Real story: After surviving breast cancer, I inspire others

Oct 1, 2013 at 1:00 p.m. ET

Hollye Jacobs was working as a pediatric and adult hospice nurse when she received news that rocked her world — she had breast cancer. Her attitude and outlook during her treatment and recovery are nothing short of inspirational.

Hollye Jacobs, breast cancer survivor

Hollye Jacobs, RN, MS, MSW, was born and raised in Indiana, then relocated to Chicago before settling in Santa Barbara, California. Before going into health care, she worked for Ralph Lauren in a number of different roles — sales, management, special events and PR. For the past 15 years, however, she's worked in the medical field, as a pediatric and adult hospice nurse, social worker, child development specialist and bioethicist.

A blow

Hollye had her first symptom in September 2010 — she was awakened by stabbing pain in her right breast. She thought that was strange but really didn't believe it was anything serious, until it happened again. “Three more times that week, the same thing happened,” she remembered. “As a nurse, I assured myself that breast cancer doesn't typically hurt and that the pain in my breast was simply from the dense tissue resulting from drinking too much caffeine, but I decided to have it checked out… just to be sure.”

Her gynecologist assured her that he thought it was probably nothing, but referred her for a mammogram and ultrasound just in case.

And good thing he did.

Hollye knew that there was a problem when she was told that the radiologist wanted to see her before leaving. “When I walked into his office I saw my breasts on four large computer monitors,” she explained. “I thought, 'This isn't good.'”

And it wasn't. He knew she was a nurse and asked if he could talk more frankly to her than he could his other patients, and she agreed that it would be a good idea. Then he broke the bad news — she had four tumors in her right breast and three in her left. They needed to schedule a biopsy immediately because he suspected breast cancer.

“I found myself feeling like a deer in headlights,” she thoughtfully recalled. “As a nurse, I know that patients forget virtually everything that comes after hearing the dreaded words, 'You have a tumor.' So instinctively I knew that I would forget what I was hearing and needed to write everything down. As I reached for my journal in my bag, I saw that my hands were trembling. In an instant, my world stopped.”


The first thing that went through Hollye's mind upon hearing the doctor's words was that this form of cancer is treatable. “After a career of caring for dying children and their families, I was in a position of having an exceptionally unique perspective that enabled me to quickly realize that this diagnosis could indeed be so much worse,” she explained. “Now it's not to say that I wasn't stunned and knocked off my rocker. I mean, really. Here I was a healthy, happy, vegan-eating marathon running 39-year-old with absolutely no family history of breast cancer. Heaven knows I dropped quite a few f-bombs.”

Hollye didn't mince words — going through cancer treatment was brutal. But she began to realize that there were things to be grateful for, such as the supportive team of people (both personal and professional) that cared for her and her family.

Hollye was able to get through diagnosis and treatment by looking for silver linings in her life. She admits that they don't take away the awful side effects of chemotherapy, for example, but they help provide balance and perspective. “Here's the thing: when you have cancer, silver linings come in small and big packages,” she explained. “From watching a hummingbird outside of my bedroom window (because I was too sick to stand), to being cancer free (after enduring the longest and most painful year of my life), I know that hope in the form of silver linings is always present. All one has to do is look for it.”

Setting goals and reaching out

Not everyone sets out to run a half marathon, no matter what our health status is, but Hollye didn't let her illness stop her from making significant goals during her ordeal. “About halfway through my chemo treatments (when getting from my bathroom to my bed often felt like a herculean task!), I concocted the idea to do something very physical every year on the day of my diagnosis,” she shared. “Why, you ask? Well, I saw it as a major silver lining way to celebrate my health on the exact day that it evaporated. So on my first 'Cancerversary,' I ran a half marathon (and cried tears of joy as I crossed the finish line and fell into my husband's arms).”

Hollye also began writing early on in her journey. While she had written a few academic papers and book chapters, she hadn't had an opportunity to write about herself, but that soon changed. “I started my blog, The Silver Pen, as a way to keep people apprised of what was happening to me during treatment. I was thinking of my family as well. I didn't want them to be burdened with having to repeat stories over and over again.”

The Silver Pen was not only Hollye's personal experience with cancer through the lens of her professional experience, but it became a source of information and inspiration for others.

Helping others

When asked what she would tell a newly-diagnosed woman, Hollye shared the following four pearls of wisdom:

"First, breathe. This sounds easy, I know, but after you hear the words, 'You have cancer,' breathing takes a whole lot of work.

"Second, though the diagnosis feels like an emergency, it's not. Breathe. You have time to understand the meaning and process the emotions of your diagnosis.

"Third, learn everything you can about your diagnosis and treatment options, then become fully engaged in the development (and revision) of your plan of care.

"Fourth, build a team of caregivers and advisors, both personal (in the form of friends) as well as professional (in the form of healthcare providers). You know that phrase, 'It takes a village'? Well, it definitely takes a village to get through cancer."

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