As a Cancer Journey Coach and Breast Cancer Survivor, I’m Changing the Narrative for Cancer

"Throughout my training, I felt the impact of what I was learning."

Cancer was a big part of my life long before it played an instrumental role in shaping my identity.

My father died in 2012 after a long journey with prostate cancer. Five days before his passing, my mother was diagnosed with breast cancer. I hesitated to tell him about my mom’s diagnosis, but he knew something was up from the way I was so on edge those last few days. When I finally told him, he apologized to me for having to go through this ordeal again with another parent. I was so humbled and in awe of his empathy in that moment. His advice for my mom was, “Don’t be ashamed. It’s not your fault. Be open.” Today, 10 years after his death, these words echo within me, almost as if he had unknowingly intended them for me. I am a breast cancer survivor, and I am not ashamed—of my cancer, and of the turbulent yet transformative journey it has brought.

When I heard the words “you have breast cancer” in the summer of 2017, it came as a complete shock. I felt as though my life, and everything I had planned, had come to a sudden halt. As an occupational therapist, I was very familiar with disease in my patients, and as a daughter of two parents with cancer, I thought I had both the knowledge and the capacity to take control of my own cancer journey. My instinct was to go into “warrior mode:” I was careful not to let fear take the reins. On our drive home from the hospital, I told my husband that I wanted to be the one to tell our kids. I was wary of the energy and fears that other people may reflect back to me, so it was important for me to be cognizant of how my diagnosis was presented to my family and friends. As a positive person by nature, something I inherited from my dad, I wanted to make sure I navigated through this difficult time with as much hope and optimism as possible.

After 10 months of treatment involving chemotherapy, surgery and radiation, I was finally told that there was “no evidence of disease.” I was cancer-free! I went back to work shortly after. That’s when my personal struggles really hit. With time, I learned that putting on a brave face was not enough, and sometimes even worked to my detriment.

After my last round of treatments, I thought I would return to a normal, perhaps more empowered life, having “beat cancer,” so they say. But I could not have felt less empowered. I faced myriad emotions that I did not expect like anger, self-pity and persistent sadness. At times, these feelings surpassed what I thought I “should” feel as a cancer survivor, like gratitude. I felt ill-equipped to process these conflicting emotions on my own.

I tried psychotherapy, but still felt completely disconnected from myself. As much as I tried to narrate and take control of my cancer journey, I had lost parts of myself. This is when I turned to a life coach, who began poking at the right spots and asking the right questions. I still remember how clearly and quickly I was able to answer one question she posed, a question that many spend their entire lives trying to answer: “What do you want to do with your life?” I had no doubt in my mind that I wanted to help other women through their cancer. There were many times along my own journey when I felt utterly isolated, even though I had a strong support system and was surrounded by well-wishers. I wanted to help other women feel heard and understood by someone who had been there so that they wouldn’t feel so lost in the thick of it all, the way I did.

This is when I was first introduced to the term “cancer coach.” With some research, I came across The Cancer Journey Institute, which is dedicated to the emotional and mental healing of cancer patients and survivors. After completing a 10-month course, a written exam and an oral exam, I became a certified cancer journey coach.

Throughout my training, I felt the impact of what I was learning. In the process of fine-tuning the ways I could provide mental and emotional support for others, I reactivated unprocessed thoughts and emotions that I had not realized were still with me as remnants of my cancer. I began to recall my lowest moments, like the excruciating pain that debilitated me after my fifth round of chemotherapy. For a reason I had yet to understand, I refrained from telling my doctor about the extent of my pain. It was my husband who requested that my doctor reduce my chemotherapy dose after witnessing how difficult it became for me to cope. “Why are you being such a martyr?” my doctor had said to me. I merely had to express how I felt and ask for a solution: pain medication.

Through cancer journey coaching, I realized I had been feeling as though I was “meant to suffer” or that my suffering had a higher purpose. It dawned on me that limiting beliefs like these had been guiding much of my thoughts and decisions in life until then. This awareness sparked a fire within me. I began to gain clarity on who I was, what was truly important to me and how I wanted to live. I became more intentional. My life was infused with more gratitude. And I held a deep desire to help other women experience the beauty of this unfolding. I knew in my gut that this was my calling.

Since then, I have had the privilege of working with women of all ages through various stages of their cancer, including those at the initial stages of a new diagnosis, those experiencing the vulnerability of living as a survivor and those acknowledging the reality of their mortality. I expanded my work beyond cancer and began addressing the other shades of life’s complexities. Many of my clients, despite their diverse experiences, share similar sentiments, such as low self-esteem or the pressure to meet perceived obligations, especially as women and the many hats we wear with our families and careers. Through coaching sessions and identifying skills and strengths, I help my clients define their core values and learn the strengths they already possess that they can lean on through challenging times.

For each client, I have had the opportunity to witness the start of their self-discovery process. I have seen them begin to recognize their potential and the unique value they bring to the world, unlocking a power within them that they always had, but struggled to elicit. This power often looks like a renewed sense of confidence and an ability to trust their own intuition. I had one young client who hesitated to assert herself and her needs. Through cancer journey coaching, she began to advocate for herself to her care team and take charge of her own cancer management and treatment. This newfound confidence led her to make other empowering decisions in her life, like driving down a highway in a convertible—a seemingly small act, but one that was personally meaningful and liberating. Witnessing transformations like this has been my biggest accomplishment and truly feeds my soul.

Cancer changes you as a person. Some like to say that “conquering cancer” has made them stronger. I like to be mindful of the language I use. “Conquering” cancer implies a battle, a struggle that requires one to “warrior up” or otherwise fail. There’s a lot of pressure that comes with this, and it also implies that those who ultimately die from their disease, like my dad did, somehow lost. This could not be further from the truth. Where cancer is traditionally viewed as a death sentence, for me, it became a catalyst to explore something deeper about myself. It forced me to ask myself, “What can I learn from this? What am I discovering about myself? What is the meaning that I can derive here?” Beyond radiation, chemotherapy and surgery, there are deeper wounds that also need healing. This is what cancer journey coaching offered to me, and this is what I now offer for my clients.

Today, 10 years after the death of my father, I feel as though I am honouring his words, “Don’t be ashamed. Be open.” I am working towards changing the narrative of cancer. My goal, and my life’s passion, is for other women to be able to do the same—to see the challenges they face as an opportunity for growth and transformation, and to have the clarity and confidence to stand in their innate strengths.

Next: Jeanne Beker on Finding Community and Support Through Her Breast Cancer Diagnosis