months earlier showed a brain tumor they believed to be fatal. It's just that no one had bothered to tell her about it. (Her doctor explained he mailed the results to her and left messages but somehow none of his correspondence reached her.)
"I was gutted," she says. "Me? Cancer? It could not be. I was strong. I was young. I was immortal. Nothing that bad could happen to me! I sat down for a minute. Slid in despair. Cried. Then I put my sunglasses on, went to the airport and acted as if what had just happened was not part of my life."
Nothing like a surprise cancer surgery to ruin a mother-daughter weekend—or an entire life.
The Turning Point
Because of her prior experience being an overweight teen, Valérie had long been interested in helping people get healthy. But up until her diagnosis, she'd never been able to make it happen.
"Being sick was a gift. It gave me some much-needed free time. [It was then] I realized my previous job in a startup was not me. I could not be defined by it anymore. I wanted to help. I wanted to make the world a healthier place one person at a time."
And with that LeBootCamp.com was born. In spite of (or because of) fighting cancer, she launched her website as a place where people can sign up for healthy weight loss coaching while enjoying gourmet foods and exercising soundly. Working on the project while undergoing chemo helped her find purpose in the pain, even if she didn’t talk about cancer struggles on her site. Today, she has over one million subscribers, counting many of Hollywood's elite as fans.
In a world of chronic over-sharers, Valérie went an unconventional route and decided not to share her cancer struggles with anyone outside her inner circle. It's advice she offers to others, no matter what they're struggling with. "By projecting happiness and strength, even when I was at the bottom of my despair…I attracted joy and energy. Not sharing my fight meant I had to force myself to take care of my body and my soul every single day: no shapeless sweats, no sneakers, no bare face!" She adds emphatically, "I never ever let it define me."
As a political science professor at the University of Minnesota, Wendy was more used to being the one called doctor. Yet when she was diagnosed in 2006 with breast cancer, many different doctors became a large part of her life. In an effort to cope with her impending surgery and chemo, she did what she knew best: hit the books. What she found surprised her—partly because of what it said but mostly because none of her doctors had mentioned it to her. According to a compelling body of research, exercise can help cancer patients both during treatment and afterward. Influence of pre- and postdiagnosis physical activity on mortality in breast cancer survivors: the health, eating, activity, and lifestyle study. Irwin ML, Smith AW, McTiernan A, Ballard-Barbash R, Cronin K, Gilliland FD, Baumgartner RN, Baumgartner KB, Bernstein L. Journal of Clinical Oncology. 2008 Aug 20;26(24):3958-64. Impact of physical activity on cancer recurrence and survival in patients with stage III colon cancer: findings from CALGB 89803. Meyerhardt JA, Heseltine D, Niedzwiecki D, Hollis D, Saltz LB, Mayer RJ, Thomas J, Nelson H, Whittom R, Hantel A, Schilsky RL, Fuchs CS. Journal of Clinical Oncology. 2006 Aug 1;24(22):3535-41. So, why was no one doing it?
The Turning Point
Rather than following doctors' orders to rest after her bilateral mastectomy and chemo, she decided to test out her theories (on herself) and it worked. At the time, the research was relatively new and unheard of, so most cancer docs and support groups weren't even mentioning it, much less prescribing it. She eventually amassed three binders worth of scientific evidence.
"No one on my healthcare team had bothered to tell me how important exercise is [for cancer survivors],” she said in an interview with Experience Life. “It’s not exciting nanotechnology kind of science, but it’s good, solid research—and it’s falling through the cracks.”
Within months she started Survivors' Training, a nonprofit organization, as a way to get that life-saving information about exercise therapy to cancer patients. Then she started a website to provide community support. Finally, she opened Survivors' Training gym to put the science into practice.
You have to be your own advocate. Wendy learned to stand up for herself and her needs through the entire journey. "I’m a different person than I used to be,” she says. “I don’t have time for BS anymore…I have a sense of purpose.”