Keep On Truckin’ [even with breast cancer]

This month we’re so excited to launch our newest style: keep on truckin’. This talisman is about those moments when you think you are broke and out of gas. It’s about learning to rest and take a moment for self-care instead of quitting. We all have doubts, we all want to quit sometimes, but keep on truckin’ is a reminder to rest and reset, to square your shoulders, fill the gas tank and get on with getting on!

At Jenni Earle, we started wondering who we knew that had a story to speak to this sentiment. Almost immediately Jenni’s eyes sparkled and she told me about a woman named Sally Wolf that she met at the Women in the World Summit this year. It’s true, Sally’s story is incredible, she’s an amazingly strong woman. I’m so glad I’ve had the opportunity to learn about her journey, and more excited that I can share it with you all. 

 

Sally in front of a James Goldcrown Lovewall this summer.  “These murals always make me smile,” she says. “I’m super grateful I never really lost my inner child. It’s amazing how even in the darkest days a colorful wall of hearts can immediately lift my spirit.”

Tell us a little bit about yourself, and a time in your life when you told yourself to keep on truckin’!

 

This totally made me laugh because I’m a New Yorker who lives in the heart of Manhattan and barely ever drives a car, let alone a truck, so I’ll admit I’ve probably never explicitly told myself that!! But figuratively, of course, I’ve had those moments in which I’ve needed to remind myself to take a deep breath (or many!), particularly during the past 3+ years.

 

From the moment I was first diagnosed with breast cancer at the end of 2015, I kept telling myself that while I don’t get to choose cancer, I do get to choose how I react.

 

There were multiple moments along the way when I needed to remind myself of that sentiment, moments in which I felt like I got kicked in the gut hard and wasn’t sure life would ever be the same. And, truthfully, it isn’t the same, because cancer divided my life into a “before” and “after.” The “after” has both literal and figurative scars from which I can never go back. And, yet, I can honestly tell you that, in many ways, for me, these past few years have brought incredible light, including some of the most inspired moments of my life, even in the most challenging times.

 

One month after finishing chemotherapy, Sally did a photo shoot around NYC. “I wanted to remember how beautiful my bald was,” she shared. Photo by Daphne Youree.

 

One thing that many people don’t realize about breast cancer is that it can recur countless times and, so long as it remains local, meaning within the breast area, it’s considered curable. Once it spreads beyond the breast, however, the vocabulary changes. Incurable. Metastatic. Stage IV. I knew all of this, so when my doctor called to let me know a hip biopsy came back positive, that was the moment I dreaded. The moment I’d told myself that, “G-d forbid this happens, this is when I’ll finally crumble…crawl back into bed…collapse…say ‘game over.’” And, yet, none of that happened. I don’t mean to imply I wasn’t scared, because I was terrified, and there are many moments in which I still am.

 

But I’ve taught myself to let myself feel the fear or sadness or anger without getting paralyzed by those feelings. I’ve also learned that it’s ok not to be ok, and that as hard as it may feel to reach out in those moments, I always feel better when I remember I’m not alone.

 

I’m realizing there’s a beautiful serendipity and connection between what I just said and why I met Jenni at the Women In The World Summit this spring. WITW is an amazing gathering designed to amplify the voices of women driving change around the globe, from Oprah and Hillary to others whose names are not well-known but whose stories and initiatives are equally impressive. I left the theater feeling incredibly inspired.

I specifically remember it was April 11th, which marked one year to the day of learning my cancer had spread. I never know how these anniversaries will hit me so I’d made plans with one of my best friends to avoid being alone. As it turned out, she came down with a bad cold and had to postpone, so instead of running downtown, I stopped by a WITW-sponsored entrepreneurial fair. Jenni’s booth immediately caught my eye because I love clothing and accessories with inspirational words.

 

 

On any given day, my left wrist is adorned with bracelets that say things like “love,” “breathe,” “faith,” “good vibes” and “flow joy.” Jenni and I started talking and, when I shared my story and the significance of that day, she gifted me a “be brave” bandana. What she didn’t realize was that I’ve worn a “be brave” bracelet daily since 2016, when it was gifted to me on the eve of my double mastectomy by the very same friend I was supposed to see that evening. It’s the bracelet that accompanied me through treatment, the one I wear more than any other, so when Jenni handed me that particular bandana I knew we were meant to meet that day.

 

Are there things you say to yourself, or do for yourself, to stay motivated in really tough times? Or are there people in your life that help?

Yes yes and yes! 

I genuinely believe there are silver linings to my scars. There has been a lot about my cancer that has been unlucky and yet there has also been a lot of good luck, too. Would it be luckier to not be a cancer patient? Of course. But for now that’s not a choice I get, so instead, I choose to focus on how I’ve been lucky within the situation I’m in. I had a best-case PET scan in June, one which showed “no evidence of disease.” Am I still on a lot of meds? Yes. But they’re meds that are working, and that alone is a reason to be deeply grateful. The other thing I tell myself is that no one else’s life is perfect, either, and sooner or later, life throws everyone some unexpected twists and turns. Remembering this not only helps keep everything in perspective, but also deepens my connection to, and empathy for, others. I look incredibly healthy right now and I’m also a Stage IV cancer patient. Knowing that both of these things are true reminds me that we really never know what someone else is experiencing unless we ask.

 

As for what I do, I’ve found my most meaningful healing comes when I dance, when I share my story, and when I spend time with people I love. 

 

I began dancing 13 years ago and have found that while my body is moving, I am constantly reminded of how alive I am. I have barely missed a single class throughout my illness, and that included dancing with surgical drains, dancing mere hours after completing my first chemo, dancing the day I had my head shaved and, almost exactly two years later, the day I learned my cancer returned. That doesn’t mean I was 100% in those moments, of course, but even when my body couldn’t move the way my heart wanted it to, I showed up as I authentically was in that moment, and that alone felt like something to celebrate. 

Similarly, I always feel better when I share my story. I’ve found that finding meaning and purpose along this crazy journey helps me to make some sense of it both for myself and, when I’m lucky, for someone else. One of the most profound gifts we can give others is to say, “Hey, I get it, I’ve been there too,” and those are among the most powerful words we can hear in a moment of need. 

Lastly, I am surrounded by love. I would never wish cancer on anyone but I do wish for everyone to be lucky enough to feel the immeasurable love and support I’ve received throughout this journey.

 

“Never could I have imagined,” says Sally, “that I would be more confident in my own skin now than before I lost my breasts. I unexpectedly love the physical scars I feared, and there is a part of me that doesn’t want them to fade. They remind me that, with this journey, I have gained far more than I have lost.” This photo and featured photo at top of post by Darcy Graf.

 

Has there been anything really great in your life that came from perseverance?

Each of us has experiences that change us in ways we may never have imagined, and which we may not have chosen. Nonetheless, these are also moments of choice, moments in which we get a chance to rise up to find the opportunities amidst the challenges.

 

In the past 3 ½ years, I have lost both my breasts and all of my hair, and the somewhat irrational sense of security I felt about my health and my life. And, yet, I have gained a deeper feeling of meaning and purpose from the journey itself.

 

I have found a voice in my public speaking, something I hope to do more going forward, and pivoted my career to focus on things that genuinely light me – and others – up. At my business school reunion last May, merely 3 weeks after a hip biopsy confirmed my cancer had spread, I had the opportunity to speak to my classmates and was voted “Most Inspiring.” Neither of those things would have happened without cancer. I wasn’t honored because I had cancer, of course, but rather because of how I showed up despite it. In other words, the hardest experience I’ve ever lived gifted me the opportunity to step into life in a more fulfilling way. 

Thank you, Sally, for sharing your story. When things get tough, there truly is something beautiful on the other side. For all our readers out there, keep on truckin’ because who you can become through this difficult time is worth it.

be brave,
be authentic,
keep on truckin’!

Elise

Sally Wolf is based in NYC. She spent two decades developing deep strategic experience across all sectors of the media industry before a breast cancer diagnosis brought her back to the classroom, earning a certificate in positive psychology, undergoing training to teach meditation, and just this summer, completing coursework to become a certified coach. She is now combining her passion for wellness with her experience in business, working with employees to help them derive more meaning and purpose in their careers. Sally is also an avid dancer and a loving auntie to 3 amazing lil humans. She has a BA in psychology from Harvard and an MBA and a Masters in Education from Stanford.