Photo of two women sitting in front of a computer chatting

Photograph courtesy of Gifting Tech, Illustrations by Lauren Emery

The healing power of giving back after breast cancer

Meet three women who turned a scary diagnosis into something positive—for their communities and themselves

What is it like to hear the words “You have breast cancer”? “Really, I was [almost] in a trance,” says Lisa Freedman, who was working as a lawyer when she was diagnosed with early-stage breast cancer. There was nausea, too. Constant, debilitating nausea. But in the midst of that fog, there was clarity for Freedman: a decision that, when she was well, she would give back to her community in a way she hadn’t before.

Now everything’s different

When you survive cancer, it puts what’s important to you in perspective—fast. You realize you’re vulnerable and vincible. And if you’ve been well supported through your illness and recovery by friends, family and other people in your life, you also come to appreciate how community makes difference in your journey.

For many breast cancer survivors, this experience of being cared for by others turns into new purpose. They feel motivated to double-down on giving back and helping others who are now walking in their shoes. But how to help isn’t necessarily something you find in a pamphlet at the hospital.

Some may honour their renewed gift of life by giving back to people and organizations who are working to make change. Some go big by volunteering at all kinds of organizations and thinking of creative ways to reach out to as many people as they can. Others are simply there, listening, offering a hug and a chat, or holding out a supportive hand to one person at a time. Here are three women who’ve taken different approaches to giving back post-cancer—and found meaningful ways to heal.

The silver lining

Freedman’s “Aha!” moment came during five weeks of post-surgery radiation and hormone therapy. The drugs made her nauseous, and she spent a lot of time in the bathroom. A lot.

One day, as she was, literally, lying on the bathroom floor feeling awful, she realized she hated being a lawyer. In this life, you never know what’s going to happen, she thought. “I asked myself, ‘What is it that I want to do, and what do I have a passion for?’” Turns out, Freedman had always had a love of technology. Since she could remember, she had been the girl playing games, and she made sure her son always had the latest video games.

Still on the floor, Freedman started Googling and discovered that the University of Toronto was accepting people into their first coding boot camp through their School of Continuing Studies. “I was about two blocks away. It was part-time on Tuesday and Thursday nights and Saturday, so I could still work,” she says. She went for it. Toward the end of the course, she’d found her purpose.

“What I wanted to do was to be able to provide websites for free to non-profit groups,” she says. She started hooking up those organizations with web designers and coders and managing the relationships. “I started my career way back as a law student working in crisis centers, so I’ve always had an affinity for non-profits,” she says.

Would all this have happened without the diagnosis? “No, I really don’t think so,” Freedman says. “Cancer makes you rethink everything.”

Share the knowledge

Get this: Just two weeks after Deborah Peniuk was diagnosed with stage 3 triple-negative breast cancer she was already starting to give back. Peniuk teaches laughter yoga (a combination of simulated laughter exercises and breathing techniques used to alleviate stress) and began trying out some of those techniques in the chemo treatment room at Mount Sinai Hospital to see if she could help fellow her patients.

She then started to reach out through social media and found others going through the same treatments. “I’d go and visit them when they were having chemo whenever I could, even if it was on different days at different hospitals,” she says. She even brought in chocolate for the nurses.

During this time Peniuk leaned on her own support network. Her mom, who had come to live with her only six months earlier, was her rock. She also linked up with friends on social media, including a few high school friends that she hadn’t spoken to in years. She connected with Gilda’s Club Greater Toronto, too—and that’s where she found out about Dragons Abreast Toronto, the second dragon boat team in the world paddled by breast cancer survivors. “I’ve played sports all my life…so dragon boating made sense,” Peniuk says. Best of all, it felt good to be part of a community that understood what she was going through. “There is no explanation needed because we’re all survivors,” she says.

For Peniuk, knowledge is power, and she wants to share with others what she’s learned on her journey. Now that she’s in recovery, giving back is part of her everyday life: She made a YouTube video about creating a beautiful henna masterpiece on her head when she lost her hair so others experiencing hair loss wouldn’t feel alone. She’s also on the fundraising and social committees for Dragons Abreast; she’s an ambassador for the After Breast Cancer Charity; and she works as a workshop facilitator at Gilda’s Club.

No, wait, there’s more: A podcast is on Peniuk’s radar next. She wants to use her voice to make conversations happen between people in the community so they can share their stories. And she’s building a breast cancer conference in Colombia with her oncologist, and hoping to get a few breast cancer retreats off the ground. “People need to understand that they’re not alone,” she says.

Pay it forward

Here’s the thing: Giving back isn’t all grand gestures and giant initiatives. Often, it’s the small kindnesses that mean the world to a person who’s feeling overwhelmed by a diagnosis. And when you’ve received that kind of support, it makes your heart grow. You can’t not pass that along to others.

In 2017, Jan Coleman went for a routine mammogram. She wasn’t worried, because it was just a regular, scheduled test—but then a tumour showed up. And just like that, her life changed. A lumpectomy, chemo and radiation treatments followed.

A co-worker who had been diagnosed with breast cancer herself started looking out for Coleman. “She had recently been through it all, and it was still fresh in her memory,” she says. The co-worker started giving Coleman some tips. “It wasn’t anything big,” she says, “just small things, like ‘Don’t skip the anti-nausea medication, even if you aren’t nauseous. Take what’s prescribed so you don’t get nauseous.’”

Those little tips made a big difference in Coleman’s treatment. Sometimes just knowing you’re not alone, that others have been through it and are OK now, can make you brave—and strong enough to get through gruelling treatments. “If you’ve been diagnosed with breast cancer, it’s so valuable to speak to someone who’s been through it,” she says.

One of the most difficult times is waiting to hear results from a test or a biopsy, and knowing it might not be good news, adds Coleman. “People can tell you not to worry, and that it will all be fine—but those feelings can keep you up at night, and anyone who has ever been there understands that.” It can help to just get it out of your head by talking to someone who’s been there.

One thing Coleman did find a little difficult was well-meaning advice, which wasn’t always what she needed. “I think that people just want to talk; they need to talk,” she says. “But they don’t necessarily want to be told what to do.”

So now, Coleman pays it forward without a side of unsolicited advice. If she hears that someone she knows has received a diagnosis, she reaches out to them. Recently, a good friend was diagnosed with cancer, so Coleman immediately made herself available to talk—and to listen.

Her tip for anyone who wants to support others during difficult times? “Pay attention [to what the person needs]. Even if it’s something [simple] like talking over a meal…whatever way you can help can make a big difference,” she says. “I’ll never forget the woman at work who helped me.” They may not seem significant, but even the tiniest gestures can lead to big changes.

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