A mental health therapist and life coach, Sarah Gean is adept at delivering and working through difficult news. When it came to telling her own children about her breast cancer diagnosis however, Sarah was at a loss. How do you explain cancer to your six and four year old? With the help of MGH’s incredible resources, Sarah and her husband developed a plan that informed her children about what they were about to experience–from surgeries to medicines to their mother’s bald head and more.
Her diagnosis was somewhat of a surprise, given Sarah’s consistent attention to screenings. Sarah’s paternal aunt died at the age of 60 from breast cancer and her uncle to colon cancer at 46 years-old. And then yet again, after an eight month battle, she lost her fifty-four year old mother to uterine cancer, when Sarah was just 26 years old.
Sarah was determined, therefore, to remain diligent about her own health, and she went through the process of getting genetic testing as soon as she could–amazingly, her testing showed no predisposition to cancer. Therefore, she turned to early screening and began getting mammograms and colonoscopies at the age of 30. She received “all clears” each time. In July of 2018 she noticed swelling and tenderness in her armpit, which she brought up to her doctor at her physical. Multiple biopsies were conducted, but despite ultrasounds and mammograms coming back clear, it would be a breast MRI that confirmed that at 42 years old, Sarah had stage 3 lobular breast cancer.
The timing came as even more of a surprise. When driving to Vermont for Christmas, her children and husband excited with anticipation in the car, Sarah received the call alerting her of the diagnosis. She would spend Christmas Eve with her medical team deciding on the best course of treatment, and the holiday became a blur of decisions and appointments. And this is where Sarah learned the power of family and her sisters. She held on tight to them as they did of her.
As if the diagnosis was not scary enough, she was initially left with the uncertainty surrounding its stage because doctors were unable to find the tumor. Nonetheless, she forged ahead with a double mastectomy and concurrent reconstruction in March of 2019. Chemotherapy and radiation followed, which she completed this past October. While telling her children was emotionally difficult, she also noted that the lifting restrictions post-surgery meant finding different physical ways to show love and cuddle her little ones. It would be the first of many challenges that meant adapting to a new normal for the Gean Family.
This new normal also came with a multitude of positive moments. Sarah accepted early on that self-care was going to be of the upmost importance if she was going to be a good wife, mother and friend. That meant accepting help from teachers, neighbors and the community in the form of meal trains, carpools for her children and more. It also meant including this community in her new reality–from throwing a “bye bye boobies” brunch to having a group, including her children, help shave her head–Sarah found strength in their support and easily proclaims she could not have faced cancer without them.
She also prioritized an immense amount of self-driven wellness, from meditation and yoga to healthy eating to physical therapy. Sarah notes that for anyone newly diagnosed, it is imperative they work hard at finding what grounds them and gives them peace. Those deliberate choices, she says, help to maintain control in a situation that is otherwise mentally, physically and emotionally chaotic. It is this attitude she took through her recent health battle that she has extended into COVID-19. She notes, “you control what you can control. Things happen to us–terrible, horrible and also really great things–we can’t control that effect. We can control how we respond, not react, but respond. We can say, how do I want to handle this? What is my story going to be around this?”
While the “heavy lifting” of her cancer journey is complete, Sarah still receives shots every four weeks and faces ten years of a daily pill. She will also enter into a clinical trial, once COVID-19 restrictions ease. A decade of these daily reminders ensure breast cancer will forever be a part of her story. For now, she spends time with her incredible support system, which includes her father, three sisters, husband and two children. Her core family has been there every step of the way, from that fateful Christmas Eve to today’s current world health crisis. Despite all of the challenges, it’s inspirationally clear that Sarah continues to follow her own advice, controlling her response and writing her own story.