By Dana Gornall
Many of you may or may not know that October is Breast Cancer Awareness month.
I can pretty much guarantee we have all been touched with breast cancer in some shape or form—either we know someone who has had it or know someone who knows someone who has.
I had the opportunity to chat with the amazing Kate Bartolotta on this and her own experiences with breast cancer.
Dana: So we know you as Kate, former editor at elephant journal, founder of Be You Media and author of two published books. What else can you tell us about yourself? What did you do before you were an editor?
Kate: It’s been an interesting path, because even though I had been writing for as long as I could remember, and freelance editing since college, I was also interested in health and wellness. I did a number of certifications in stress management therapies and went back to school for massage therapy with the intention of putting writing on the back burner, and then my freelance writing (most notably for elephant journal at that point) became more popular, and I was invited to come on board as an editor as well.
Dana: How did you get into editing?
Kate: On a casual level, I started editing to help friends who struggled with their writing in high school. By the time I reached college, I was tutoring and editing for pay, and began to freelance edit for a variety of different clients. I’ve edited everything from legal documents, to business training manuals, to novels and creative non-fiction, to reference books. These days I do very little editing, but I do one-on-one coaching with authors who are trying to get organized and set goals, and refer them to an editor if needed.
Dana: You have been very open about your breast cancer diagnosis. Can you tell us how you came to be suspicious that something was wrong?
Kate: Most women will have one breast that is larger than the other, but I started to notice that my left breast was more than slightly larger…it felt fuller, heavier. I noticed that my bra was leaving an indent on that side, and the skin felt different. My nipple on this side was slightly inverted compared to the other one. My point here isn’t to be graphic about describing my breast, but to remind women that breast cancer isn’t always just a well-defined specific lump.
The most helpful thing is to know what your normal feels like so you notice when there’s a change. Because I’m under 40 and had no history of breast cancer, I had never had even a baseline mammogram, but I felt like something wasn’t okay. It just didn’t feel like my range of normal, and so I pushed, even after I was initially told it was probably benign.
Dana: You lead a healthy lifestyle, and are involved in health and wellness in your work. How has this impacted you with your realization of a cancer diagnosis and how you deal with treatment?
Kate: At first, I was angry. I was pissed that there are so many people who DON’T take care of their bodies that never get cancer; why me? In my case, I also discovered that the cause of my cancer was a genetic mutation (BRCA2) which has further ramifications for increased risks of other cancers. Ultimately, the experience has helped me expand my beliefs about what it means to be healthy, even while dealing with illness, and given me greater compassion.
It’s easy to talk about “what we would do” in the face of cancer or other illnesses, but it’s hard to know when it isn’t our reality. I have never been an extremist in terms of all Western or all holistic health care, and my treatment for cancer has been a mix of modalities from both camps as well.
Dana: How has treatment been for you? How has your body reacted to chemo?
Kate: You know, I have been incredibly blessed in that I had minimal side effects from the chemo. Part of that I believe was because the rest of my health was excellent; many of the people who were receiving chemo when I was were also dealing with diabetes, heart disease, etc.
Dana: What is next in your treatment?
Kate: Next month, I will be having a mastectomy and a prophylactic oopharectomy (removal of the ovaries) because the BRCA2 mutation dramatically raises my risk of ovarian cancer. That will be followed by radiation, then a prophylactic mastetomy of my other breast, and reconstruction of both breasts in the spring. Typically, I am somewhat private about this type of thing, but you know…hearing from other women who have gone through this is something that actually helps.
Braless Day for Breast Cancer Awareness…throwing pink on everything for a month…stickers that say Save the Ta-tas—maybe those things raise public awareness, but really…hearing honestly from other women about how they got through this was what helped me the most, and I’m happy to share that with others.
Dana: In what ways has this impacted your life?
Kate: This has been a huge clarifier for me in terms of what I value, how I want to spend my time, and what my personal boundaries are. I’m not grateful for this past year in spite of cancer, but including cancer.
Dana: How can people support others with breast cancer? What can we do to make a difference?
Kate: One of the things that was discouraging was although there are a lot of cool programs for patients and their families, a lot of them are underfunded or completely out of funds. Awareness is great, but giving to actually help patients and families is huge.
Dana: What has helped you the most so far going through this?
Kate: My spiritual path and my friends and family have helped the most overall—which I almost feel like I shouldn’t split in to two groups at this point…they’re really all family.
Dana: What advice would you give others going through this or something similar?
Kate: You know, the first thing that came to mind with this was something I learned in a class with Seane Corn a few years ago. She made a statement that stuck with me:
“You’ve got to go through the F— you to get to the Bless you.”
And I believe that. I’m a positive person, but I allow myself to process and fully feel the parts that hurt too. If we skip over that, the positivity and the gratitude don’t come from a genuine place. I feel like the more we build our gratitude muscles in everyday things, the easier it becomes when something difficult happens to feel it all, but then let ourselves continue to find the good in life too.
And also, give yourself permission to ask for what you need. Many of us women are so used to being caretakers. It’s been great when friends kindly butt in and ask how they can help instead of if I need help. It’s also been good for me to learn how to ask for help and say no more often.
Dana: How do you keep up with family (being a mom to two awesome kids) and work?
Kate: Time management is my jam! I’ve been saying that a lot lately, but it’s true. I love helping people with this, because organization and time management didn’t come naturally to me, but they’ve become big passions of mine.
When we look at where we spend our time, we get a snapshot of our current priorities—and sometimes it doesn’t match what we believe we want. For me, I’d rather have less work time and more time with my kids, even if it means a smaller bank account, and the way I spend my time reflects that.
Dana: What is next for you and your career? What do you have going on?
I have a book coming out…hopefully at Christmas, but I keep tweaking “one more thing” much to my editor’s dismay, so I may end up releasing it in March near my 40th birthday instead. The focus is on something that’s become a bigger focus of my work as well: how to organize your life in a way that brings you joy. It’s geared toward women, but the principles apply to everyone. Besides that, I am looking into new ways to offer these organizational tools and stress management tools to people for their business and home lives, both one on one and for groups.
Kate: Has this diagnosis changed how you view your career or career goals?
Absolutely. I thought I was clear on them before that, but it’s definitely shaken loose anything I was fuzzy on. When I was in college and in women’s chamber choir, we used to sing a song that was taken from the prayer of St. Francis (which is beautiful, regardless of your personal religious beliefs). The line that always stayed with me was, “Make me a channel of your peace.”
It’s easy—even for those of us who want to do work that benefits others—to get caught up in other stuff. I’m glad my writing has become popular; I won’t downplay the fact that that is exciting. But it seems these days that everyone is looking to become the next big thing and be on Oprah or have a million followers on YouTube or be offering huge fancy workshops. Sometimes I wonder how many people actually stop and ask themselves if that’s actually what they want.
For me, it comes down to three career and life goals:
1. Do work that helps people find greater peace
2. Spend lots of time with the people I love
3. Make enough to pay my bills
And that’s about it.
Dana: Is there anything else you would like to share?
Kate: I feel like lots of people who have cancer take that “carpe diem!” approach and embrace the fact that life is short, so it’s become a bit of a cliche’ (even though it’s true).
For me, I look at it this way: one of the things I was most afraid of happened, and I’m still okay. In fact, in spite of the hard parts of the year, I’m the happiest I’ve been in my whole life. I don’t worry about a whole lot anymore.
When I wake up in the morning, the first thing I do is give thanks that I’m alive, and I’d rather not waste the rest of the day worrying about every possible thing that could go wrong. I’d rather spend it enjoying the people I love and feeling gratitude that I’m here.
Feature Image: gregmac666/tumblr
Editor: Ty H. Phillips