Whether it's the loss of a loved one or an unwelcome diagnosis, obstacles such as these force us to appreciate all that we have, and gain a deeper understanding of our minds and bodies. For some people, the road to physical and mental recovery can be a winding and complicated path.
Fortunately, the transformative power of overcoming a difficult situation or life-threatening illness often yields a positive outcome. For these young women profiled, their diseases only empowered them to never give up. By tackling their illnesses head on and refusing to succumb to their pain, they learned to beat the odds and appreciated what they have, rather than focusing on what they don't, and most of all, they learned to trust in themselves. For Isabella, Catherine, Ashley, Virginia, and Jessie, relying on their gut instincts saved their lives, and by bravely sharing their personal stories, they hope to inspire others to do the same.
Hometown: West Bloomfield, Michigan
Profession: Student, Arizona State University
Twitter Handle: @CBlotner_
Disease: Astrocytoma (Brain Tumor)
Bio: Catherine is a patient advocate for the young adult cancer community. She underwent a craniotomy at the age of seventeen to remove a Grade II Astrocytoma. Since then, she has used her experience with a brain tumor to spread information about cancer, provide support, and make resources readily available for others who have also been affected by cancer.
According to Catherine, who has been battling her brain tumor and related seizures since 2007, "Instead of sitting in a classroom on the first day of my senior year of high school, I found myself on a table for my craniotomy, during which I remained conscious for nearly one out of the six hours of surgery. An extremely talented surgeon from the University of California San Francisco successfully removed all visible tumor, sparing me from chemotherapy and radiation. I now have MRI scans every four months to monitor my condition, and I continue to treat my seizures with medication."
How It Changed Her: "I am so much more grateful for basic functions, like control of my speech. My tumor was located in the area of my brain that controls speech and language function. It was incredibly likely that I would have trouble talking, if I talked at all, after my surgery. Somehow, I emerged from the operating room with the same speech capabilities that I entered with, aside from some vocabulary recall problems. I had to mentally prepare to lose the ability to speak as a major risk of having the surgery, and the surprise of waking up and still having the ability to speak is something I will never forget."
Why She Wanted to Tell Her Story to Marie Claire: "According to the National Brain Tumor Society, brain tumors are the second leading cause of cancer-related death for those under the age of eighteen. Very few people are aware of that statistic, nor do they recognize gray ribbons as the symbol of brain tumors and brain cancer. Pink ribbons and labeled products dominate the NFL and many grocery aisles in October, (national breast cancer awareness month), yet no sports program or company has stepped up to represent the brain tumor community."
Words to Live By: "Find a bit of beauty and joy in the world today. Share it. If you can't find it, create it."—Lisa Bonchek Adams, stage IV breast cancer patient and advocate
Her Advice for Someone Who's Going Through a Similar Situation: "You are your own best advocate—speak up and voice your concerns during each appointment! Bring someone else with you to absorb information and to act as an extra set of ears or to take notes. Make a list of the questions you have and bring them to appointments as well so that you won't forget to ask key questions." Catherine also recommends reaching out to other patients or survivors through organizations such as the National Brain Tumor Society or the Children's Brain Tumor Foundation, as well as Stupid Cancer, Imerman Angels, and the online Twitter forum she founded, the #btsm tweet chat, that runs every Sunday night on Twitter at 10 p.m. EST.
Hometown: Bath, Maine
Profession: Student, Boise State University
Disease: Invasive Ductal Carcinoma (Breast Cancer)
Bio: At just 28 years old, Ashley, a young mother with two kids, was diagnosed with breast cancer. Assuming that the lump that she detected on her breast was nothing to be overly concerned about, Ashley scheduled a mammogram at her doctor's office for good measure. Unfortunately, like her grandmother who was diagnosed in her late 30's/early 40's, Ashley soon learned that she, too, had cancer. Luckily, she was fortunate enough to have caught it early on in stage 1, and to receive tons of support from her friends and family.
Eventually, after learning about her condition during a rather uncomfortable phone call with her doctor, Ashley was put in a difficult position. An MRI that was performed close the date of her upcoming surgery revealed that she had some spots on her left side, which meant that both breasts were potentially affected by cancerous cells. As she put it, "I already had surgery scheduled for June 21st, so at that point I was like, 'You know what? I just want to have a mastectomy. Just take them both off, I don't want to have to worry about this. I'm 28 years old (or I was at that point), I have two little kids, I have a husband. I can't deal with this, or with having to come back in 10 years for whatever.'" Because of her decision, Ashley did not have to undergo radiation or chemotherapy. At present, she works with Susan G. Komen and is in stage 2 of 5 of her reconstruction period with the hopes of getting her life back and "look[ing] normal again."
How It Changed Her: "I think it made me realize how strong I am. I mean, I always knew I was strong, but [now I know that] if I can get through this, then I can 100% get through anything. I also learned that humor, for me, was the best medicine. I mean, it was ok for me to cry and it was ok for me to ask for help. I'm usually not the type of person who asks for help. I'm a get-it-done kind of person—I'm a fixer—and needing other people to help me was very hard to adjust to, but I learned that it's okay to ask for help and that people were more than willing to do so."
Why She Wanted to Tell Her Story to Marie Claire: "The biggest thing for me now is to get out there and tell people, especially girls our age and younger, that cancer can happen to us. Breast cancer is no longer something that just happens to your mom, or to your grandma...If I had waited until I was 40 to go have my mammogram like the doctors tell us, then it's very likely that I could have had stage 4 cancer, I could have already been super sick, or I could have even been dead because I would not have known. [Also], you need to know your body and to know what your breasts feel like, because that's what could potentially save your life."
Words to Live By: "It is during our darkest moments that we must focus to see the light."—Aristotle Onassis
Twitter Handle: @ashb2112
Her Advice for Someone Who's Going Through a Similar Situation: "Talk to your doctor and ask questions, even if you feel silly asking...Just ask as many questions as you can, don't be afraid. Your doctor's not going to get mad at you if you call and ask, 'Is this a lump, is something wrong?' That's what they're there for."
Hometown: Tucson, Arizona
Profession: Student, Middlebury College
Twitter Handle: @IsabellaTudisco
Disease: Epithelioid Sarcoma (Cancer)
Bio: Isabella is currently living in Senegal and preparing to write her thesis on the concept of dance as a reflection of social movement. According to Isabella, "Cancer has always been prevalent in my family history. I had an aunt pass away from cancer when I was 6, another aunt who survived breast cancer, and my grandmother's a survivor of breast cancer. Then, when I was 15, my mother was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, which wasn't something that we'd had in our family. She passed away when I was 17, and it was a pretty big deal in my life. My father passed away when I was 9, so my mom was the person that had been there for me my whole life.
As for Isabella's personal battle with cancer, she was forced to confront her fear of doctors and have her index finger on her left hand checked out after the swollen finger began to go numb. Within the first week of her freshman year, Isabella was in the E.R., despite the fact that her family and doctors had previously convinced her that she had nothing to worry about. One day, months after learning that she had an extremely rare soft tissue cancer known as Epithelioid Sarcoma, her index finger had to be removed.
How It Changed Her: "I think that it's something that's made me really, really focus on the fragility of life, or the impermanence of life, and to understand that things can always be worse. No matter what is happening to you, there's always someone who has it worse than you. And that doesn't mean that you can't feel pain or that you can't have your moment of mourning or sadness because we can and we should, but it just helps me to remember always that I'm so lucky to be in the position that I am in, that given the circumstances and everything I came out fine. [It made me want to wear my] battle scars proudly."
Why She Wanted to Tell Her Story to Marie Claire: "One thing that I get really caught up in sometimes is thinking about how we all have these individual lives that are so complex and hard for us to understand (even for ourselves), and then we look around and we see all of these other people [with equally complex lives]. And so I think that what I want in life is to find those intersections as much as possible and to have windows into other people's lives and for them to have windows into mine because I think that that's how we enrich ourselves and how we enrich others, as well as how we learn about how we want life to be...I think it's an honor to be considered someone strong and it's an honor to have the opportunity to share my life in some way with other people because I think it makes life a little bit larger than ourselves."
Words to Live By: "We have two lives, and the second begins when we realize we only have one."—Confucius
"Forgiveness is the release of all hope for a better past."—Buddy Wakefield & Reverend Kathianne Lewis
Her Advice for Someone Who's Going Through a Similar Situation: "I think that I would say that it's really important to believe in yourself and in your own intelligence and to be confident enough to question everyone...[As a young person] it's really easy to be overlooked or stepped on and...a lot of doctors just assume that you don't know anything. They don't explain anything to you because they don't think that you have the capacity to comprehend it all...[I also think that] it's really important to truly love yourself and find yourself beautiful [according to your own definition of beauty] because I think that that allows you a great capacity to love other people and engage with other people in a meaningful way."
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Hometown: Westfield, Massachusetts
Profession: Student, University of Connecticut
Disease: Type 1 Diabetes
Bio: Virginia, a young woman who was once terrified of needles (and even tried to throw a chair at her doctor during a particularly intense visit!), has definitely overcome her fear. Although she still asks friends and family to help her out with her shots every now and then, Virginia has found a way to conquer her anxiety and live her life to the fullest. She was diagnosed with Type 1 Diabetes at the age of 15 during her sophomore year of high school. As she noted, "Basically, I knew something was wrong before I was diagnosed because I lost more than 25 pounds within a few months (I went from 115 to 87), I was constantly thirsty (I had to use the bathroom about 3 times during each 45 minute class period), and I was hungry all of the time. I never realized at the time how terrible I must have looked. My mom actually thought I was bulimic [at one point]."
"One morning I woke up and knew something was wrong, so I called my mom and she drove me straight to the ER; by this point I was so weak and exhausted that I didn't refuse. When we got there they told me that my blood sugar was well over 600 mg/dl (the normal range is about 100). After that, I just remember being stabbed with needles all day long-it was the most miserable day of my life." Following her visit to the hospital, Virginia learned the do's and don'ts of her disease, and even confessed to once choosing not to take her insulin dosages in order to quickly lose weight for prom, something that many young women with diabetes have done and something that she firmly asserted that she will never do again. But all in all, six years after her initial diagnosis, Virginia is thankful for her challenge because it helped her overcome her fear of needles, but it has also helped her realize that she wants to become a registered dietitian and specialize in endocrinology in order to help and be a resource for other people that have been diagnosed with Type 1 Diabetes, as well."
How It Changed Her: Her illness taught her to always strive to be kind to others. You never know what someone else is dealing with; the person who just cut you off could have really low blood sugar, or could simply be having a terrible day. As she sees it, it's important to always try your hardest to sympathize with others because you just never know what's afflicting them or how your actions could ultimately affect them.
Why She Wanted to Tell Her Story to Marie Claire: "Having Type 1 Diabetes has made me realize that a lot of people don't know much about it. When people hear the word "diabetes" they are quick to judge you and be assume, 'You have that because you eat too much sugar and too many bad foods.' But out of the people who have diabetes, only 10 percent of people have Type 1 and the other 90 percent of people have Type 2, which does come from not exercising and eating poorly. Sometimes it makes me really angry when people don't know the difference [and say these things anyway]. I'm telling my story to educate people about Type 1 Diabetes so that they are more understanding and not as quick to judge."
Words to Live By: "Happiness does not come from doing easy work but from the afterglow of satisfaction that comes after the achievement of a difficult task that demanded our best."—Theodore Isaac Rubin
Twitter Handle: @vfisher14
Her Advice for Someone Who's Going Through a Similar Situation: "I feel like this is really cliché, but...it gets better. Obviously, at first you don't know what the situation will bring to you or how it'll turn out in the end. [But] I feel like everything happens for a reason, and we need to wait it out to see what the positive outcome is going to be for the situation."
Hometown: Novi, Michigan
Profession: Recent Graduate from the University of Michigan
Disease: Anorexia & Thyroid Cancer
Bio: When she was just 12 years old, Jessie, an avid dancer, developed an eating disorder. At 16, she discovered she had thyroid cancer as she was getting over her anorexia. According to Jessie, "I think that's when I got cancer—at the tail end of my eating disorder—it helped me put it into perspective. Having something so completely out of my control that could so easily take my life made me wonder, 'Why am I doing this to myself? I totally have the power in this situation.' So, [in a weird way] having cancer helped me get over anorexia."
Jessie first discovered her cancer when the lymph node on the right side of her neck was particularly swollen one day and she decided to go to the doctor. Post biopsy, Jessie found out that it was thyroid material that was sending out cancerous cells, and that her thyroid and "a ton of lymph nodes" had to be removed. Afterwards, Jessie went through radiation using a radioactive iodine, though she confesses that because she was so young, the exact details of how she recovered are a bit hazy. Yet even today, these events affect Jessie's life on a day-to-day basis. For example, she needs to take medication daily, something that has also created a hormonal imbalance which has caused a number of other issues. Still, Jessie is not bitter about her past and even jokingly remarked that the whole situation has "been a hell of a ride."
How It Changed Her: "It's definitely changed how I view myself as just a person, in general. I think I'm a much stronger person than somebody who hasn't gone through this [situation]. Not to say that I'm always comparing myself to people, but I see more value in myself now that I have overcome those things. And it sucks that I couldn't just see that from the start. But since it was forced upon me I realized that I had to do something, and [that something] was just to accept myself."
Why She Wanted to Tell Her Story to Marie Claire: "I see it now as a positive part of my life because I can use what I have learned to help other people with the same problems. I definitely know that I have knowledge to help someone. So I am willing to let people understand me on a deeper level so that I can help them on a deeper level."
Words to Live By: Although Jessie doesn't have a particular quote that she refers to, she did explain that after all she's been through, "I'm going to do whatever I need to do to make myself happy, no matter what."
Twitter Handle: @jesslinton11
Her Advice for Someone Who's Going Through a Similar Situation: "I mean, [the two issues] are very different, that's the thing. But, if I had to give one piece of advice that would [apply] for either it would be [that] you just have to trust yourself and trust that your body is going to do everything it can to keep you alive. You have to do what it says, it's the boss. And sometimes that's scary, but you just have to accept that."