Business woman, marketing maven, world traveler and writer Melanie Young is a woman in motion, and she did not let a breast cancer diagnosis slow her down … just refocus. She used her cancer experience to retool her diet, ramp up her exercise regimen, rid her life from toxic stress and regain a sense of purpose through writing to empower other women facing the journey. Her blog and her book (both titled Getting Things Off My Chest) inspire women to face life’s challenges with grit, grace and guts.
We’ll be giving away an autographed copy on January 7, 2014! Till then, enjoy this excerpt.
DON’T BE PUSHED BY YOUR PROBLEMS; BE LED BY YOUR DREAMS.
Tuscany, New York, Chattanooga, Hong Kong, Hawaii,Provence, and Bordeaux. These places come to mind when people ask me about my breast cancer experience. I own a wine and food marketing and special events business and work with many international clients, so one of the pleasures and perks of my profession is the opportunity to travel to beautiful places to learn and taste. As a passionate
traveler and planner who likes to savor my experiences and drink in every moment, I research and pack for each trip with eager anticipation. I also document each journey with an assortment of diaries that comprise the story of my life: where I went, what I ate and drank, who I was with, and what I experienced and felt.
During 2009 and 2010, I took an extended and unexpected journey to a destination that had been visited by many before me. It was my first and hopefully last visit to Cancer Land.
I felt the lump in my left breast on a business trip to Tuscany with my husband. Nine months earlier my mammogram had shown no issues. When I came home to New York and after I got the lump examined, my OB-GYN delivered the news on August 9, 2009. At that time, I also adopted a new family: the oncology specialists at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center.
Friends turned my tears into laughter at their home in Provence shortly after I was diagnosed. No, I did not cancel my trip. I used it to calm my nerves and dubbed it my breasts’ “farewell tour.”
Before my double mastectomy, I flew home to Chattanooga, Tennessee, where I grew up, to see and say good-bye to my father, Mel Young. He had been moved into hospice with advanced prostate cancer and renal failure shortly after my diagnosis. I don’t know what was harder: hearing that I had cancer or looking into his eyes for the last time. We buried him just after my second surgery and, thankfully, before he had to watch his only daughter undergo chemotherapy. My heartbreak at letting him go was a third wound to my chest, and the last to heal after my double mastectomy.
I turned in many hard-earned frequent flier miles that were intended for a trip to Hong Kong and Thailand to ring in the New Year and celebrate my January 1 birthday and instead booked a stay at the chemotherapy suites at the Evelyn Lauder Breast Cancer Center (the Four Seasons of breast cancer centers, in my opinion).
Midway through chemotherapy, I went to Hawaii to restore my body and celebrate my wedding anniversary. Juicy Hawaiian pineapples were one of my go-to comfort foods during chemo.
A year later, back with my friends in Provence and Bordeaux, I celebrated the end of treatment and tossed off my wig to unveil my spiky new platinum-blonde hair. It felt so god to toast to my health in France, a place that always lifts my spirits.
When I was feeling a bit low or prepping for chemotherapy, I mentally escaped to these beautiful places and others that I dreamed of visiting when I was well again. I maintained an ever-expanding bucket list in my cancer journal.
I always receive the best advice about traveling to a destination from people who have been there before me, so I’ve decided to share my advice to you on your journey to Cancer Land—including tips on how to prepare, organize and navigate your journey. It’s an adventure trip of sorts that involves a huge adrenaline rush, lots of endurance tests, many highs and lows, bumpy rides, a few bouts of (e)motion sickness, dietary challenges, and, I hope, smoother sailing with a great companion and skilled medical captains to guide you. You can hang on for dear life or you can gear up and prep yourself to ride it out and deftly navigate the obstacles. My hope is that when you reflect on your journey, you can say, “Been there. Done that! And I’m not going back. I’m moving on to the next adventure, and I’m choosing my destination this time.”
I SEEM TO HAVE STEPPED ONTO THE WRONG STAGE
In 2006 my then-boyfriend David Ransom proposed to me in front of 2000 people. We were on stage at the annual James Beard Foundation Awards, the Oscars of the food and beverage industry, which I produced at the time. The surprise of his proposal and the hiccup of emotion took my breath away. A few seconds later, I gathered my thoughts and accepted. “I am starting a new stage of my life,” I announced to the cheering audience.
I just didn’t think that new stage would be Stage 2A breast cancer. “How did I get here?” I wondered. Granted, I was overworked, over- stressed, and carrying a few extra pounds. And I had a lot of things weighing on my chest. My dad’s prostate cancer had advanced, and he was given only a year to live. My public relations business was facing more competition than ever. The economy had tanked, and clients were not paying their bills on time. One of my closest friends died from metastasized breast cancer. My body was bloated, and my skin kept developing strange rashes. A tipping point was when a business colleague came up to me at an event, patted my stomach, and asked when my baby was due. I wasn’t expecting that question or a baby. I knew something was off and consulted a nutritionist. But cancer never crossed my mind, and my
mammogram in October 2008 was fine.
On a business trip to Italy over the summer, I felt the lump in my left breast and had it immediately checked out upon my return. My OB-GYN said, “I don’t like this.” Neither did I!
The core biopsy that she scheduled felt like someone was biting my left breast repeatedly. Gritting my teeth, I got up from the table, dressed and prepared to leave the Lenox Hill Radiology clinic as fast as I could. I was just about to walk out of the examination room when the lab technician said, “Wait a minute! We need to biopsy the other tumor.”
“What other tumor?” I asked. I only knew about the one in my left breast. That’s when I knew there was trouble. After I left the building, called my husband and broke down in tears right in the middle of Madison Avenue. Then I gathered myself together, took a long walk through Central Park to clear my head, and called two friends, both cancer survivors. We met at a French bistro, and they cheered me up over some glasses of chilled rosé.
WRAPPING MY HEAD AROUND IT
• As a traveler, I study guidebooks and plan routes to ensure that I take the scenic roads, learn insider tips, acclimate to the local culture, and memorize useful words and phrases.
• As an event planner, I make tactical lists and time lines to ensure all questions are asked and all details addressed.
• As a communications professional, I carefully craft each message and image I want to convey.
• As a businesswoman, I look at the bottom line and decide when to invest to stay competitive and when to cut or save to be practical and stay healthy.
• As a human being, I learned when to be strong, when to be gracious, when to realize my limits, and when to ask for help.
I used each of these skills to face my cancer diagnosis.