For years Joelle Lieman diagnosed women with lumps and bumps. As an OBGYN, she was familiar with the difficulty of handing out scary news. She never anticipated it would happen to her, but at 39 years old she found a lump in her breast. Her husband encouraged her to use her diagnosing experience to keep a cool head: “he said, ‘what would you tell your patients?’ to which I responded, ‘there is a low chance that at 39 it’s cancer.’”
Joelle avoided the doctor for around two months noting, “there was some part of me that knew it was cancer.” She was right and on May 4, 2000 she was diagnosed with invasive breast cancer. With two five year olds and three year old at home, she entered treatment right away: chemo, multiple surgeries and eventually, a double mastectomy, which she specifically chose “to avoid the anxiety of mammograms and testing every six months.” The treatment left her extremely sick and barely able to eat, but she fought on in honor of her three boys, noting that her first thoughts upon diagnosis were of her children- will I be there to see them grow up? Will I be there for their future?
Despite her fears, she was open and honest with her children throughout treatment. She credits the experience with the amazing amount of empathy her boys now possess towards those battling trauma today. They understand, on a deeper level, what it means to step up for a family in need. Indeed, during her own treatment, the boys often brought humor and honesty to the discussions around breast cancer. Joelle’s firm belief in silver linings, even during the most traumatic of times, set the stage for her fight to be framed with positivity and open conversation around breast cancer. When she lost her hair, her mantra became “bald is the new blonde” and the boys followed suite, asking if they could draw on her head. She proudly accepted and to this day, her boys wear emblems of breast cancer on sports gear, backpacks and more to denote the pride they have in their mom’s survivorship.
She acknowledges that the diagnosis impacted not only her family life, but professional and personal life deeply: “you have no control, absolutely no control over your life.” That lack of control can lead to a lot of anxiety, but a self described glass-half-full woman, Joelle managed her anxious thoughts by attempting to stay truly present and whenever her brain wandered, she actively moved it back to the present. It helped her appreciate those who showed up for her- her husband, family and certain friends: “the people that were there for me are people who remain my closest friends.” She notes how difficult it can be for friends to feel helpful during this time, but things like meal trains and those who were willing to just sit in grief with her helped: “no one can make you feel better, but being willing to sit with someone, whether they want to talk, cry or sit in silence-that’s what true support looks like.”
On days when her body allowed, Joelle attempted to regain normalcy. Some days that meant walking the dog, while on others it meant putting in a full day of work at the hospital. Those little tidbits of normalcy, especially being able to return to a career she worked so hard for, kept her going. She also became an advocate in the community, joining the Young Women’s Coalition at Dana Farber and speaking on panels on the hardships of going through treatment while being a young professional. She joked that every woman on the panel, regardless of age, spoke about hair loss and she was candid in her admission that to regain control, she shaved her head herself. Ever the optimist, she likes to remind women that “showering when you don’t have to shampoo or shave is amazing!”
This past May marked 12 years since her diagnosis. Joelle now runs a MedSpa where she pays close attention to clients who have been diagnosed with cancer. She says, “it’s a part of my story and it’s very meaningful. I don’t live in fear anymore,” but she works hard to provide support for those newly facing the daunting stages of a breast cancer diagnosis. The experience shaped how she lives today: “I know many people don’t get to sit and tell their story. I have immense gratitude for the care I received. I am so lucky to be able to tell my story. My story is one of survivorship.” Even 12 years later, Joelle notes that “there are silver linings for living for today,- you find out quickly the people that matter to you and who you want to spend time with.”