Mother of two and model Christine Handy, was diagnosed at age 41 with aggressive Stage II Triple-Positive Breast Cancer, while she was simultaneously healing from two other life-threatening health issues. Feeling as though she wanted to just "give up and quit," she found strength and courage through the encouragement, help and support of her tribe. She is now, 11 years later, living cancer free in Miami as a motivational speaker, flat advocate, model and author.
Through her journey, Christine realized that, "We can not control the outcome, but we can control our attitude." Recognizing that there can be purpose in pain, facing cancer ultimately changed her outlook on life, deepened her family relationships and forced her to truly appreciate today, not tomorrow. To read more about Christine's diagnosis, course of treatment, how she found the best care, immense complications and more, read our incredibly poignant In Her Words below.
Name: Christine Handy
Location: Miami, FL
Current Health Status: Cancer free
Tell us a little but about yourself.
I was raised in the mid-west, mostly St. Louis. Then I went to college in Dallas, Texas which is where I lived for about 25 years. Now, I live in Miami Florida. I loved being raised in the Midwest with deep rooted values. I came from a large, close-knit family. My cancer diagnosis not only changed me, but it ultimately changed my family as well. We collectively realized how precious life is and together, we became closer. I love to work. I have been a working model since the tender age of 11 years. To date, I am still modeling and I am now 52 years young. I consider myself in the modeling world as a lifer. I also describe myself as a self proclaimed athlete. My most favorite hobbies, besides working to change the world, are to learn and to play sports. I have a deep thirst for knowledge which is why I recently got my Masters degree from Harvard University in Literature and Creative Writing. I also have a pull to be active daily, whether a long walk, a game of tennis, a ride on my beach bike or a splash in the ocean, I long to be energetic. Lastly, I love to love. Whether that means my children, family, friends, community, neighbors or even followers on social media, I take the privilege of loving very seriously.
When were you diagnosed with breast cancer?
I was diagnosed with breast cancer at the age of 41. I was diagnosed right after I found a lump under my nipple on my left breast. My cancer diagnosis was my third major health issue, the other two were also life threatening but not cancer. I have no family history of the disease and do not carry any breast cancer genes. I shudder to think about what could have happened if the tumor was growing deep inside my breast, surely it would not have been found at stage 2. My tumor was quite aggressive and triple positive.
How did you feel when you were diagnosed?
My thoughts upon diagnosis were traumatic and irrational. But my situation was different than most. I had just come off a year of being bullied by a doctor, my right arm had just been fused after months in casts and almost a full year of physical pain. I felt like I had used up all my ‘favor’ tokens by my friends and family. I was unable to drive with my arm debacle for the entire year prior to the cancer diagnosis. I relied heavily on all of the people who loved me to not only drive and take care of me, but to also get my children to and from school, to help me with meals for my family and on and on. When I heard the words, you have cancer, I realized I could not get through it alone, but I also remembered the entire year using the favors from my community. My pride and ego had taken over my rational thinking and all I thought was, nobody will help me, I have already asked for too much and I can’t get through this alone. So, I decided to quit.
How did your friends and family take the news?
My friends and family rose to the news while I crumbled. I shared openly that I was afraid to ask for help. I also shared that all of the illness felt too big for me to handle. The more I shared that I wanted to quit, the more they rallied around me to tell me that helping me was a gift to them. They taught me that serving was ultimately a privilege, not a burden. Eventually, I believed them. I allowed them intimately into my journey and we faced it together.
What kind of treatment did you seek?
My first move was to have a lumpectomy. My right arm had just been fused with cadaver bones and cadaver bone grafts, so starting a chemo regimen was postponed for 30 days until the grafts were solidified into my arm. The only thing I could do was have the tumor removed to buy some time before my chemo regimen could begin. That was a confusing and difficult stage of my cancer journey. Once I was able to begin chemotherapy, I emotionally was also willing to fight for my life. Chemo began on Halloween 2012. It ended on December 2, 2013. In total I had 28 rounds of chemotherapy including the red devil, also know as Adriamycin. I also had a mastectomy on the cancer. Ultimately I also had a mastectomy on the other side, but that was a few years after my chemo. I was so depleted from my arm debacle and chemotherapy, that to safely have an elective mastectomy was three years later, when my body was as strong as possible. During chemotherapy, I also had to schedule subsequent arm surgeries. Having two major health battles in succession presented additional emotional and physical duress. It is difficult to describe the grit and determination it took to get through all of that. The gift of women showing up for me and my faith were the anchors through which I survived.
Did you work while you were going through treatment?
I did not work through treatment. One, I was too ill. Two, I had the luxury of not needing too. And lastly, I was a model so there was no work for a sickly cancer patient.
How did you find the best care?
I believe the best care comes from people who care. I have had plenty of doctors in my life, as well as an enormous amount of nurses. Looking way back, the best way I could have cared for myself during and after illnesses would have been to hone in on the health care practitioners that I connected to. Outside of health care teams, I believe the best care for me, came from the women who cheered me on. When people believe in you, even if you don’t believe in you, eventually those women will rub off on you, so surround yourself with women that want to cheer you on for a lifetime.
Did you receive additional support or seek alternative therapies?
During chemotherapy I hired a nutritionist. I was not eating very much and I am allergic to sugar. To get as may calories as I needed to stay healthy and strong was difficult. At one stage in my treatment, getting a feeding tube was on the table. The nutritionist definitely did help. I also tried acupuncture for the tremendous hemorrhoids I had caused by chemotherapy. I do believe it helped to some degree. The greatest treatment is love, spread that like wildfire.
Who have been your biggest supporters and make up your cancer tribe?
My cancer family, even 9 years out, continues to grow. I have social media followers who have become part of my tribe. I have the core women who cared for me back then as well. I have a community of people who continue to support my journey. I have had a massive amount of complications to chemotherapy and surgeries. Those complications have lingered for quite some time. The support I get, luckily, continues. I do like to talk about this. Just because treatment is over, does not mean cancer survivors need less support. Quite the contrary to be frank. When the dust settles, anxiety and fear can creep in as well as feelings of loneliness. This is when we need that support maybe more than ever. It is when the meals stop coming that we need our tribe to say, “I still got you.”
What has been one of the most challenging aspects of the experience for you?
The toughest battle for me within cancer has been the complications. It has been a roller coaster of continued duress. Complications that linger cause great emotional pain. I have had PTSD alongside my cancer journey for many reasons. One of which is because of the stumbling blocks that have come out of nowhere. Life in and of itself has setbacks, but add chemotherapy and dozens of surgeries, the hurdles multiply. The problem comes when we lose our courage. I have definitely lost my courage in different stages of my journey. Regaining courage takes a lot of faith and introspection. Courage can also flourish from emotional and community support. It takes a leap of faith to ask for help with a cancer journey, but it is necessary. We need each other. That is one lesson I leaned very early on with my diagnosis.
What is one thing you wish you knew before you were diagnosed?
I wished I had known that tomorrow is not promised to anyone before my diagnosis. For some reason, I thought I was immune to disease. None of us really are. Today is a gift, take it.
Is there a particular mantra or inspiration that helps you?
My motto is, “There is always purpose in pain, we just have to be willing to find it.”
If you could offer a woman, who has been newly diagnosed, some words of wisdom for her journey, what would you tell her?
I struggle to give advice because we all have such different journeys. One thing I did when I was diagnosed was talk to other women who had been through breast cancer. I did not know anyone who had been diagnosed. So I asked friends if they knew anyone. They introduced me to various women around the country who had been through it. I relied heavily on those connections. Although I had never met them, we talked often. I asked a ton of questions. It helps to speak to women who have endured similar challenges. There is a knowing and an understanding that only comes from others in the same predicament. Seek out women who have been down the same path, that helps a lot. And remember, you are not alone.
What are you most proud of in your cancer journey?
I think I am most proud of my perseverance. There were plenty of times I wanted to quit, but I dug deep into faith to stay focused on a healthy future. Those days of despair were many. When I went from feeling like a victim to being a vine, my whole journey changed. We can not control the outcome, but we can control our attitude. I hope my life and story is a testament to showing courage in the depth of despair.
How has breast cancer affected your outlook on life and illness?
Cancer has changed my outlook on life. I know that each day is an opportunity to serve others, to give people hope in their despair. I also know that illness can happen at anytime to anyone. Live for today, not tomorrow.
Throughout this journey, how have you changed?
My whole life has changed. I eliminated the toxic people in my life who were pulling me backwards. I shred the labels that I used to believe about myself, that I was unworthy or not capable. I am worthy and more than capable. I trust myself now.