Nine years ago, Lisa Joss went in for one of her final checkups, after undergoing breast cancer surgery a few years prior, when the doctor told her they had found a different kind of cancer in the same breast, as well as two tumors in her lymph nodes. Filled with even more worry and doubt than the first time around, she immediately started chemotherapy. Now four years post-treatment, she is currently living cancer free and has survived, not only once but twice! In her spare time she enjoys painting, writing (as editorial director at a women's co-working space, The Hivery) and has a passion for gender equality and human rights. To find out more about Lisa's experiences with breast cancer, how she found her support group and why she wouldn't trade having cancer for who she's become today, read our interview below.
Name: Lisa Joss
Location: Mill Valley, California
Current Health Status: Cancer free, 4 years post-treatment
When were you diagnosed with breast cancer?
I was diagnosed for the first time in 2008, at age 45, with DCIS [ductal carcinoma in situ], and it was treated surgically. Then, during my second to last 6-month checkup for the DCIS, another type of cancer was discovered in the same breast. This time it was different. The doctors found multiple tumors, including two in the lymph nodes, and within 10 days I was in chemotherapy to shrink the tumors.
What were your first thoughts when you were diagnosed?
The first time I was diagnosed, I was shocked but bounced back rather quickly. The second time, I was actually really scared and incredibly sad. I remember that it was a Wednesday and part of what they call a “same day program." In short, I arrived at 8:30am for my mammogram, and by 8pm I left having had a sonogram, a fine needle biopsy, a core needle biopsy, and left as a "participant in a study." I keenly remember my doctor saying to me “Lisa, we are going to throw everything we have at this.” I realized that she had left out “and you are going to be okay.” When I probed her, she simply repeated they “were going to throw everything they had at this” and told me "the goal was, of course, to save my life."
How did your friends and family take the news (again)?
My friends knew I had just gone through this four years prior and were incredibly supportive, although I believe many of them were scared, but didn’t say anything. Within one day, a dear friend had set up a meal-sending platform to benefit me. The community support I received literally blew my mind and I felt so loved.
Were you able to work through treatment?
I was very fortunate to be able to work from home while I was going though treatment. Sometimes it was only 3 hours a week, but having something else to distract me was a true gift.
Did you receive any additional support or alternative therapies? If so, what kind, and were they beneficial?
Toward the middle of my chemotherapy treatment, I became extremely depressed. I was riddled with fear and found myself at the office of Marin Cancer Center’s Integrative Health & Wellness. This fear created a major change in my quality of life. Although I felt that I had excellent medical care at UCSF, at this point they did not offer the same level of whole-patient care. The two biggest impacts on my well-being during chemo were the welcoming nature at the Marin Cancer Center and Thai Acupuncture. Later on, when I was going through radiation after surgery, I received lymphatic massage and that was also fantastic.
What or who have been your biggest supports? Who makes up your cancer tribe?
While I was totally bald, I suddenly met several women in my local town who were also going through breast cancer. It wasn’t tough to spot each other as fellow cancer patients. We started meeting for dinner regularly and supporting each other through all of the painful and lonely parts of cancer treatment. When together, we knew what it meant to have a bad day and would instantly jump to support one another through a flurry of text messages, verbal communication, and anything else that was needed. Finding this group of women almost instantaneously changed my experience. We comfortably express our emotions – from crying and laughing to teasing and complaining. We knew it was safe to be exactly who we were in that exact moment. This was an enormous, soul-nurturing group, and I will love these women forever.
What has been one of the most challenging aspects of the experience for you?
There are so many challenging parts of breast cancer. The treatment itself was awful and came as a shock to me. I had heard the media talk about how much better chemotherapy had become, but I was ill prepared for the reality of the infusions. Because I was in a ‘study’ I received two types of chemo simultaneously – effectively I was double-dosed. But I have no regrets, as I feel confident it saved my life.
The other incredibly tough part about the second diagnosis was the anxiety over my daughter who was in fifth grade at the time. I didn’t want her to see me suffer. Although I am normally a big believer in being authentic, I chose to hide my pain from her. And I didn’t stop any classroom volunteering because I wanted her to feel my presence as much as possible… just in case. The thought I might leave her motherless was excruciating.
What is one thing you wish you knew before you were diagnosed?
I tend to feel that life unfolds for us as it is meant to. So there is nothing I wish I knew.
Is there a particular mantra or inspiration that helps you?
You don’t get the bitter without the sweet. I knew there would be goodness to reap along the way, and it showed up in many forms.
If you could offer a woman, who has been newly diagnosed, some words of wisdom for her journey, what would you tell her?
Try to be patient with the journey, and reach out for what you need.
What are you most proud of in your cancer journey?
My biggest source of pride is learning to be truly present.
How has breast cancer affected your outlook on life? On illness?
I am a little bit philosophical. For me, cancer turned out to be a gift. It was an excruciating process, yes, but in the end I wouldn’t trade it for who I am today. At the same time, I also believe that death and illness comes to everyone. It comes as a teacher, if we allow for that. But I don’t know how to prepare for it.
How have you changed?
I think I am pretty much the same person I was prior to cancer, yet far more understanding of others’ pain and perils. I joke that cancer ‘broke my heart wide open.’ So when I watch stories on the news or hear about someone else’s pain I tend to get very emotional.
The other thing that changed is the sense that we only have one life, so we must always be as radically authentic – be the realest, truest ‘self’ that we can be. For me, this means giving myself to others – both my resources and my service.