SPOILER ALERT...SOMEONE DIES
This isn't so much a story about cancer as it is about death, depression and moving forward.
Growing up I always considered myself TWO things -
1. A positive person
2. A mama's boy
Julian and his Mom
These were both challenged on October 20th, 2011 (funny how these dates are burned into our memories) when my mom looked me in the eyes and told me that she had stage 3 Triple Negative breast cancer.
"Well sh*t" I thought to myself. "I guess this positivity thing is about to get tested BIG TIME".
What followed for the next 14 months was a disaster.
Bad news after bad news.
Painful hospital visit after painful hospital visit.
Harsh and ineffective treatmeant after....okay you get the idea.
During this time of my life, I had just graduated college, but I put my job search on hold so I could come home and be a caretaker for my mom.
I adored this woman. She was strong, kind, beautiful and supportive.
So it absolutely broke my heart to have this constant first-row seat to her demise.
As any caretaker will tell you, you do everything in your power to help, but it's SOUL-CRUSHING to know that you can't do the ONE thing that would stop the pain, stress and worry.
You can't take the cancer away.
You show up. You try to keep things positive. You make sure all of their physical needs are met.
But every second of every day, in the back of your mind is this constant frustration that you can't REALLY fix any of this. You are just along for the ride.
So I played my part. I took my mom to her appointments. I made sure she was fed, comfortable and cared for. I kissed her and told her I loved her as often as I could. And (not to be dramatic here) I sat by and watched my mom slowly slip away day after day.
On December 7th, 2012, my mom passed away. Her spirit to fight could no longer be matched by her body's ability to press on.
And on that day, I lost both my title as a 'positive person' and as a mama's boy.
THIS IS KINDA DEPRESSING...
You're probably thinking to yourself 'GOD this is DEPRESSING...I thought this guy was going to catch us off guard with a positive twist at the end of that story or something".
Eh, not really. This part of the story IS depressing because I was actually super depressed (emotionally and clinically).
In a span of 14 months, cancer drop-kicked its way into my family's life, turned it upside down, and took away the person I love most.
I was lost in life. At a time when everyone expects you to just automatically be a grown up, I had lost the person who was my guide. I had no clue who I was or what to do.
Okay, here's the happy ending part.
I am going to skip ahead about a year because, hey, you're not missing anything (depression, self-loathing, drinking, etc, etc).
I began to move forward. I began to see some light in my mom's fight.
I began to see how brave she was. I began to see how she didn't just get stolen from me by some disease.
I began to see that even in the fight for her life, amidst all the pain, regression and bull shit, she taught me more about love, growth and living than i've ever learned.
She showed me that your circumstances cannot take away the powerful truth of your character.
During her battle with cancer, my mom never relinquished what made her beautiful, loving, caring and kind.
She maintained it all - her grace, her compassion, her selfless concern for others.
Even when she lost her hair, her breasts and her ability to walk, she STILL was a light. She still took care of those around her (to the best of her ability). She still took others into consideration ahead of her self.
She was still selfless even when her hope, energy and vital-signs were running low. She taught me first hand what it meant to fearlessly be your self and consistently stick to your guns, even when up against the wall.
My mom taught me how to fight in the most authentic, loving and impactful way.
Final (non-depressing) Thoughts
Losing my mom to cancer sucked. I miss her every day. I love her every day.
But something in my life profoundly changed when I gave myself permission to move FORWARD (which is WAY different than moving ON) from my mom's battle with cancer.
I grew astronomically as a result from losing my mom. I have recognized the preciousness of life and shaped my life accordingly as a result of losing my mom.
I have pursued my passions and purpose with a sense of love, compassion and fearlessness as a result of losing my mom.
And here I sit 6 years later, typing about how I am STILL a positive person and I am STILL a mama's boy.
I live by those unspoken lessons she so boldly exemplified by her grace, beauty and steadfastness as she courageously navigated the terrifying waters of a life-threatening disease, and things have worked out in a pretty awesome way.
So my big take away from all of this IS - whether it's cancer, loss or some other shit storm that life may throw your way, don't be afraid to give yourself permission to extract value from it. Moving FORWARD is different than moving ON.
Master the difference and enjoy the ride.
Julian is a coach, content creator and business owner who helps purpose-driven people bring their potential to life. He is 29 years old and travels the country with his wife Kirstin as they relocate every 3 months due to her role as a travel nurse. They have a big fat dog named Logan who enjoys naps just as much as they do.
Julian is the founder and CEO of The Fearless Life Project.
Julian and his wife Kirstin
When Olivia first reached out to ask me to write a story for her blog, although honored, I immediately put it off as long as I could. I had never been great at writing, so when the ‘friendly’ email reminders started coming, I knew I better start working on something quick. So, my first step… google search ‘How to write a story about yourself’.
They had several recommendations, including introducing yourself, list your talents and interests, narrow the topic, use a few details, and be humble. Easy, right? It wasn’t until I started re-reading Olivia’s blog posts that I became inspired to put pen to paper and follow in her steps. After all, I was getting reminders to ‘get my shit together and get it done’.
So, here it goes.
My name is Erica Johnson and I grew up in the good ole’ NEPA area. After a lifetime in the Back Mountain, college moved me away from home, still never leaving the state. Things really got interesting when life’s path took me to ‘big city’ Baltimore, MD for a summer internship that challenged me to step out of my comfort zone.
Enter The Ulman Cancer Fund for Young Adults (UCF), now known as The Ulman Foundation.
I joined the UCF team for three months with a handful of close cancer connections and an interest in UCFs Support through Sport programs. Little did I know how those three short summer months would change my life.
‘Start with a short list of talents and interests’
During that summer internship I did my best to soak it all in. I shyed away from the city life but jumped in with two feet for all UCF had to offer. From fundraising events and sport team practices to cancer center visits and triathlons… you name it and they did it.
Enter The 4K for Cancer Cross Country Bike Ride.
I don’t recall the exact day that summer that I learned about UCFs 4K for Cancer program, but I remember immediately texting my parents to inform them that ‘next summer after I graduate, I am going to bike across the country’. They simply replied ‘Awesome, let us know what we can do to help’.
70 days on the seat of a bike, pedaling across the country. All to raise funds and support young adults that have been impacted by cancer.
‘Narrow your topic’
Fast forward to early June 2014. I packed my one duffle bag and slightly-ridden bike to begin my summer on the 4K with 30 strangers. We started with two things in common… a cancer connection and wanting to make a difference.
Somewhere in the Midwest I got an email from UCF headquarters. They informed me that they had been connected to a young woman battling cancer from my area named Olivia through a UCF board member and close family friend. They wanted to connect us from our small-town commonality and asked if I would dedicate one of my riding days that summer to her, which of course I was happy to.
Returning home, I had three weeks to integrate back into the real world, pack my belongings, and move back to the ‘big city’ for a full-time position at The Ulman Cancer Fund for Young Adults. But first, I must meet Olivia.
‘Use a few good details’
Breakfast bagels at Bagel Art was just the beginning. It was an easy conversation to learn that this world, and town, is just too small and we had more in common than we thought. Playing against each other in soccer 10 years earlier is just one of the many examples.
From there our friendship only grew. Olivia began attending UCF events in Baltimore, and hosting UCF fundraisers to raise awareness in our town. She even ‘trusted the process’ and joined the UCF week-long bike ride from Baltimore, MD to Key West, FL as a support drive… twice. I think she finally warmed up to me when I insisted we dress in matching hats and bandanas (evidence below) and sing ‘Aint No Mountain High Enough’ out of the window of the support vehicle going down A1A.
Six years this summer will mark my initial introduction to the Ulman Cancer Fund for Young Adults. Those experiences and individuals taught me about giving, supporting and connecting with others. They taught me no matter where you come from or who you are, you are strong enough to face it all.
Five years this summer will mark the beginning of my friendship with Olivia Marquart. Together we have shared family and laughter. We have supported and listened to each other. And most importantly, Olivia has reminded me to be appreciative of yesterday and happy with today.
Both have made me a better person.
ME: daughter, sister, aunt, wife, friend, cat mom, CANCER HATER!
ME= average Joe
SHE: daughter, sister, wife, mother, aunt, friend, grandmother, CANCER WARRIOR!
SHE WAS MY FRIEND, BARB
Teresa's Friend Barb
She was a bright light, kind hearted and just a beautiful woman. She entered my life almost 25 years ago. She interviewed me for a job. A job at her family's fuel oil company. She intimidated me, scared me and intrigued me all at the same time. She gave me the job, I'M STILL THERE!
She tested me, pushed me, believed in me and I think eventually she loved me. She told me, "Don't get married on Valentine's Day, you'll only ever get one gift" I didn't listen and she was right. I was planning a Valentine's Day wedding, she was helping me and meanwhile something was lurking in her breast. Several days after the wedding, she and her hubby went to Florida. They had a house there they used to avoid stress of a business and of course Maryland winters. There was something wrong with her breast. A doctor visit, a mammogram and a diagnosis, Inflammatory Breast Cancer.
Inflammatory Breast Cancer or IBC, rarely causes breast lumps and may not appear on mammogram. Instead of lumps it presents itself in other strange ways that makes ladies
think they have something else going on. Red, swollen, itchy breasts that are tender to the touch are just a few signs. The surface maybe pitted, like an orange peel. Burning, aching, and even inverted nipples are some other symptoms of IBC. And while I have your attention let me give you a great reason ladies to have your yearly mammogram. ONE IN EIGHT women will develop invasive Breast Cancer during her lifetime. So get that mammogram, it could save your life!!
She was a Cancer Warrior! A mastectomy took her breast, chemo took her hair, but nothing was going to dampen her spirit! She was a fighter! She inspired me to get involved, raise awareness and make a difference!
In her honor, the employees I work with sought out a way to join her in her fight. We found in our community, an organization who caterers to Breast Cancer patients. Breast Cancer Awareness Cumberland Valley is a nonprofit organization that provides FREE services to Breast Cancer patients. Some of those services include wigs, hats, turbans, prosthesis, bras, meals during treatment, cleaning services, mammogram's, support groups and special needs support. Did I mention all of these services are FREE!! This organization has a 5 mile walk every year to raise funds to help support their services. It is their biggest fundraiser of the year. My fellow employees and I decided to fund raise and walk in her honor. 2019 will mark our 15th year of walking. We have raised with the help of our customers, employees and owners, over $500,000.00.
Breast Cancer Awareness Cumberland Valley Event
Unfortunately, my story does not have a happy ending. Cancer invaded her body again. This time the warrior and fighter could not keep Cancer from weakening her wings. In June, 2006 she traded her weak wings for a set of beautiful Angel Wings! My heart and soul was broken. What could I do to help heal my broken heart? Action, passion, courage and hope set in. I decided I did not want to stand in the dark sidelines and not help others with Breast Cancer just because I had lost my friend. Stand up in her memory, tell her story, and make a difference in someone's life is what I chose to do.
I got more involved with BCACV. I joined their board of directors and would eventually become Board President. I have helped dozens of Breast Cancer patients through their journey of hope and survival.
But my story needed a nudge. What else could average Joe do to make a difference? Well, a friend of mine went on this trip to Key West on his bike. Comes home and tells me what a great trip it was and how it changed him. Do they need drivers, I say? No bike riding for this old girl, but do I love to drive! I sign up, expanding my horizons, breaking out of my comfort zone and traveling with 34 strangers to Key West. The organization, Ulman Foundation ( aka- The Ulman Cancer Fund For Young Adults), accepted me to support their bike riders in 2015. Everyone on this trip would have a connection in their life to Cancer. Whether they lost a child, spouse, sibling, parent or were a Cancer survivor themselves, we all had a common connection. I was able to share my story
about HER and how losing her effected my life. I was able to cry and talk through my feelings of hurt and hopelessness that HER death caused in my life.
Teresa on the Key to Key's Trips
It was on that magical trip that changed my life that I met this shy and timid young lady, Olivia Marquart. First day, she looked as nervous and scared as me. Why is she here?
I'm told she has Cancer. NOOOOO! What do I say I found out that I didn't need to say anything. I just needed to listen! We experienced two great trips together. We were van mates, roomies, and fast friends! Both, love animals, from Pennsylvania, a bit mouthy with a megaphone, curse like a sailor and enjoy having fun! I have been blessed to travel with Ulman on4 experiences to Key West. What did I gain from those trips, 120 additional friends who understand my story.
Today, 2019, I continue to strive to make her proud. I try to help change the lives of people, I know and don't know, with Cancer! I try to always remember what SHE stood for and what she went through when she battled. I try everyday to make a difference in someone's life. Why, for Her!
When Olivia asked for “Friends of the Sarcastic Sarcoma” to write a blog post, I was happy to volunteer – but when push came to shove, I was a delinquent deadbeat who kept pushing off writing. Olivia’s blog is such a huge part of her life – and sharing her story with everyone has brought her so much comfort, laughter, and joy. Why would anyone want to hear from me? I’m sure as heck not as funny as she is….
But I guess I have a story to tell too… as does every family member of a cancer patient. Sure, we might not have to physically endure the chemotherapy, radiation, surgery, clinical trials, inpatient hospital stays, doctors’ appointments, and so much more; but we sure do have to emotionally endure it and support our loved one going through it. It’s not the same experience in any way, shape or form; but watching your family member go through hell is something I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy.
My name is Sam – but most people know me as Olivia’s sister. I’ve spent the past 5+ years watching my best friend and sister battle “The Big C.” She’s the one undergoing treatment, but my mom and I and our support team of friends and family have been right there with her through it all. We’ve learned a lot over the past several years– and while I could sit and wallow in how challenging this has been for all of us, I thought I’d make this blog post about some of the lessons I’ve learned from Olivia’s cancer. While these lessons aren’t universal, they could provide some insights to people going through similar situations. So here it goes, eight lessons I’ve learned from being the older sister of a cancer patient:
8. People will say stupid shit to you all the time about cancer, but take what you like about what they said and leave the rest behind – Just because your aunt’s cousin or second grade teacher (or insert any other person you know) had cancer and s/he went on X, Y, or Z treatment plan, that doesn’t mean they had the same thing going on as your loved one. I know that a lot of the time people just don’t know what to say, so they try to share their experience with you – but that doesn’t mean that their story is your story (or vice versa). I once had someone tell me that Olivia would be fine during treatment because their dog had cancer and went on chemo too ---- very different story, but I knew that person was uncomfortable and was just trying to show some love. Take comfort in knowing they are just trying to reach out – take the good parts in what they’ve said, and leave the rest behind.
7. Try not to tell people how “great” they look (or how shitty they look too) – You never know what kind of treatment plan a cancer patient is on – sometimes they might have hair, sometimes they might not, sometimes they might look like they’re really fit and healthy, other times they might look like they’re about to throw up. I’ve learned to stop telling people how they look – trust me, they know how they look. Someone who looks healthy on the outside could be sick on the inside. Someone who looks really sick could be on the path to recovery. This goes for family members, friends, and other caretakers too – Please, stop telling me I look tired. I know I look tired! I’d prefer that you not make any reference to my appearance – unless, I’m trailing a piece of toilet paper on my foot as I’m walking out of the bathroom. Please tell me when that happens; I don’t want to look ridiculous. Instead of telling someone how I think they look, I ask them how they are doing. It’s a simple switch in words – a reminder to not judge the book by the cover.
6. Get rid of dead weight – I’ve learned a lot about people while Olivia’s been sick. I’ve had a lot of friends who have come out to support my family – but I’ve also been alienated by others. Sure, some people don’t know what to say – I hold compassion for those people – but many others will just fade off into the sunset. I learned quickly that true friends are those who stick by your side in good and bad. They’re the ones who understand when I have a bad day, when I need to cancel plans, or when I just need to get out and do something fun to distract myself. Why spend your time worrying about people who aren’t going to be there for you? Get rid of the dead weight and focus on those who love you and support you. This is really hard to do, but I’m working towards it.
5. Focus on the positive things that have happened because of cancer – You can really find the most beautiful things in the strangest of places… including when a family member or friend gets cancer. My life has been enriched because of the people we’ve met over the past 5+ years. From meeting Olivia’s unbelievably supportive medical team to getting involved in the Ulman Foundation, my family has met so many phenomenal people that we would have never met had Olivia not had cancer. I would have never joined the Ulman Key to Keys ride and rode my bicycle from Baltimore to Key West or participated in the 24 Foundation’s cycling events. I would have never volunteered with Ulman’s Cancer to 5K program. I would have never made some of the amazing friends who also have walked down this same road. Those friends have truly become family – and I don’t know what I would do without them. What’s most remarkable is that I would never have known these people or done these amazing things had Olivia not been diagnosed with cancer.
4. Set your priorities and stick to them – My family is my top priority. If something happens and Olivia needs me, you bet I’m going to drop what I’m doing to be there for her. I’d do the same for my husband and my mom. I’ve had many times when people voiced their opinions against this. I’ve had people tell me that other things were more important than being there to support my sister and family. In those moments, I’ve felt hurt and mad – but it didn’t change my actions. I had and will always continue to do what’s right for me – and for me, being there for my loved ones will always take priority. If people can’t understand that, that’s ok – they might not understand what’s going on or have the same priorities as me. I do what’s right by my standards – not theirs. Sure, every action has consequences – but I’ve found that if I always stick to my priorities, everything works out in the end.
3. Don’t hold your emotions in, talk about them – During the safety briefing before an airplane flight, you are instructed to put on your life vest first before assisting someone with their vest. The same adage applies to being a family member or friend. You have to be able to take care of yourself and your emotions so you can support your loved ones. Find someone you trust – or multiple people you trust – and talk to them about what’s going on in your life. Getting those thoughts out of your head is cathartic. Reasoning things out with someone else can provide clarity. Your mental health is extremely important. If you are able, find a professional to talk to; see them as often as you can. Don’t get lost in sadness or worry, acknowledge them and try to focus on the joy instead. The famous rocket scientist Robert Goddard was once quoted as saying “Just remember - when you think all is lost, the future remains.” I try to remember this often - Focus on what tomorrow brings and the joy that it will contain no matter what challenges you face.
2. Don’t view anyone differently just because they have cancer – Olivia’s been sick for a while, but being sick does not define who she is. She’s an equestrian, writer/comedian, educator, and so much more. I have not changed the way I view my sister just because she has cancer. I treat her the way I always have. Sure, there are days where she’s sick and I have to take that into account – it’s not like the two of us are signing up for a half-marathon right now – but that doesn’t mean I treat her any different from any other person in their late 20s. Lots of people have changed how they look at her – they’ll pity her or think that they can’t include her in things. To those people, please stop doing that. Invite her to do things with you. If she’s not feeling well, she won’t go – just stop assuming that she can’t do something because of cancer. Treat her the same as you would if you didn’t know she was sick. Just realize, she has a lot of shit going on and sometimes will say no. Just be her friend and stand by her side in good and bad. The same goes for other cancer patients – treat them just like you would anyone else and respect them as they go through this experience. Remember the golden rule – do unto others as you would have them do unto you.
1. Even if you aren’t the one with cancer, remember that you are important too - Just because everyone is focused on your loved one, that doesn’t mean you aren’t important. My sister has had cancer for 5+ years, and there have been numerous times where I’ve felt unimportant or that things in my life didn’t matter. It took me a long time to learn that just because Olivia has a lot going on, it doesn’t minimize my life experiences. I can support her while I live my life and work on the things I’ve wanted to do too. In doing so, I’m helping both of us – Olivia has told me to live my life to the fullest. I’ve had a lot of amazing things happen while Olivia has been sick – I got married, worked on and finished a PhD, and much more. Just as I’ve been by her side, she’s been by mine – and I’m so lucky that I have such a special relationship with my sister where we help each other through good times and bad. We’re both important.
These are just a few of the lessons I’ve learned over the past few years, and I’m sure that I’ll keep learning lessons as time moves on. Every life experience teaches you things. You might not have a loved one with cancer, but I bet that one of these lessons rings true with something you’ve gone through in your life. Focus on the positives, support the people around you, and never give up hope. Those of you who know me know that I have to end this post with another famous rocket scientist quote – so here it goes. I encourage you all to remember these words from Wernher von Braun when facing challenges in life – “I have learned to use the word “impossible” with the greatest caution.” Always have hope, and remember that nothing is impossible.
Sam with Olivia at the Southermost Point in Key West, FL at the completion of her Key to Keys trip in 2017
Sam graduated with her PhD in Systems Engineering from
George Washington University in May of 2018