”I feel it is my obligation to speak out for others who may not be able to.” - Heather Caro
Heather Caro was diagnosed at 32 years old, with Stage 1B HER 2+ ER/PR breast cancer. As she puts it, “I had great physicians involved in my care,” which was very instrumental to her treatment journey and recovery.
MK: What was your mindset at diagnosis?
HC: As a nurse who started my career in oncology, I thought I had a good understanding of what it was to be a cancer patient. But it wasn’t until I became a patient myself that I realized just how all encompassing it can be to deal with a serious illness. Although I could speak the “language”, in many ways I had to relearn about this disease and treatment through a new lens - as a patient. As a medical professional and educator, I felt most comfortable sharing this others what I learned along the way. Being able to find silver linings became an important part of my own healing.
MK: How did your breast cancer diagnosis change your life?
HC: Being diagnosed with cancer affected every aspect of my life (husband and children), and financially (I was fired from my job as a nurse when I became to sick to work and still have medical debt to pay off after five years). I’ve had the opportunity to meet amazing people and do incredible things as a direct result of cancer - I gave a TEDx talk about the importance of knowing where your philanthropy dollars are going, I've traveled to India (my first international trip) and volunteered in Delhi with A Fresh Chapter and most importantly I have been able to make connections and help people just by being honest about my story and the reality of this disease. You can’t always control what happens to you in this world - but you can always control how you choose to move forward and how you deal with what is dealt to you.
MK: What do you wish you'd know before being diagnosed with breast cancer?
HC: I had the perception that completing treatment would be “crossing a finish line” of sorts. I looked forward to being able to put cancer behind me and to celebrate. But when I finished treatment, in many ways my recovery was just beginning. It was a little like thinking I signed up for a 5k and then realized half way through it was actually a marathon - a marathon that would never end. Nobody prepared me for that and it took me a while to get comfortable with changing my stride and just getting used to the fact that cancer will be with me in one way or another for the rest of my (hopefully very long) life.
MK: How has this experience awakened you to yourself and your purpose?
HC: When I first was diagnosed sharing my story was a way to create something concrete and real while so much in my life felt unstable - it was a way to mark this path I was on. Over the years, I’ve realized my story is important not necessarily because it is my path but because so many people have stories similar to mine - but may not have the voice or support system I do.
MK: Tell me about your advocacy work.
HC: I put the majority of my energy into research related advocacy work. I serve as a consumer reviewer for the Department of Defense Breast Cancer Research Program and do some work for the Dr. Susan Love Research Foundation and Army of Women. I also serve as a State Lead for Young Survival Coalition. Another program I work closely with is A Fresh Chapter. Traveling to India with this group was the first big step toward finding my footing after cancer treatment and I will forever be grateful for the experience.
MK: What word do you wish you could take out of the breast cancer vocabulary?
HC: Survivor. There is a mythology built into how our culture views the experience of cancer - winners vs. losers - which I feel is not only deceptive but damaging. Once you clear away the cobwebs of thinking positive and pink ribbons, breast cancer is a disease. And I think it’s important that we start thinking of it that way if we want to make progress towards effective treatments. The disease that cuts far too many lives short - and like many people diagnosed with breast cancer I don’t have much patience for sugar coating the experience. I think there is strength in just being able to call something what it is.
MK: Why is it so important to you to support other women with breast cancer?
HC: Nobody should have to go through this alone! I had so many kindnesses shown to me when I was going through treatment, if I can help make the way a little easier for someone that comes after me I am grateful to be able to do so.
MK: What would you tell a newly diagnosed young woman?
HC: There will be tough days ahead, but you are never alone through this. You will lose friends along the way, friends that cannot weather the storms - but there will be others that will step in to take their place. Don’t be afraid to ask for help.
MK: Has cancer changed how you see adversity?
HC: Experiencing cancer helped me to realize we all have the ability to transform our scars into something beautiful.
MK: What one word defines you?