Episode 17: Three Inspiring Stories of Cancer Survival and Proactive Health Advocacy

This conversation is a real heart-to-heart with three amazing women who stared cancer in the face and came out on top. Each of them brings their own take to the table, shaped by their own battles with the disease.

Three Inspiring Stories of Cancer Survival and Proactive Health Advocacy

First up, Kelly Gahr, shares her experience with brain cancer, highlighting how jumping in early made all the difference. She’s upfront about how the choices we make in life can seriously impact our chances and how we feel.

Then hear from Tamara Johnson, a former nurse who took on lung cancer and won. Tamara shares some truths about why staying on top of your health and catching things early is so important. Her story is a real eye-opener about why regular check-ups and listening to your body matter.

We wrap up with Leigh Fernandez, who is navigating a second diagnosis with breast cancer. She lays it all out, showing just how lifestyle and having a strong support system help you navigate your way through treatment.

As the episode comes to a close, these remarkable women all agree on one thing: taking charge of your own health is key when facing cancer. They’re all about urging people to stay aware of changes, seek help when needed, and keep that positive attitude going strong. Their shared experiences and wisdom shine a light for listeners, nudging them to be proactive about their own health and happiness.

2:40 – Kelly shares her journey of discovering and treating her brain tumor. She gets real about the initial mix-up in diagnoses.

09:18 – How a cancer diagnosis can totally shake up your habits and mindset.

14:04 – Tamara shares on her own journey battling lung cancer. She stresses the importance of being your own advocate in the healthcare game and not hesitating to push for more tests when you need ’em.

25:32 – Why prevention and screening are critical. Being proactive with your health is key.

40:56 – Leigh reflects on how her cancer journey shook up her day-to-day life and the struggles of keeping things normal during treatment.

42:24 – The importance of self-compassion and leaning on support networks during personal health journeys.

46:22 – Why it’s crucial to be your own advocate, especially when it comes to catching things early.

53:39 – Keeping healthy habits to bounce back strong. Plus, how staying mentally tough plays a huge role in the recovery journey.

56:25 – We get real about the mental toll of illness and why it’s so important to keep that sense of independence and normalcy alive.

Mentioned In Three Inspiring Stories of Cancer Survival and Proactive Health Advocacy

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Michelle MacDonald: Welcome to The Wonder Women Podcast, where we discuss a variety of subjects all pertaining to optimizing your physique, building strength, developing a strong mindset, and tools to help you win at life.

I'm Michelle MacDonald and I'm the founder of The Wonder Women Coaching Team. We are a community of results-driven coaches and clients who believe that we can age like never before.

Hi, everybody. Michelle MacDonald here for The Wonder Women Podcast. This has been a podcast that I have wanted to do for a while. It's a podcast that I think is going to really hit home for a lot of the listeners.

As we get older, and most of our listeners are in that 40-plus range, our risks for several health conditions go up just because we have that privilege of getting older.

Luckily, what we know now about disease, what we can do medically has really changed the name of the game in terms of survival rates, and all of the protocols that we can do to ameliorate the things that we face as we get older.

I really want to have a wonderful discussion with three beautiful clients so that they can talk about their journey through cancer specifically. I'm going to introduce them to you. We've got Kelly Gahr. She has survived brain cancer, and just last year, last summer, as I was working with her, went through surgery. We've got Tamara Johnson, who is about a year and a half, I think, right, Tamara?

Tamara Johnson: Yep.

Michelle MacDonald: With lung cancer, and she has never smoked. This is going to be a great piece for you guys to hear about. Finally, we have Leigh Fernandez, and she actually is going through some treatment right now, and she has breast cancer.

So let's get started. I guess, first, I'd like to hear from you, three, your take on what it means to get older, those increased risk factors, the importance of being your own health advocate, how did you find out that you had a cancer, what that journey was like, and what kind of information you'd like to share with our audience so that they can have some clear takeaways from this conversation, what they can do to take care of themselves. I'd like to invite Kelly if you want to get started.

Kelly Gahr: Hi, thanks for having me, I'm happy to be here. Yes, I just had brain cancer, which is just a crazy statement, I can't even believe I just said that out loud. First, let me say just to tap on what you started with, your health, and as we get older, and I think the thing that is important is to recognize that actually, yes, our risks increase as we're getting older. But I just heard a story about a 22-year-old who had a brain aneurysm a couple of neighborhoods away from us.

It's not something that you are used to hearing. I think my biggest takeaway has been that nobody is immune from any of this. Your health is basically your biggest weapon to combat anything that comes at you.

Before this tumor was removed, I had lovingly named it Hank. I did that because when I found out, I kept thinking that something named Hank wouldn't be that scary for my kids so that's how I had incorporated that.

But in 2019, I started having headaches, pretty significant headaches. Anyone who knows me will tell you that I don't actually get headaches ever. I had this period of time where it was happening quite a lot. My doctor thought it just might be better to check the box and send me to a neurologist and just clear that.

I went to the neurologist and he kept saying, "Oh, I'm sure it's menopause. It's menopause. It's menopause. This is menopause. That's menopause. Headaches are menopause." Everything that I said to him was menopause.

Michelle MacDonald: Oh, my God. That's terrible.

Kelly Gahr: Oh, yeah. That was 2019. I thought, "God, what am I getting ready to walk into? This is terrible." He's basically telling me I'm on this march. So he said, "Let's just do this. Let's do an MRI just to rule out MS.” I thought, “Oh, God, I hadn't even thought about MS.”

I said, “Okay, that's great, let's go do it.” So I go and I do the MRI and I get a call maybe 24 hours later. Anytime you have an MRI and you get a call 24 hours later, you don't want that. You want to be like a week later, and they're like, “Oh, we're going to fit you in somewhere for an appointment.”

They got me right in and he said, “Okay, I've got good news and I have bad news. What do you want first?” I said, “I'll take the good news,” and he goes, “You don't have MS.” I go, “Okay, what's the bad news?” He said, “You do have a brain tumor.”

I was with my husband and I think he went white and I just sat there for a minute and I was like, “Okay, what do we do?” I just didn't have that shock at that point so he was like, “Oh, we're going to send you to a neurosurgeon and you need to be on anti-seizure medications immediately, and all this stuff.”

I didn't want to take the medication until I had talked to the neurosurgeon because it all felt like it was coming at me too fast and I hadn't had any time to do any research. He did very openly say, “It looks like a tumor.” The more we're talking, he's like, “But until somebody goes in there, they actually can't tell you what it is. It could be a scar, it could be a lesion, they don't know.”

So I met with the neurosurgeon who said, “It looks like it's about the size of a plain M&M, a chocolate M&M, and we're going to watch it. You don't need to be an anti-seizure medication. Why are we freaking out? It's not touching anything that's going to cause you problems right now. Let's just watch it and see. Because what if it is a scar?”

I'd actually gotten beaten up in college one night when I was walking home. I was like on the sidewalk and then I ended up on the trunk of a parked car. I got hit so hard so the possibility of it being a scar was there. It really behaved, it wasn't really growing.

Then somewhere between I would say July of of 2022 and March of 2023, it started to grow. So in March, he said, “It's time for it to come out.” Then I thought, “Well, now it's time for me to find a surgeon,” because I knew that I was never going to let him operate on me. I just didn't have a good connection to him. It didn't feel right to me.

Anybody who knows me knows I'm all about the feeling. I knew that he wasn't going to take it out. So that's when I went and found my doctor at UCLA. Then even between March of this year and August when it came out, it had grown again. It was just really strange that it behaved for a couple of years and then just decided it was time.

Michelle MacDonald: And thank God you went in and got tested. Thank God that they did that original MRI. Especially if you have a doctor that is saying, “Well, it's menopause,” thank God he didn't just give you medication and then send you on your way. Did you ask for the MRI?

Kelly Gahr: No, he ordered it. Yeah, he wanted to rule it out.

Michelle MacDonald: That's good to hear.

Kelly Gahr: But you want to know the funniest thing about this? And I totally believe I was supposed to know about this, whether God, the universe, whatever, because literally four days after I got my results, I did not have another headache.

I've literally, since that time, never had another headache that I could tell you stop me in my tracks. It was crazy.

Michelle MacDonald: It's intervention, right?

Kelly Gahr: I was supposed to know, absolutely.

Michelle MacDonald: You're supposed to know. Wow, that is a wild story. I remember being with you every step of the way when you first told me. I remember looking at you for a while and seeing a tumor called Hank that you've had for X amount of years and it's relatively benign and then getting that news.

I remember asking you, "Okay, what do you want to do?" Because you were on a cut and you'd been on a cut for a long time. Then you're like, "Well, I still want to go." Your habits were really, really strong, which is interesting. I mean, I think that kind of news can really trigger going off your plan and maybe going back to who you used to be, and how decades of coping with stress and viewing yourself in a certain way, they have a strong pull still, but you really didn't have that. Or did you have to coach yourself through that a little bit?

Kelly Gahr: I didn't, and you know what's interesting, and I've thought about this a lot actually, I think the thing is that my habits were the way they were because I didn't know any better. I didn't have the guidance. I had grown up in a house where, “Oh, you're sad? I'm going to bake you cookies,” or whatever. I mean, everybody has their thing.

So, I think because I always feel so good doing what I do now, it's almost like it's not what I do, it's more who I am. So when the news came, it was like, I didn't feel like I had to go do something bad to feel better. I just was like, “Oh, I better go to the gym and get on the bike or I better just keep doing what I know keeps me moving forward because there wasn't anything that was going to save me there.”

So I feel like I didn't really even think much about it. I just was like, “God, this is crazy. I'm going to have to figure it out.” But that piece of it didn't really derail me. Now I'm not saying that if I'm someplace that I want to have a cookie, I'll have a cookie, but it wasn't like it sent me into some negative emotional place that way.

Michelle MacDonald: Mm-hmm, which is as a coach, it's curious because that's exactly the moment when things like that can't happen and I want to know almost like a scientist why did that girl, why did that woman go in this direction, two equally smart successful women, why did this woman go in this direction, why did this woman go in this direction, and can we bottle that? Can we figure that out and bottle that so that everyone can choose the red pill that takes you in this direction?” That would be interesting.

Kelly Gahr: I know, right? One of the things that I do every morning when I meditate is I always thank the girl I was. In the morning, when I get up and I'm thankful and I'm saying my gratitude, whatever, I’m sharing my moments of gratitude with myself and I always thank the girl that I was because she is the one who has done so much hard work so that I can get to where I am today.

In six months, I'll have to thank me today. It's like I keep thinking these different versions of myself and I think that honors where you come from but it also reminds you that you don't want it to dishonor that person by going backwards. So if she did all this fighting for me and I just throw it away, I'm actually dishonoring this piece of myself, just this other piece.

Michelle MacDonald: I love that. That is something that I [inaudible] the clients, yeah, and it's how I live my life too. I think of the future me, and I also think of that person that I was and all the hard things I've had to lean into and you can't abandon whatever it is that you're working on or this version of yourself.

Kelly Gahr: I had a bad day probably two or three weeks ago and you know who helped me through it was Laura. She sent me this little text message that was basically reminding me, “Don't forget about that girl who you pulled through, another one in the future who's pulling you through.”

Michelle MacDonald: It's like a nice hook. That brings up Tony Robbins who talks about that, can you leverage your network? Is there somebody that you can share some details with that can, when you need it, that can give you that hook, that words, like your safe word, or remind you of who you are and what your mission is and bring you back to planet Earth?

Kelly Gahr: Yeah. [inaudible] messages on my mirror so I just look at it if I need it.

Michelle MacDonald: Yeah, you got to have visual constant reminders and we all do. Tamara, I'd love to hear you talk about your story because it's so unique and I think it just so hammers home, especially when we're healthy, I think we can really pull the wool over our eyes, “Well, I feel good and things are much better than they were so why do I need to go get blood work or why do I need to go get the colonoscopy?” So I'd love for you to take the stage.

Tamara Johnson: Well, thank you, Kelly, for sharing your story, and thanks, Michelle, and Leigh, but, Michelle, thanks for having us all on to hopefully share our stories. My goal is that my story would put a bug in somebody to say, “Hey, maybe I should go take care of myself, even though I feel fine or whatever.”

A little background on me, I have not practiced for a very long time, but my bachelor's degree is in nursing. I had a pretty good foundation for healthcare, navigating the healthcare system in the United States. Then I also worked for a managed healthcare company a long, long time ago. So I'm familiar with navigating the financial part of it, if you will.

I have a little bit of that. Leveraging my network, I'm glad you brought that up because you really need to make that happen when you get a diagnosis and you'd be surprised who can help you.

My story was I was introduced to Joan and Michelle because I'm 61 or I will be in a month. I think I've been a client of Anni's for three years and I was just getting squishy.

I always have identified as an athlete because I love sports. I'm the kid who didn't come home till the street lights went on and if I could do it right now, I'd be outside every day all day, playing sports. Love it.

I am healthy, relatively healthy obviously, except for having lung cancer, which is not a good cancer to have. I don't think any of them are, but this one was particularly scary. I go once a year to see my gynecologist, and she is incredibly smart and sits down with you before she does the exam and just talks about, “Hey, how's your year going?” blah, blah, blah, blah. It's my one shot, one time a year to see my doctor.

So I started looking, “Okay, what do women in their 60s have health issues of?” You also have to look at your own personal family background to figure out, “Hey, are there things in my family that I need to be talking to my physician about?”

Lo and behold, as you know, Michelle, most women in their 60s die of heart disease. They don't die of breast cancer or ovarian cancer. I mean, they do, but that is the big killer of women in their 60s. When I went into my doctor, I said, “Hey, how come every year we check the breasts, we do the bone density, we do blood work, but you never checked my heart?” And she said, “Why are you worried about it? You're lifting weights, you lost a bunch of,” not a lot of weight, I didn't have a ton to lose, but “You lost weight, you're fit, your blood work's fine.”

I said, “I'm not worried. I just think it's weird. The stats don't lie. Heart disease is the number one killer of women. Can we check my heart?” She said, “Yeah, there's this test called a cardiac calcium score test. In the United States, it's not covered by insurance." So I said, "How much is it?" She said, "It's probably around $200." I was like, "I can swing it." I said, "Let's do it." She said, "Okay."

So I went in, it's pretty easy. It's just a CT scan, you're in, you're out. She called me a couple of weeks later and she said, "Hey, good news. Your heart is a) okay, perfect. Your score is a zero. But there's something called an ancillary finding,” meaning while the radiologist was looking at my heart because your heart is by your lungs, he noticed a spot and she said, “We want you to go see a pulmonary specialist.”

She gave me the name of what the spot is so of course, I'm googling, and it can be from a lot of things but it can be from lung cancer and I thought, “Okay, well, let's just go find out what it is.” I will tell you as a nurse, and talking to my friends who are nurses, a lot of times, people will say, like Kelly did not say, “Oh, I have a lump, I'm afraid of what's going to happen so I'm not going to do anything about it.”

As scary as all this is, you just got to get to the bottom of what's going on. You have to be persistent with your own health care and advocate for yourself. So I went to see a pulmonary specialist and he pulled up the scan and said, "I don't like what I see, but they really weren't looking at the spot. It was more of a general CT. I want to get a closer look in that area."

I said, "Okay, great, when do you want to do that?" He said, "Now." I went, "Uh-oh." So I walked across to the hospital. I got another scan. He called me two hours later and said, "I've already talked to my colleagues. We still don't like what we see. We want you to go get a biopsy."

So I did. I went in and I got a lung biopsy. They had great nurses. I mean, just fabulous. I was like, “Oh, my gosh,” I kept saying, “I work out. I eat my vegetables. I've never smoked. This can't be happening to me. This cannot be happening to me.” I could think of a million other cancers. This one just took me by shock.

I went in, I got the biopsy. I like to connect with the doctors so as this guy is going to put a needle through my chest, I said, “Hey, I thought about you all night last night.” I was wondering, is he watching Netflix with his wife, eating popcorn, or something? I barely go to sleep tonight because I'm just like, “Uh?” He goes, “Actually, I did think about you because the location is a little tricky and this and that.”

Anyway, and I went and it came back troubling, but not conclusive for cancer. So they did a PET scan next and I won't bore you with the details, but that came up still not crazy, but it lit up a bit. Then they said, “I think you need to get this thing out because the five-year survival rate for lung cancer is like 28%,” which freaked me out because I'm like, “Oh, that sucks.”

So I said, “Okay.” I went to go see the pulmonary surgeon and then talk about leveraging your network. He said, “Yes, you need to have one of your lobes taken out of your lung.”

I just was like, “What?” I don't know why I was shocked by that. But then I started to think, “Okay, now you really got to get serious, girl, where are you going to go?” Because that makes a huge difference in my opinion, because of my background on not just who's doing your surgery or your treatment, but the facility there, because it's not just this part, the doctor, it's the whole network around it, the labs that they're sending yourselves to, what not.

I'm lucky enough that I live in Texas and I said hey to this guy because I was not in Texas at that moment. I said, “If you had this cancer and you lived in Texas, where would you go?” I already knew what he was going to say, which was MD Anderson, it's a cancer center in Houston.

I said, "And who would you have to do the surgery?" Which was my nice way of saying, "Hey, I want a second opinion, but you don't really want to say that necessarily, but you should.” Absolutely, you should get things looked at. Like Kelly said, she knew that neurosurgeon was not going to be the gal or the guy, right?

Michelle MacDonald: Could you repeat that because I love that you said that, Tamara. You asked your friend who is a specialist himself or was he a specialist in this piece?

Tamara Johnson: No, I asked the physician in his office. He was a pulmonary surgeon. I said, “If you were to have this done to yourself, where would you go and who would you have do it?”

Michelle MacDonald: That is so smart.

Tamara Johnson: It is smart. I mean, I could go on. I mean, sometimes I say, “Go take a tour of the cancer center. Walk down the hallway if they let you and ask the nurses, ‘Hey, who's good at this?’" Because sometimes they will tell you things that you just wouldn't normally know.

Michelle MacDonald: Interesting. And you're a nurse.

Tamara Johnson: I'm a nurse. I know. I know. So, talk about leveraging a network. Trying to get through to this physician would take months. A friend of mine had said, "Hey, I have a friend who's a pulmonary surgeon. I met him when I lived in Bali. Do you want me to call him?" I kept saying, "No, I don't want you to call him. I mean I've got a surgeon. You've got a surgeon."

Then when I realized how serious this was, I called her up. I said, "Hey, tell me the name of this guy." She gave it to me. I looked him up. He is world-renowned. I said, "I'd love to talk to him." So he called me and that's when he was telling me, “It's not just the doctor that's doing this work,” because he knew both of the surgeons because he had trained both of them in this robotic technology.

He said it's the background. When I went to MD Anderson, I looked at my husband and I'm like, “I think if you had cancer in your left pinky, they have a department for that here.” They're looking at lung cells all day, every day, I don't know thousands but it's not like a one-off.

Anyway, he said, “Hey, I know this surgeon. I have a cell phone number. If I call him, he'll talk to you. You need to pick the phone up,” and I said, “Okay.” A week later, I was at MD Anderson, still inconclusive whether it was cancer and then when I went in and they did say you need to have the part of your lung taken out absolutely because it's a cancer, I have non-small cell lung cancer, I'll stop for a second because that's a long story but they took out part of my lung, tested it, it was lung cancer.

They took out like 22 lymph nodes. It's a pretty cool technology. I watched a surgery afterwards and it's amazing what they are doing now instead of just cutting your chest open. But that's a little bit of my story, but then when I got home and I realized, “Okay, let's look at what non-small cell lung cancer is, let's look at all kinds of stuff,” and I went down the rabbit hole and on my follow-up visits, I started asking a lot more questions, which gave me a lot more answers and I asked for a lot of tests that they weren't going to do, but I needed to know because that's just my personality.

I found out I have a mutation. I learned about that. I looked at a genetic component and I'll stop. But when you get a diagnosis like this, I called it like all these lanes. You've got, okay, the initial shock of holy crap. Then you go, “Okay, I have a surgical component, then maybe I'm going to have a medical component, which would be oncology, radiation. You've got your spiritual, psychological component you gotta deal with, and the United States, this stuff is expensive, so you've gotta navigate all that,” and then you can look at diet and lifestyle and on and on, so you have to ask very specific questions in each of those lanes because your surgeon is going to go cut, cut, cut, medical's going to go radiate medicine, radiate medicine.

Not everyone talks about lifestyle and diet because there aren't as many conclusive studies about all this, which is unfortunate, but that's where we're at. So that's the lead-up to my story. There you go.

Michelle MacDonald: Yeah. I think you left out some bits, too. Like you were going to go on a fishing trip.

Tamara Johnson: Yeah. Okay. The day I found out from the pulmonary surgeon in California that he wanted to take part of my lung out, I was driving to the airport after the appointment because I was in an all-girl and one-guy deep sea fishing tournament down in Baja, California, right off the coast of Loreto, Mexico.

So I said to this gentleman who was gracious enough to call me this physician that was a friend of mine's friend, “I'm going to be in Mexico on a boat fishing, but you can call my husband and he will pick up the phone,” and I wave all my [inaudible] and just talk to him. We didn't win, but we caught a lot of really cool fish. It was awesome.

Michelle MacDonald: Which is amazing that you were going through all of this, and still able to go on that trip and be present to that. I think that is very interesting and I want to definitely talk about that later in the podcast, what was going on there.

So your journey was significantly different than Kelly's journey. It comes from that nursing background. I think you have some similarities in that you really approached it from almost a strategic, I feel like a very strategic, “Okay, this is the news. Now what are the doors that I have to open now?” I think you both chose to face it. As you said, Tamara, you didn't run away from it. You're like, “All right, I have this thing. Let's pursue this relentlessly.”

Tamara Johnson: Can I just add, because I want to just make clear to the people listening, is that I had zero symptoms. Nothing. I mean, I'm on my Peloton for 45 minutes. I'm all good, not one symptom. When I got to MD Anderson, they call me lucky unlucky. Lucky because I found it early. It was found very early. Because typically in lung cancer, you don't find out you have it until it's well down the pipeline.

So, if I can say anything, because I talked with Anni a lot about why the heck did this happen to me, is because of my background in health, and then as an educator, my mission is to tell your listeners and women, prevention, get checked. Even if you don't feel like anything's wrong, there are so many tools out there now, but you have to ask. You just have to ask. And be persistent.

If the first physician tells you, “Hey, it's menopause, menopause, menopause, or blah, blah, blah,” as a health person, I'm not perfect. No physician is perfect. They're doing the best they can with the knowledge they have and the training that they have. But when I felt like I had no power, once I got diagnosed, I kept saying, “Okay, how can I get my power back?"

Well, I can't control the cancer, but I can control my financial part of it, calling the insurance company, and making sure stuff is going to get covered so when those bills start coming in, or asking if that's not your strong suit, you find someone that maybe can help you with all of those components, but I am a huge, huge advocate of prevention and screening, even if you feel like nothing is wrong.

Michelle MacDonald: Such an important message.

Tamara Johnson: If it weren't for Michelle and [Joan] saying, "Yeah, hey, when you're an older gal, you can be super fit and take charge of your health," I really wouldn't have gone in about the heart disease. I wouldn't have asked. That's what saved my life.

Michelle MacDonald: Yeah, it's so important to, again, do that due diligence. It's funny for both of you, there was a little bit of luck. Like with Kelly, there's that little bit of luck that her doctor volunteered for the MRI just to screen for MS. I mean, it's a headache, right? You've got kids to take care of, you've got all the stresses that we have at our age, plus the fluctuations of hormones.

I mean, it would make sense to say "Yeah, it's menopause," or, "Here, take this aspirin," or, "Maybe we should put you on estrogen or something." Thank God, there was that MRI.

Tamara, same thing. I mean, thank God they were able to see that dot. I guess for now you guys have looked at, I look at X-rays, I've looked at ultrasounds, I mean, it just looks like, God, I can't see anything, they're pointing things out and I'm like, “Yeah, yeah, I don't see what they're looking at. It's a bunch of white and black lines all over the place.”

So the fact that they were able to be focusing on your heart but still catch probably that dark spot, just what luck. Because again, getting these things early on, the chances of a good outcome just dramatically improve. Also, the interventions early on are different than the kinds of interventions you have to get into with late-stage stuff.

Leigh, how are you feeling?

Leigh Fernandez: Yeah, good, good. It's amazing listening to Kelly and Tamara's stories. There are so many similarities, but there are definitely differences as well. Obviously, over in the UK where I am, the healthcare systems are slightly different as well. So I won’t touch on that.

But yeah, just a little background about myself. I’m 50 years old now, I’m going to be 51 which is just exciting. I’m actually getting to get to 51. When you go through all this, it certainly puts things in a different light.

I'm very lucky in the sense I have a beautiful nearly 25-year-old daughter who's always around me and she has a total love for fitness as well so it's fantastic. She keeps my spark alive with the fitness which is great.

But one thing I want to throw in here is just to say that over the years, I've worked in financial banking and the corporate world so there has been a lot of stress in my life for many, many years.

I can’t remember if it was Tamara or Kelly, one of them touched on to say around lifestyle and I truly believe that lifestyle is a key component to getting cancer. We all have carcinogen cells, are these actually going to come to fruition and why did it come to fruition?

People talk about that it’s because it’s a genetic cancer that you’ve got. I remember that was one of the things that they first told me, “Oh, it’s genetic.” But when I look into different things, and we can touch on that once I tell you my story, about the cancer and diagnosis, but I definitely believe that there are so many contributory factors throughout a life.

In my life, I'm talking about with regards to diet, lifestyle as in alcohol, partying, all these things that I did from a very, very young age, which I absolutely loved. But when I look back and I look and I reflect on these, it's such a huge, huge component, I believe, in why I got the breast cancer.

Because of that inflammation that goes through your body, when you start to dig deep like Tamara has done as well, it's quite fascinating. I think with my financial background and loving data, you do become a bit of a nerd about looking into why has this happened and what other things can I do to prevent it?

So I just wanted obviously to say that. But my first diagnosis, ladies and listeners, that came in April 2022, now I had no side effects or such.

Michelle MacDonald: No symptoms, you mean?

Leigh Fernandez: No symptoms. I was doing great. I was over in Tenerife sorting out my retreats and sorting out all the activities, the food, the meals, all the bits and pieces that you need to get together for your retreats. I should have said that my yoga teacher as well, for those that don’t know, running my retreats was something where I had worked to.

As I said, having a financial banking background and corporate background, in January of 2022, I had decided that I was handing in my notice and going forth and running my fitness and wellness consultancy. This is where we were at. As I say, I’m totally fat and healthy, ready to go, I’ve given up my banking, ready to run my retreats in 2022.

Then I had one day, one afternoon actually, I didn’t any me times and I thought, “I’m going to put on this swimsuit and go down to the pool.” That was what I was doing. I was getting myself ready and when I was putting my sun cream on my left breast, it felt like on fire. It just felt like a burning fire. So I went over to the mirror and I had this big red boob. My left boob was just like bright red.

It was just really bizarre because I hadn't been out in the sun. This was my first free afternoon to get up to the pool and go to go and get a bit sunshine. I got myself ready because I was just like, “This is really weird,” and I got myself ready, went up to the pool, and that whole time that I was lying at the pool, I was just going over and over in my head, “What's going on? This is not right.”

I was traveling home the next day again, so that must have been the Monday. I was traveling back home. Because I’ll never forget that on the Tuesday, I phoned my doctor so we have called a general practitioner that we will go and initially see. I said to them, “This is quite urgent. Can I come in and see you?” I did manage to get and to see a doctor, a doctor that I hadn't seen before.

The redness had actually gone down in my chest. I don't know whether it was the heat or some of that, maybe contributed to it. But I went to show the doctors, the general practitioner, and she got me up on the bed and she checked me. “No, Leigh, I don't know what you're talking about. There's nothing there. It just looks fine. I can't see anything wrong.”

I got off the bed and we sat and I said to her, “I really feel there is something not right here.” So she went back and checked me again. She couldn’t see what I was seeing. It was quite concerning, to be honest. Basically, I got dismissed and I think it was Tamara who had said, “Somebody tells you something’s fine but you’ve got a feeling in your heart of hearts that it’s not, don’t stop there. Keep pushing. Keep pushing.”

In the UK, we have private insurance and private medical as well. So luckily enough, for myself, I did have private medical insurance. So that Tuesday afternoon, I basically phoned my insurance and I managed to get an appointment.

It's funny because when Tamara had said about who do you pick? Which surgeon do you pick? Which consultant do you pick? I had to just go on basically, it was at that point because I just wanted to see someone as quick as possible, I just had to pick from basically a time, yeah, they could see me at this time on Thursday and then the gentleman's name kind of thing ended up becoming my surgeon.

I got taken, went in on the Thursday to where they do, it's a breast clinic and basically I was in that clinic till near on midnight that night because of what they found. I think my appointment was maybe six o'clock in the evening and they took me through, I had MRIs, I had numerous amounts of checks, and two different doctors, consultants looked at me, then ultrasounds.

When I was getting my ultrasound, the doctor or the radiologist, she was lovely and I could tell from her face that she had found something sinister. I said to her, “I don't know whether you're allowed to tell me or not.” She said, “I can tell you anything you want.” I said, “Is this bad?” She said, “Well, there's something there,” and that was her words to me.

Then following that, it was actually the Easter weekend, so I had to wait until Monday and I was doing all this myself because I didn't want to tell anybody like tell my daughter. My husband was actually away in another country at the time and I didn't want to tell anybody because it was like, “At that point, what am I telling them?”

I didn't know if I had a diagnosis. My husband wasn't in the country, my daughter was young in my opinion, I didn't want to burden her with something that might not have been anything. I’m a week or so from getting to the point when they actually gave me the diagnosis. That was getting all the scans and different things. At one point, one of the breast nurses said to me, “You must tell your husband something is going on and get him back to this country.”

At that point, that was a pain triggering as well to say, “Well, there’s definitely something sinister here.” That was the point to getting my diagnosis. My husband, from where he was, it normally takes about five days to get home, but he managed to get home in three. They were really super with him. They got him on different, quicker flights and things like that. That was really great.

But very interesting and I'll share this with you because having habits that you've instilled in me, Michelle, from when we did our transformation back in 2020 and having my daily musts that, I mean, I adhere to them 100% now, but during that period, that first diagnosis in April, I must say that things went to the side, my daily habits.

I was still doing my meditation, but obviously, getting to the gym and my nutrition, it all went quite, I would say, south probably because of the amount of drugs that were putting me on and then the fatigue I experienced through a period from April to probably October, that fatigue and the amount of sleep and not being interested in nutrition.

Your macros was like my thing but okay, gosh, and like [Cara] would laugh at me, my protein, my carbs, and my fat, and even her friends laugh, “Oh, Leigh, Leigh and her protein, her carbs, and her fat.” But during that period, I must say my appetite, my interest in food, I definitely exercised because my husband would not let me not and he’s not a big exercise fan but he knows how important it is to me and he would encourage me every day to get out.

If I couldn’t get out walking, we would walk out to the car and he would take me out in the car so that going somewhere and then getting fresh air. It's funny, isn't it, having such instilled habits and musts into your routine, and yet for that period for me, it definitely went out the window I would say.

Michelle MacDonald: I think everyone's journey through something like that is so personal and I think as we're going through these experiences, likely having that sense of compassion for yourself, leaning into your network, your family, your community as well, and just doing the best that you can, I mean, that's all anyone can ask of themselves, right?

Leigh Fernandez: Yeah, definitely. To actually be getting to the point when obviously, in October, I had went and got the first mastectomy, after that, things really started to get back to what I would say is my normal and where I am just now, getting out, doing my walks, adhering to my musts, and the habits are really in play from October ‘22.

I eventually got back into the gym in December 2022. That was just an amazing day. I remember going with Cara. We were in Tenerife at the time and she was over for two weeks at Christmas. We went to the gym for the first time and it was an amazing day.

Then that was us right back into it for like the fortnight that we were away, we were down at that gym. I had a lot of weight that I had put on, not as a result of the eating or the nutrition, it was probably a lack of because I wasn't adhering to my macro plan and I wasn't eating well or I wasn’t eating a lot. Then the steroids put on the water retention and the bloating, that was difficult.

But working through it, as I say, well, you met me, Michelle, in the summer of 2023 and that was my goal was to get to Vegas from December 2022, to get to Vegas and get myself back into a really fantastic position. It was really, really good.

I think that having these habits, these musts instilled into your being in a sense, they just come back to you. I suppose that's where I'm at now in November 2023, getting another diagnosis. But it felt different this time. It felt different in the sense of I can deal with this, not that I didn't deal with it the last time, or the beastie, as we called it, because I like that, Kelly, when you called your one Hank, I had the beastie.

So here we are now, just trying to make sure that we read this second beastie and get things back on track. But I feel like I'm much stronger in myself. I'm much stronger that my habits and my musts are just following me and I'm doing what I can to fight this and stay strong.

Kelly Gahr: You're fighting incredibly.

Leigh Fernandez: Oh, thank you, Kelly.

Michelle MacDonald: I love for you, that peacefully about how important it is to follow your gut instinct and we have these varying healthcare systems, the healthcare systems in Canada, which I'm from, and it's very, very hard to go through that system and get quality care just the way it's set up.

I think in America, it's following that suit, but people that can't afford that private care, it's a different system. It's so important that we do advocate for ourselves. That might mean, as Tamara did, making sure that you're going in and getting the work done, that's applicable for your demographics, so knowing what that demographic is.

I don't think everyone has to be out there Googling. I think there are some really great resources and I'll leave those in the links. I know Cleveland Clinic is pretty great in the States and they're in Canada as well. I'm not sure what you have, Leigh, in the UK, but there are resources that outline quite clearly what your risk category is at a particular age.

We just need to mainstream this stuff. Really, just doing your due diligence. I know after listening to Tamara's story, because I stayed with her last weekend, she's got me fired up. I'm healthy as a horse. Probably a lot of listeners are like me, I don't have any problems. I don't like to go to the doctors, but I know that I am at an increased risk of, I probably should get tested for lung cancer simply because I grew up in a household with a father that smoked and I was born in 1970 and so you could smoke in the car and you could smoke on airplanes and all of this stuff.

I worked in bars. I used to run along the side of the road. I mean, luckily I didn't live in a city but anyways, these are the things, unlikely that I have a problem with CVD or metabolic syndrome, but getting a colonoscopy, we're at a heightened risk of, that is a very common cancer.

These are the things that we need to be aware of and just do our due diligence. If you feel like you're not getting the care that you need, be empowered, [inaudible] it's going private, be empowered to follow through with that because your health is all you've got at the end of the day and those early interventions are important. We're not saying to be scared and have that kind of mindset, but in fact, be empowered and just do the best you can to check off those boxes.

Leigh Fernandez: You're so right, Michelle, with that because you're talking about things that happened years ago, that have impacted your lifestyle, you never chose that, that just happened.

For me, when I look back, I've had a sugar addiction for years, I drank alcohol from a very young age, which makes my blood boil when I think about society and society allowing that. Then I think about sleep, such a huge, huge and easy thing but if we're not getting enough sleep and I think about my corporate world and the hours I would put in in my work, I just think about these three lifestyle factors that are so detrimental to our health, health is everything.

Michelle MacDonald: It is. So, gals, I want to thank you for diving in here with this first piece. We're definitely going to carry this over into a couple of episodes. I think this is so important to get out there, this message of being your own health advocate, doing the due diligence, really pushing through the medical systems, whatever country that you're in, it's so important.

Whether it's a cancer, or whether, like I said, it's something else, it's so important to advocate for yourself. I want to thank you guys for sharing that story. I mean, I'm crying. I get so emotional at these things. I'm in there in the arena with you.

Tamara Johnson: I am just speechless because the similarity in terms of you feeling that hot, tender breast, and then by the time you got to your physician, there was a bit of mildness to that symptom, but you stuck to it, and then Kelly, the same thing with the headaches and then they went away, it blows me away that the universe or whomever was like, “Hey, I'm going to send you a message,” and a lot of us just swipe it and go, “Oh, no, I'm fine.”

Kelly Gahr: Yeah. Michelle actually just said it the other day, like first-year message is like a teeny tiny pebble and it might be like a rock. You don't want to wait to get hit by the boulder. I think yeah, the advocating for yourself.

Leigh Fernandez: So important, isn't it?

Kelly Gahr: It is. It really is. And you know, Leigh, to make you feel a little bit better about going south on the diet piece, I was just in Boston with my daughter and I wrote to Michelle, “I don't know what happened. I just got taken down for a couple of days,” and I was like, “I'm not eating. I don't want to eat anything.”

Then what I did eat was like a little piece of toast that I made in my waffle maker. I'm like, “I think I can eat this maybe.” I think when your body doesn't want, I mean, you've gone through so much, the biggest thing that I've learned is you do your best, like Michelle said, but also you have to really be gentle with yourself because you're navigating new waters. We were all navigating new waters, and I think part of that is grace.

Leigh Fernandez: It's definitely having that grace for yourself, but it's the strangest thing as well when you're so used to having a massive appetite, getting to the gym, having lots of food with you, always having food in your bag to being completely opposite. It's quite bizarre actually. So thanks for sharing that.

Tamara Johnson: Yeah, so I'd love to tell you I'm the poster child for having these great habits through this but I struggled. I don't really want to measure my food. My coach was like, “Okay. Well, are you happy with where you're at?” and I said, “No.” She said, “Well, then you're going to have to go back and start measuring your food.” I was like, “You're right.”

But it took me, I'd say a long time. I'm just finally now going, “All right, maybe I am going to be here a little longer than I originally thought.” How does that look right now for you? I'm going back to the habits that served me. But I will tell you, Kelly, just like you, opposite in the sense, you wanted to stay in the hospital, is that right?

Kelly Gahr: I did, because they did literally just cut me from ear to ear. I was like, “Wait, why are you letting me go? You want me to leave? But here you bring me fruit. Nobody's going to bring me fruit at home.”

Tamara Johnson: So what I did is I had a chest tube, so they have to make sure your lung doesn't fully collapse after surgery and because I've been in the health care system, I was like, “Get out of bed and start walking immediately if you can.” I was strong, I could squat, I could do all the things I needed to do, and I was getting out of bed.

I just go around the nurse's station and I'm looking in the rooms and I'm looking at people who are not strong and they can't get out of bed. That causes issues for recovery. I'm not saying that being strong and being able to get out of bed made my recovery any necessarily more positive, but I could get up and walk and go.

I stayed in the hospital one night because my chest tube was clear and my doctor was like, “Hey, you can stay. This is like a big thing,” and I said, “No.” He said, “Just stay nearby in case you have a problem because you need to come back to the ER,” because I wanted to sleep because you get poked and prodded all night long and there are the sounds of the IVs and the alarms and I was like, “I'll just go stay in a hotel and stay until you're comfortable that I can go home,” which is what I did. That was my choice. But I also know what to look for so I was okay with it. My habit of being in really good shape served me very, very well.

Leigh Fernandez: I did that as well, Tamara, about getting up out of the bed. They want you to stay there. I think they wanted for me, my first operation, to stay in for five days, but I just wanted to get up and get out because like you're saying, they're coming in through the night, they're doing your blood pressure, they're doing tests, they're taking blood.

I remember when my daughter came to pick me up and I was sitting ready with the bag packed and on the edge of the bed and she was just like, “I can't believe that. It's like you're running out of here.” I was like, “Yeah, get me home.”

Tamara Johnson: There's a lot of psychology by being a patient. You take off all your clothes, you put on this gown, and all of a sudden now you're the sick person. You're like, “I don't want to be her.”

Leigh Fernandez: No, definitely not.

Michelle MacDonald: Gals thank you so much for sharing your story, definitely going to have you back on the show because I want to tease out some of the follow-up and where you're at now. I think it's a really important part of the message. Thank you so much, Kelly, Tamara, and Leigh. Leigh, our hearts are with you. I know you're in the middle of going through your second round of therapy because some of the cancer cells have come back. We know that you're going to kick this just like you did the first round.

Leigh Fernandez: Thank you. Thank you so much. I am fighting, girls. I'm fighting.

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