10 Ways to Be a #BreastCancerThriver

by Bethany Kandel Health Writer

Cancer sucks! Especially when you have metastatic breast cancer (MBC), which means it's spread to other parts of the body. Once breast cancer has made its way to the lungs, liver, bones, or brain, it's considered incurable.

According to METAvivor–an organization that funds MBC research–269,000 Americans are diagnosed with breast cancer each year. Up to 10% of these diagnoses are metastatic, or stage 4, and approximately another 30% of breast cancer patients develop metastatic breast cancer over time.

Cancer patient putting in earrings
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With MBC, you may be on medication or receive chemotherapy for the rest of your life. Doctors and hospital visits are your everyday norm. Yet despite all the obstacles, many with the disease thrive for years. So how do they do it? We asked seven cancer patients for their thoughts about thriving and surviving—and why they're not exactly the same. The difference? For many women, surviving is the state of getting through surgery and treatment. Thriving is something more: It’s the determination to live every day to its fullest. Here's what else they had to say.

Terlisa Sheppard
Courtesy of subject

Stop to Smell the Roses (or at Least Take Pictures of Them)

“I mostly consider myself a thriver.” says Terlisa Sheppard, an author and patient advocate from Orlando, FL. She’s had MBC since 2001, with metastasis to her bones, lungs, liver, spine, abdomen, and brain. “I am still waging forward, making the best out of each day.” Her secret:

“I just focus on living in the moment to my best potential,” she says. “I do stop to take random pictures of flowers or objects that might be in my path. I love going to the beach to watch the mesmerizing sunrises or sunsets. I laugh often and enjoy meeting and chatting with new people, especially cancer survivors that I can possibly offer hope to in their journey.”

Karla Baptiste
Courtesy of subject

Do What You Love and Love What You Do

“I recently retired from my job in corporate America because I didn't feel I was living my life to the fullest,” says Karla Baptiste, a speaker and author from DeSoto, TX. “That part of my life had become mundane and life is too short for monotony. Now, I have more time to write books, do speaking engagements, and pursue health advocacy.”

Rock climbing women high fiving each other

Don't Be Afraid…of Anything

That’s the advice Baptiste offers others. “Fear weakens the immune system. Power, love, and a sound mind are ours to possess. Fear is a choice," she says. "When I was diagnosed with stage 4 breast cancer, I was afraid because there is no stage 5. I hadn't heard of anyone surviving stage 4. Then I realized that I could live several years with bone metastasis and I was not going to cheat myself of a good life—however long it would be—by being tormented every day by fear. That's no way to live and it's bad for your health.”

Since then, Baptiste has been more adventurous than ever. “I’m living my life to the fullest. I even went rock climbing, which is something I never thought I could do. I do a lot of traveling as well. I celebrated my 10-year survivor-versary in Paris. I went to my father's birthplace of St. Vincent and the Grenadines, West Indies, for carnival. I don't let grass grow under my feet.”

Kelly Shanahan
Courtesy of subject

Be an Agent for Change

Kelly Shanahan, had to retire as an OB/GYN due to her metastatic cancer and related neuropathy from treatments, but the South Lake Tahoe, CA, resident found new purpose in advocacy. “I am able to use the skills I honed over 25 years as a practicing physician to disseminate information from conferences and scientific journals to the MBC community, serve as a bridge between scientists/clinicians and patients, and work to make clinical trials more accessible to patients.”

Women laughing together

Find Your People

Shanahan recommends connecting with others in your shoes. “I get my support from online MBC communities on Facebook and through the #bcsm community on Twitter,” says Shanahan, who lives in a small resort town where there isn’t even an oncologist. “It amazed me when I first entered this world five years ago, how deep and real these friendships are. Some of my closest friends are people I have never been in the same room with. When we do meet in person, at a conference or meeting, it is magical.”

Natalie Fluharty
Courtesy of subject

Start New Traditions

Natalie Fluharty, a former giftshop owner from Winter Park, FL, feels very fortunate to have found a tribe of fellow MBC survivors. “It helps to have friends that understand what I have gone through and what my future can hold.” To connect with others, Fluharty, attends the yearly (and free!) Faces of Courage Cancer Camp, where she’s made new friends, while getting pampered with massages, doing crafts, dancing, and eating good food. “No one has to really talk about where they are with cancer, we are all on the same page and know that we’ve all been through so much.”

Sandra Spivey
Courtesy of subject

Keep Moving

Sandra Spivey, who lives in Laguna Niguel, CA, keeps very busy: “My husband and I babysit our grandsons every Wednesday. I love being there to watch them grow and seeing the world through their eyes. I volunteer Saturday mornings at the local animal shelter. Working with homeless cats has been good therapy for me," she says. "I like to go on trips (always get travel insurance that covers pre-existing conditions). I also review cancer research grants and enjoy learning more about the research process, challenges, and potential new therapies.”

Woman grieving

Allow Yourself to Grieve

Spivey has been a trained peer helpline volunteer for several organizations, talking to hundreds of people with MBC. “I tell the newly diagnosed that they are going through the grieving process. They are grieving the life they imagined they would live. Now all of that has changed for them. It's normal to grieve—it doesn't ever end; it just gets less intense over time. You have to figure out how you want to live the rest of the chapters in your life-book.”

Tami Eagle

Make Each Day Meaningful

Tami Eagle, a Scotch Plains, NJ, mother of two young girls, was diagnosed with MBC at the age of 41 in 2015. “Every day I look at my daughters and wonder who will raise them if I am not alive. Who will pick out their clothes, brush their teeth, braid their hair, get them ready for school? They have so much to learn about life, and I want to be the one to teach them.”

Eagle says that when she was diagnosed, she promised herself she was not going to let cancer win. “My mantra is: Make Every Day Meaningful. When I start thinking any dark thoughts, I slap myself into the present. TODAY I am here to drink my hot peppermint mocha, feel the sun on my face, hug my husband and hold my children's hands. My bar for happiness is being alive.”

Woman on a cruise

Go on a Cruise (Really!)

To survive breast cancer, you need to thrive, believes Beverly Vote, publisher of Breast Cancer Wellness Magazine, which will sponsor its [14th annual Thrivers Cruise] next spring. There, hundreds of women who have been diagnosed with breast cancer come from around the world to talk, learn from experts, party, relax, and make lifelong friends on ships in various locations. “It’s informative, but mostly it’s about fun, says Vote, of Lake of the Ozarks, MO, who was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1992. “We come together to celebrate our lives and our milestones. It’s an opportunity to be heard and understood without even saying a word.

Bethany Kandel
Meet Our Writer
Bethany Kandel

Bethany Kandel is a New York-based journalist, health writer, and author. Her articles have appeared in dozens of national publications and websites, including The New York Times, Prevention, Good Housekeeping, and Woman’s Day. After a breast cancer diagnosis, she began writing about the subject. She created Breast Cancer Freebies, where she helps patients/survivors find free wigs, hats, and other resources to help them thrive. Find her on Twitter @cancerfreebies.