A few years back, I was sitting with my primary care doctor for my annual physical when he asked me pointedly, “How are you feeling?”
Barely registering the actual question, I quipped quickly, “Oh, I’m fine. I feel fine.”
“No,” he said, looking at me more directly. “How are you feeling emotionally? Mentally? A lot has happened for you this year. How are you?”
If you’ve ever been caught off guard by someone asking you genuinely how you are, you know that the feeling can be almost disorienting. In a world where we throw out “fines” and “okays” and “hanging in theres” all day, answering honestly can feel complicated.
In that moment with my doctor, my response was to burst into tears. I might have felt embarrassed or confused at my reaction had I not seen so many of my own patients do the very same thing when invited to drop the mask and share the real status of their hearts and minds.
I shared with him how much my mood and energy had been impacted by the stress of that year, and how I wasn’t sleeping well and couldn't get motivated to do so many of the things I used to love. I described how music just felt uninspiring and the colors outside my windows felt duller. And I was getting irritable and snapping at the people I loved the most.
Even just acknowledging these truths to someone felt like twisting the top off a soda bottle and releasing some of the pressure. Even as a psychologist who works to battle the stigma associated with mental health, I noticed myself nervous to see his reaction.
Fortunately, I was met with an empathic response and a discussion of options to help me feel better. I had gotten away from doing regular therapy in the chaos of life, and knew that seeing my therapist consistently had always helped me stay balanced in the past. We talked about adding medicine to my toolkit, as well as enlisting more help with work and home life.
Starting a conversation about your mental health can be difficult because we’ve been taught to disconnect it from our overall health. Our society historically treated physical and mental health as two distinct entities, despite the fact that our brains are absolutely part of our physical selves, and our mental health impacts and is impacted by our body.
This disconnect has led to one of the most significant health crises in human history – a mental health crisis that has resulted in a lot of unnecessary suffering.
As stewards of mental wellness, we can play an important role in starting the conversation about our mental and emotional wellbeing. We can start by talking more openly about how we are feeling with the people who truly want to know – without minimizing or dismissing it. We can ask others to share openly as well, refusing to accept the “fines” and “okays” that we might be met with.
And when we notice in ourselves or in those we love a change in mood, energy, or personality, we can encourage seeking out mental health support. Therapy is a great place to start, and has been found to be effective for the majority of people.
I am personally so grateful for a doctor who pushed me to share more openly and initiate the support I deserved. We can offer that same gift to ourselves and others.
By: Ashley Solomon, PsyD, CEDS (Licensed Clinical Psychologist + Founder, Galia Collaborative)
At KWF we care deeply about the mental health of the women we serve. In fact, it's why we started this mission in the first place. We understand the difficulty in starting the conversation which is why we have partnered with Galia Collaborative to help our recipients with just that. Galia empowers purpose-driven women to elevate their impact by developing their mental strength and well-being. Learn more about Galia and their mental health resources HERE!
-The KWF Team
In honor of 15 years of KWF, we are sharing 15 gifts & life lessons, my mom, Karen Wellington instilled in her family, friends and all those happy strangers she met along the way. We encourage you to take some time today to read through them and toast to her legacy. A legacy that now includes thousands of women like her, who too, know the importance of having FUN on the calendar.
Cheers to the next 15!
15 Life Lessons My Mom Left Behind...
1. Celebrate strangers. Celebrate the people around you. Go above and beyond, no matter how big or small their milestone may be - life is worth celebrating. Buy the dress, eat the cake, book the damn trip…
2. If you have a roof over your head and a hot meal on your table, you are privileged. Therefore, reach back and help those who were not afforded the same good fortune and opportunities as you. Show them they are worthy of the same love you receive. When you get to the end of your life your legacy will not embody all that you did for yourself, but rather how fiercely and unconditionally you loved others.
3. Be the first one on stage and the last to leave the party.
4. Your family is made up of the people you surround yourself with every day and that extends far beyond your bloodline.
5. Find humor in things that aren’t always funny - like cancer. It is okay to laugh through difficult times. In fact, sometimes it is the only way to move through the obstacles life throws your way.
6. Learn how to apologize. And get really good at it. Hurting others is inevitable, but making amends is crucial. It’ll make them feel better. It’ll make you feel better too.
7. Don’t settle for average, because “you are not an average person.”
8. “Use your brain.” Make good judgments that will benefit your life down the road.
9. Be a great friend. The type of friend you want by your side through it all.
10. Create music and art and share them with others! Talents and passions are not something to be kept hidden.
11. Learn when it is time to let go of what and who are no longer serving you.
12. When life throws difficulties your way, it is okay to be sad. You can cry all you want but in the end, you must remember to pull yourself up and keep moving despite it all. Your strength extends further than you know.
13. Protect the ones you love as well as those who don’t have the ability to protect themselves. Use your voice for good.
14, Be adventurous, take risks, move mountains, and shake up the norm. Don’t ever live inside your comfort zone. It’s boring in there.
15. Above all else, courage.
In 17 short years, Hudson Lee’s influence on the world far surpassed the impact most individuals have in a lifetime. And although year 16 will always be an integral moment in Hudson’s life, it will never be what defined him.
Hudson was an exuberant, funny, kind, athletic, oatmeal-lovin' kid who had one hell of a passion for running. He also happened to be LIVING with cancer. Hudson was diagnosed with brain cancer shortly after his 16th birthday. His diagnosis was aggressive and quickly commandeered his ability to eat, walk and speak, but his resilience remained. He never once lost hope in the promise that one day, he would run again.
After speaking with Hudson’s older sister, Isabella, I learned a bit more about her brother’s unique combination of compassion and discipline. “If people needed to know one thing about Hudson it is that he never ever gave up. He never gave up when it came to running or in life, and he certainly didn’t give up when he got sick. Every day, he told us (and himself) that he was going to get better and that he was going to be able to run and eat all the food he wanted again. His determination, willpower and motivation for life, alone, should be enough to motivate ANYONE to do ANYTHING they put their mind to.”
In a year's time, that relentless determination became synonymous with the name Hudson Lee. Between extended hospital stays and an unforgiving treatment schedule, it quickly became evident that Hudson could use a little of that KWF FUN on his calendar. We first connected him to former Buckeye turned Super Bowl contender, Sam Hubbard, who was touched by Hudson’s resilience. Both Sam and his Bengals teammate, Trenton Irwin, sent Hudson words of encouragement on his journey. As did former team USA runner Harvey Lewis. We even got in contact with one of Hudson’s biggest inspirations, former Navy Seal, David Goggins who agreed to give him a call. As mentioned, early on in Hudson’s cancer journey, he lost the ability to talk, but that did not stop Goggins from telling Hudson something he would never forget. “I’m going to call you every week until I hear your voice,” Goggins notes. Impactful words from one warrior to another, Hudson held on and waited every week for that call.
“David Goggins motivated Hudson to be the best version of himself he could be. Before Hudson got sick, he read David’s book and swore by it. He worked so hard to improve his running every single day - rain, shine, snow, ice, you name it, he was outside running without hesitation. Anytime I would be lazy or complain about something, Hudson would tell me to ‘Suck it up' and say ‘What would Goggins do?’', notes Isabella.
The story of Hudson Lee traveled quickly, making its way to different corners of the world and inspiring thousands of people along the way. He soon became the topic of discussion at dinner tables and in school hallways, at Churches and across social media…prompting one question that seemed to be pivotal throughout his journey, ‘WHAT WOULD HUDSON DO?’ It’s an inquiry that encourages us all to look inward while summoning unfamiliar strength in times when we need it most.
The year Hudson Lee spent LIVING with cancer will never define him or the legacy he leaves behind. Although, I’d be remiss not to shed light on the resounding resilience and worldly impact his determination had on thousands of people around the world. As we closed our conversation I asked Isabella what will be the legacy of Hudson Lee?
“Hudson’s legacy can’t really be narrowed down to a sentence or a word - it is simply him as a whole and the type of person he embodies. His story has touched lives not only over the country but the world. He has helped teach people the value of life and to never give up. Even when you feel like you're on empty and want to give up - you still have something left in the reserve tank."
To do today: Ask yourself ‘What would Hudson do?” And then go to that.
To this day I have yet to see anyone celebrate strangers quite like my mom, but through KWF’s mission, I’ve seen them get pretty damn close.
One moment, in particular, will always stick with me. My mom, myself and some friends had landed ‘Aly and AJ’ concert tickets back in 2005. (If you aren’t familiar with this dynamic Disney-based sister duo I would be remiss to say your life most likely lacked luster in the early 2000s, but that’s beside the point.) In addition, my mom snagged backstage passes to this gig, which of course sent me into oblivion. As we were headed backstage, two 12-year-old girls stopped my mom and asked if she could take their backpacks in to get signed by Aly and AJ. She of course agreed, got those bags signed and eagerly exited backstage to find them. I proceeded to watch my mom running with arms outstretched, screaming at the top of her lungs, declaring to the girls that the bags were in fact….signed by Aly and AJ. Those girls, equally as excited, ran to my mom and both jumped into her arms. The three of them fell to the ground laughing as if they’d purchased a 3 million dollar winning lottery ticket. Looking back, I now understand that moment essentially summed up who my mom was as a person. A fall to your knees, arms wide open, "celebrate strangers" type of human.
And oh my, has that same mantra been weaved throughout this mission time and time again. KWF would not be possible without the extreme generosity of our donors, who also happen to celebrate strangers with arms wide open. Individuals whose care has the ability to impact the lives of thousands of strangers LIVING with cancer. That's just it isn't it? There is a unique power in the love of a stranger.
We’ve all been there. You're having the worst day imaginable and one more thing will cause you to crumble, but then someone comes along and stops their "race" for no other reason than to help you finish your own. It could be a door held, a compliment given, a hug, or maybe you're short a dollar at the gas station and someone steps up? Why is it always so much more impactful when we receive reassurance, good news or a gift from people we don’t know? Is it because it’s more genuine? Or is it the fact that a stranger slowed down their day enough to realize that someone they don’t know deserved a piece of the most valuable currency in their own busy life? Their time.
That is exactly what the Karen Wellington Foundation for LIVING with Breast Cancer strives to achieve. Although our mission is rooted in FUN, our goal is to give back to thousands of deserving strangers LIVING with cancer. Like when former Navy Seal, David Goggins, decided to call KWF recipient, (the late) Hudson Lee every week to motivate him throughout his cancer journey. Or when our vacation home donors go above and beyond to make sure everything is in place for their KWF guests. Never underestimate the significance of the time you give to others.
I’d like to leave you with a sentiment I learned years ago while traveling throughout South Africa, a word derived from the Nguni language frequently used in the village of Khayelitsha just outside the Western Cape. The word is ubuntu. By definition, ubuntu means “a quality that includes the essential human virtues; compassion and humanity.” It is a word that embodies the human experience and acts as a blueprint on how to walk through each day on this earth.
So today, live with ubuntu. And don’t forget to slow down just enough to be aware of those strangers who need a bit of extra love along the way. You never know the impact you might make.
“Each person deserves a day away in which no problems are confronted, no solutions searched for. Each of us needs to withdraw from the cares which will not withdraw from us.” -Maya Angelou
As the self-proclaimed ‘anti-cancer, cancer foundation’ KWF’s mission is quite unique. Unlike other breast cancer organizations, we do not focus on finding a cure. It’s not that we don’t want one. In fact, nothing would make us happier than if we went out of business due to a shortage of women LIVING with cancer. To put it simply we believe our talents lie elsewhere. And when it comes to a label, KWF is more of a mental health organization than a cancer nonprofit.
We believe that there is immense power in the art of ‘taking a break,’ and it seems we are not the only ones who agree. According to a study conducted by the University of Surrey (1), people are at their happiest when they have a vacation on their calendar. The anticipation alone is quite a mood booster and results in a positive outlook on individuals’ general health, economic status and overall life itself.
To gain a bit more insight into the lives of our cancer patients I (virtually) sat down with Jill Settlemyre, Executive Director of Cancer Family Care. Jill discussed how taking a (fun) break from daily life can help not only cancer patients, but allows the entire family to leave cancer in the rearview. “For a lot of women, to be able to give their families a sense of normalcy means everything,” notes Jill.
Jill’s colleague and Clinical Oncology Social Worker, Mary Ann Heekin later discussed with me how our ‘fun-only mission’ has proven to be a vital part of her practice. “Women naturally are trying to wear too many hats and this [KWF] lets them know that someone really cares about them,” recalls Mary Ann. She went on to explain that although each patient comes to her with a different diagnosis and financial situation one thing rings true for each, the instinctive need to care for others before themselves. That is why the uninterrupted time to do something special for themselves is incredibly significant.
When asked about how many of her cancer patients prioritize fun she replied, “Never. That is why the impact [of KWF] is tremendous at relieving their stress, giving them something to look forward to and teaching them self-care. It is a way for them to have one minute of fun in a cycle of never-ending doctors' appointments and financial stress.”
Just as Mary Ann’s patients are LIVING with anxiety brought on by their diagnosis, the Covid-19 Pandemic has added a new weight for many of our KWF women to carry. That is why it is important, now more than ever, to safely get FUN on the calendars of our recipients. According to a study conducted by the Multidisciplinary Center for Oncology and Traumatology, “20% of cancer patients consider postponing chemotherapy and 5% consider abandoning further oncological treatment during the pandemic despite fear of disease progression” (2). After reading this statistic a past recipient immediately came to mind. A woman who had decided to abandon all chemotherapy prior to her KWF vacation had suddenly discovered a newfound strength from the trip. Upon her return, she made the brave decision to restart chemo and keep LIVING. The vacation had inspired her. And although she passed shortly after, the time away with family gave her a new vision for the life she wanted to craft on her own terms.
That is why when it comes to prioritizing mental health while LIVING with cancer, no one understands how essential that is more than our recipients, like Kandice from Arizona. Kandice recently took a KWF trip to Stinson Beach, California with her husband and recalls the impact that vacation had on her overall well-being.
“It’s hard and mentally challenging every day to fight and stay positive when there are always scans or treatments in your future. No matter how good you feel and even when cancer has not progressed, you still always have a sense that the other shoe at one point, will drop and crush your dreams.
[This gift] is a reminder that you have to be grateful for each and every day that we have in this life. Traveling and making these memories will remain in my heart forever and to share those with my husband will also remain with him. It’s what is most important in our lives at this stage...creating amazing memories. And KWF was the vessel that helped us to create the memories we have from this trip,” Kandice notes.
The Karen Wellington Foundation for LIVING with Breast Cancer is a mental health nonprofit that understands our recipients have a whole world outside of their diagnosis. A life that is waiting to be LIVED no matter the circumstance. When our generous givers make the decision to fuel our mission, they are providing far more than a gift of FUN. They are giving the gift of a break, accompanied by lasting memories and new perspectives that change the lives of countless women and families LIVING with breast cancer.