Kelsey Smith amplifies the voices of those who have turned pain into purpose on her CanSurvivor podcast and website. Diagnosed with Breast Cancer at 29, she has built a community of women using their talents to make a difference. We recently sat down with her for an interview.
The Can Survivor is such a great name for your blog and podcast – it’s so perfect to have the word “can” front and center. Tell us a bit about that?
Thanks so much! When attempting to name the blog, I kept seeing the term “Cancervivor,” which appeared to give ‘cancer’ too much weight. So, The CanSurvivor was born. It was a way of flipping something traumatic like facing mortality on its head, an assertion I could survive. It certainly isn’t a guarantee since one-third of early-stage diagnoses turns into Metastatic Breast Cancer. For now, cancer doesn’t have the upper hand. I CAN survive, while sharing the experiences of others who have had a direct relationship to breast cancer. Whether it is a plastic surgeon, CEO, or nonprofit organization, there’s an incredible amount of resources to help with survival.
Receiving a diagnosis at 29 must have been quite a shock. Can you tell us a bit about your journey and how sharing helped you in the beginning?
Cancer was nowhere on the itinerary, as I had just started a position in a “dream job” eight days prior to the diagnosis. In fact, I was so into the job that it took a month to call doctors about the lump I had found in my left breast. While I had gotten sick twice in September, I didn’t put two and two together. Many family members and friends were across the country during treatment and the blog started as a way to keep everyone updated. It was helpful to articulate exactly what was going on while explaining all the details so everyone would be on the same page. It also served as a testament to what someone actually goes through in treatment.
You do some pretty fearless things – repelling down a 16-story building for The Victory Center is brave as can be. How do you work up to challenge?
This is true! There’s something innate where the possibility of the result is more attractive than the method of getting there. Rappelling down a 16-story building meant more money for the Victory Center, for example. It was also a trust exercise: All of the tools that allowed participants to rappel were designed for safety, and professionals were standing by. It’s important to trust the goodness in even the most negative of processes. While rappelling was definitely scary, seeing the bigger picture negated the fear.
Helping women be their most brilliant, resilient and amazing selves as they navigate Breast Cancer is a bold goal and you do it with style. What’s a favorite example of brilliant resilience from your community – or yourself?
Thank you! The best examples are the individuals who have turned their pain into purpose. In the breast cancer community, there are so many people who are using their talents to make a difference. Women like April Johnson-Stearns of Wildfire Magazine or Emily Hopper of Empowerhaus, who are unapologetically inserting their kick-ass attitudes into their brands. These are women who are vulnerable and impactful.
Your long-term survivor guests are fantastic. What are some of the top lessons passed along from these 30-years in ladies?
Yes, they are! There’s an incredible amount of wisdom to pick up from these women, especially since their treatments were harsher decades ago. Many people don’t know that less than 40 years ago, surgeons did not reconstruct breasts. It took decades for this advancement to be a standard of care. In fact, it is so embedded within the community that women are asking specifically to go “flat,” or not receive reconstruction. It’s really amazing how much long-term survivors have endured while maintaining a sunny disposition.
While we have a long way to go to cure breast cancer completely, processes are getting better every day. They’ve taught me to be appreciative of modern medicine. Older survivors have the ability to focus on what is important without letting small things ruin their day. They’re also the best at holding space during tough times of uncertainty.
How important is community in treatment?
It isn’t just community that is important, it is the right community. During treatment, it’s easy to become the center of attention, which then makes others seem or feel like spectators. It can also attract the wrong attention. People aren’t afraid to exploit the situation. Since breast cancer is such a big deal (especially under age 45—Only 11% of us have it), word spreads pretty quickly which can be isolating. Anyone who has been diagnosed should seek out cancer support groups immediately because people may rally around during treatment, then disappear afterwards. It can be mentally exhausting, daunting, and lonely. People who have been through it understand like no one else can.
You’ve turned your pain into power and created something amazing as a result. Were you a coach before your diagnosis?
I was not. The diagnosis took the wheel, as I was in product marketing previously. Young breast cancer survivorship is unique as it leaves open the possibility of making big lifestyle changes in diet, relationships, and sense of purpose. Having a coach who understands this and doesn’t think you’re “overdramatic” or “crazy” is incredibly essential in the healing process, which is uniquely individual. No two cancers are the same, but if you allow it, you can make incredible connections and move forward with optimism.
What is the funniest thing someone has said on The CanSurvivor Podcast?
The talks with fellow survivors are always funny because we are SO not modest, and nobody quite understands our struggles like each other. There were some hearty laughs on an upcoming episode regarding prosthetic nipples. Yes, there’s a prosthetic for that!
What would you like to tell us about self-exams and mammograms?
Breast cancer does not discriminate by age. Eleven percent of women under age 45 will get breast cancer, so please do not forget to set time aside the first of every month to do a self-exam. If you have dense breasts, simply look for “sisters” (similar lumps and bumps). The lump I had did not have a sister, cousin, or anything like that. Mammograms are not typically covered for younger women unless a mass has been found, so “feeling it on the first” is a great defense. In addition to that, if you have a family history of cancer, please speak with a geneticist about testing for genetic mutations. Five to ten percent of all breast cancer diagnoses are caused by BRCA mutations. Luckily, there are solutions!
What’s next for you? And where can others find you out in cyberspace?
This week, we launched the podcast in video format on YouTube! The format of the show has changed to weekly interviews, which allows for more guests involved with breast cancer initiatives. It seems to be continuously expanding, so you will just have to wait and see what’s next!
There are several ways to find me:
We’re all pledging to take care of ourselves this month with a small step that’s easy to incorporate into every day; a walk, meditation, primal scream. What is your #mypledge?
#MyPledge is to spend fifteen minutes outside, whether it means exercise, taking in nature, playing basketball, or walking. October is a great month to watch the leaves change and fall. There’s an incredible amount lot of beauty in the Midwest!
We honor Kelsey’s spirit – and the spirit of so many others – with our support of the National Breast Cancer Foundation. During the month of October, a donation from every sale goes to NBCF and the important work they do. Our hope is that one day there will be no more unexpected warriors.