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Meet Emily Hansen: Breast Cancer Survivor

Emily Hansen is now a 36-year-old mother of four, a wife, nurse, and breast cancer survivor.  Emily is the honorary chair for Steppin' Out in Pink 2020.  We had a chance to talk with Emily about her family, her cancer diagnosis, the importance of self-care, and her words of encouragement for those facing a similar challenge. Emily's story is one of resilience, hope, and a sophisticated sense of wisdom that comes from appreciating what you have and understanding some things you cannot control.  However, within your control is your reaction to life's challenges and the opportunity to grow with dignity and grace.  

BiPro: Tell us a bit about your cancer diagnosis and how it changed your view on self-care.

Emily: As a mom, wife, nurse, and daughter, I spend much of my time taking care of others. My cancer diagnosis showed me the importance of self-care. Cancer was the last thing on my radar. I felt physically, emotionally, and spiritually strong. With my cancer diagnosis, I quickly realized certain things in life we cannot plan for or control. It made me feel empowered to control what I can- the committing to foods that fuel my body and the physical and spiritual wellness activities are a few routines in my busy life that are non-negotiable.

I remind myself daily to fill my cup before I pour out to others. The analogy of putting on your own oxygen mask before helping others hits the nail on the head! My best advice to other people facing life-threatening diagnoses is you are a SURVIVOR, not a victim. Everyone’s story, everyone’s battle is different. The doctors can give you a diagnosis, but don’t let the statistics discourage or define you.

BiPro: This has been a unique year, living in a time of a pandemic; tell us about your experience with Steppin’ out in Pink (SOIP) and being the 2020 Honorary Chair.  How is this year different? 

Emily: Being the chair for SOIP 2020 is an honor but also presents some unique challenges. It’s ironic that when I was interviewed last February (before COVID hit), my story was titled, “You cannot plan everything in life.” The similarities of a cancer diagnosis and a worldwide pandemic are strikingly similar. The lack of control over the diagnosis/situation causes many people to get discouraged and cope in unhealthy/unhelpful ways. Others chose to make lemonade from lemons and use the diagnosis/situation to grow stronger. 

As a mom, I’ve always tried to teach my kids we can’t control what happens in life, but we can control how we respond. I think, as cancer survivors, we gain a perspective that is a gift. Situations that feel devastating to others often don’t cause as much distress after facing a cancer diagnosis. 

Unfortunately, due to social distancing, I’m missing much of the social interaction and powerful encouragement from being surrounded by powerful survivors. My first SOIP experience was in 2018 after finishing 16 weeks of chemo, three days before my surgery. I was feeling tired and weak, still facing surgery and radiation. The encouragement I gained from hearing other survivor stories was so timely. I felt recharged and ready to take on the next steps in my cancer treatment. 

The SOIP cause is obviously something very near and dear to my heart. I will continue to do whatever I can to encourage and lift up other survivors. I will continue to advocate for breast cancer research, treatment, and recovery. As a cancer survivor, it’s so important to realize you are NOT alone in your fight.

BiPro: You've mentioned fitness and nutrition being critical tools during your battle with breast cancer; how did focusing on these two areas help you?

Emily: Exercise and nutrition have always been important to me. After being diagnosed with breast cancer, I continued implementing a daily 5 am workout and following a Whole Foods based diet. Getting in my workout early in the morning before conquering the rest of the day sets my day's tone. There are so many mental obstacles in workouts and distance running that parallel obstacles in life. Even if I wasn't lifting as heavy or running as fast, physical activity released endorphins and a mindset that helped carry me through the day's challenges. 

When my appetite wasn't good, I continued to pay attention to the nutrients my body needed as fuel to heal and fight cancer. I remember many people asking how I could continue to workout through chemotherapy and continue to work at my job as a nurse through treatment. I firmly believe my nutrition and exercise were crucial factors in the ability to function in my everyday responsibilities and my body's resiliency during chemo, surgery recovery, radiation, and oral chemo.

 

BiPro: As a wife and mother of four, what is your philosophy on fitness and nutrition in everyday family life?

Emily: There are so many things in life we cannot control; how we respond to them is our choice. Teaching my children to take care of their bodies and fuel their bodies with healthy foods is an important choice that impacts much of our lives. As a parent, I feel teaching them about exercise, nutrition, and healthy ways to cope with stressors are some of the most important life skills. We love going for family hikes, and I try to involve my kids in healthy meal planning/prep.

BiPro: In addition to being a full-time mother, you are also a nurse. How did being a nurse affect you during this challenging time?

Emily: Being a nurse was a blessing and a curse during cancer treatment. I cringe at how we often joke that nurses are the worst patients! I hope that my providers never felt that way :) 

I have worked in OB and Pediatrics throughout my nursing career, so I knew nothing about Oncology! One of the most important things I did from day one of diagnosis was to stay educated and involved in my care, but wholly trust the experts in Oncology with my treatment management. 

I developed a determination to take charge of my exercise and nutrition during the year I spent in cancer treatment. I continued to research nutrition and exercise benefits throughout my treatment, and my husband took an interest in helping prepare meals that contained cancer-fighting nutrients. Food is a very underutilized medicine! 

I think my nursing background impacted my determination to stay active and consume nutrient-dense foods during cancer treatment. I knew the impact these two things have on the body’s fighting and healing capability.

BiPro: How has your view on physical wellness changed since surviving breast cancer?

Emily: I am more convinced than ever that it is so important to take care of your body. Even if you are “only” in your 20s or 30s, you could experience a life-altering diagnosis at any time. Tomorrow is not a guarantee for anyone. Having your body in optimal physical wellness gives you the best resiliency and strength to fight and overcome the adversity in life’s circumstances beyond your control.

BiPro: What is one piece of advice you would give someone diagnosed with cancer that doesn’t have the energy to leave the house or be active?

Emily: The mindset hurdle I often had to overcome was lack of energy.  On days that I didn’t feel up to running, I went for a walk. On days I felt frustrated with my lack of energy, body aches, and nausea; I took Epsom salt baths and a nap. LISTENING to your body and GIVING YOURSELF GRACE are definitely an essential part of healing and fighting cancer.

BiPro: Your outlook on life is so positive; what final words of encouragement and advice can you share with our readers?

Emily: Don’t underestimate the resiliency of the human body. Use the adverse situation as an opportunity to grow stronger and wiser. My coping resources are: God first, family and friends, and exercise/nutrition. I’m currently training for a marathon because fighting cancer has shown me the miraculous design of the human body and the obstacles and challenges one can overcome. Every time I overcome an obstacle of cancer treatment residual effects and continue to train for my marathon, I feel like I’m kicking cancer’s butt. It makes me feel like a survivor instead of a victim. Physical, mental, and spiritual wellness are vital.

 

About Steppin’ Out in Pink: Entering its 15th year, Steppin’ Out in Pink will help further local breast cancer research initiatives at Gundersen Medical Foundation, provide assistance to breast cancer patients in need, subsidize mammograms to the uninsured and underinsured in our region and lend support to the services of the Center for Cancer & Blood Disorders and Norma J. Vinger Center for Breast Care.  The annual event, held in La Crosse, WI, draws thousands of participants from all across the US each year.  For more information, visit www.steppinoutinpink.org.



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