How 3 women learned to feel like themselves again after surviving cancer.
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Everything looks different after a cancer diagnosis, and that difference only continues once a patient enters remission.

The illness and treatment for the illness affect how a person looks and feels, and those changes can last for years if not forever.


At first, you're so focused on surviving that looks are an afterthought. But once your appearance begins to change, it can affect you as deeply as the cancer itself.

As a result, feelings about one's outward appearance become complicated and difficult to navigate. But with the help of family, friends, and a few professionals (plus a lot of internal fortitude), it can get easier.

We asked cancer survivors how they embraced their new normal. Here's what they told us.

Sabrina Wang looked towards what she'd lost and then started taking control of her future.

Photo courtesy of Sabrina Wang.

Sabrina was diagnosed with leukemia when she turned 19. She went into remission after 5 rounds of chemotherapy, but the cancer returned. After a bone marrow transplant that saved her life, Sabrina recovered but now lives with a lung condition and has entered early menopause.

Along with all of that, Sabrina had to process how cancer was changing her appearance.

"When I was battling and recovering from cancer, I was either bald or had really short hair, and I was overweight and bloated from the steroid medications I had to take," Sabrina writes. "I had always felt insecure about my looks throughout high school and just when I felt I was finally blossoming as a woman, cancer made me feel like an ugly duckling again."

Looking in the mirror was too much for Sabrina. Not being able to go outside, she remembers, was a comfort, because she couldn't imagine other people seeing her. But "Look Good, Feel Better," an event that her medical team signed up for helped her embrace the changes her body had been through.

"I attended the event with other young female cancer patients around my age who were all struggling with the same feelings about their appearance," Sabrina writes. "The things they taught us in that workshop went further than just wigs and makeup, they taught us how to appreciate what we still have and work with what we got. I realized there were things still within my control, and I started focusing on what I could control instead of what I had lost."

Sabrina's hope for people living with cancer is that they can focus on what they can appreciate, even when it feels impossible.

"I remember a turning point in my cancer journey was when someone commented that it was nice I still had all my lashes even though my hair was gone. I hadn't even thought about my lashes because I was too focused on losing my hair. That person's comment was a lightbulb moment for me. Since that day, I started to take deliberate notice of what I still had and I continue to do that today."

"When you have cancer, it's easy to feel sorry for yourself because you'll likely lose a lot of things. But I don't dwell on the things I lost. Instead, I choose to appreciate what I still have."

Cancer made Wade Brill question everything. Then she came upon a simple answer: Seek inner beauty and peace.

Photo courtesy of Wade Brill.

"Cancer shook me to the ground and rebuilt the way I see and feel in this world," Wade explains. "I was diagnosed with Hodgkin Lymphoma in 2010 and, while going through chemo, I lost my mom to her battle of Leukemia."

Being sick and losing her mother at the same time pushed Wade to find a new perspective on life. She decided that to live to the fullest, her priorities would need to change. She also changed the way that she viewed societal standards of beauty.

"I lost most of my hair during chemo and I feared looking like a 'cancer patient' while I was sick. I stopped looking at myself in the mirror. I went inward and worked on harnessing confidence and light from the inside out. To this day, I don't wear much makeup or spend a lot of time getting ready on the outside. I think it is more important [to focus] on how I "be" versus how I look, which was not the case for me before I got sick. I was so much more into brand-names and labels."

Focusing inward should also be about taking care of your physical body, which is why Walgreen's Feel More Like You service provides extra support for people living with cancer. Their pharmacists are there to offer recommendations for any side effects you might be experiencing while going through treatment, and talk through any concerns you might have about symptoms and/or medication.

Wade also learned to meditate and journaled her feelings. She changed how she spent her time by removing negatives from her life, starting therapy, and committing to healing herself in many ways.

"Foster self-love," she says. "It can feel hard to do so when it feels like your body is attacking itself, but you get to play an active role in the healing process."

"Find things that make you feel good! Whether that is a beautiful sweater you love to wear, a cute hat, beautiful earrings or an empowering necklace. Find at least one material item that makes you feel strong, empowered, and confident when you put it on.

"Look at yourself in the mirror and say, 'you are beautiful.' Meet yourself where you are, and don't try to hide from it. "

Sunday Burquest's diagnosis divided her life into a before and after. The greatest gift you can give yourself, she says, is time.

Photo via Sunday Burquest.

Sunday knew from past experiences with loved ones how difficult cancer treatment would be, but no one, she says, prepared her for the emotional and mental toll it would take on her or how her feelings about her appearance would change.

"I've had eight surgeries in an attempt to reconstruct my former appearance."

"My plastic surgeon is fantastic, but I still see the scars and the unnatural curves in my body. For several years, I looked like Barbie standing in the mirror, until I discovered a tattoo artist who specializes in helping women after a mastectomy."

Sunday's most important piece of advice? If you're undergoing cancer treatment, give yourself time to process the diagnosis and treatment, and allow yourself to deal with the emotions that come up in your own way.

"Don't allow others' opinions of what you “should" or “shouldn't" do dictate your decisions. Do what is right for you! Allow yourself to grieve the changes in your body, emotions, and relationships. Try not to expect to get back to normal. Rather, spend time creating your own “new normal."

"Don't compare yourself – you are you and beautiful the way you are, never allow anyone to make you feel as though you aren't the amazing bad-ass that you are!"

Everyone deserves to feel better and more like themselves — on the inside and out — no matter what they're going through.

That's why Walgreens created their Feel More Like You service.

Now at over 3,000 locations nationwide, the free service brings together specially trained beauty consultants and pharmacists to help people living with cancer receive individualized guidance and manage the changes they're experiencing and make them look and feel their very best, especially when faced with one of life's biggest challenges.

Feeling more like yourself is a step towards getting your life back. And if your "self" looks and feels different than it did before cancer, it's important to get to know that person and realize that they're just as worthwhile.

The airline industry was one of the hardest hit by the COVID-19 pandemic, as global and domestic travel came to a screeching halt last spring. When the pandemic was officially declared in March of 2020, no one knew what to expect or how long the timeline of lockdowns and life changes would last.

Two weeks after the declaration, Delta pilot Chris Dennis flew one of the airline's planes to Victorville, CA for storage. He shared photos on Facebook that day of empty planes neatly lined up, saying it was a day he would remember for the rest of his life.

"Chilling, apocalyptic, surreal...all words that still don't fit what is happening in the world," he wrote. "Each one of these aircraft represents hundreds of jobs, if not more."

He added:

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The airline industry was one of the hardest hit by the COVID-19 pandemic, as global and domestic travel came to a screeching halt last spring. When the pandemic was officially declared in March of 2020, no one knew what to expect or how long the timeline of lockdowns and life changes would last.

Two weeks after the declaration, Delta pilot Chris Dennis flew one of the airline's planes to Victorville, CA for storage. He shared photos on Facebook that day of empty planes neatly lined up, saying it was a day he would remember for the rest of his life.

"Chilling, apocalyptic, surreal...all words that still don't fit what is happening in the world," he wrote. "Each one of these aircraft represents hundreds of jobs, if not more."

He added:

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Each year, an estimated 1.8 million people in the United States are affected by cancer — most commonly cancers of the breast, lung, prostate, and blood cancers such as leukemia. While not everyone overcomes the disease, thanks to science, more people are surviving — and for longer — than ever before in history.

We asked three people whose lives have been impacted by cancer to share their stories – how their lives were changed by the disease, and how they're using that experience to change the future of cancer treatments with the hope that ultimately, in the fight against cancer, science will win. Here's what they had to say.

Celine Ryan, 55, engineer database programmer and mother of five from Detroit, MI

Photo courtesy of Celine Ryan

In September 2013, Celine Ryan woke up from a colonoscopy to some traumatic news. Her gastroenterologist showed her a picture of the cancerous mass they found during the procedure.

Ryan and her husband, Patrick, had scheduled a colonoscopy after discovering some unusual bleeding, so the suspicion she could have cancer was already there. Neither of them, however, were quite prepared for the results to be positive -- or for the treatment to begin so soon. Just two days after learning the news, Ryan had surgery to remove the tumor, part of her bladder, and 17 cancerous lymph nodes. Chemotherapy and radiation soon followed.

Ryan's treatment was rigorous – but in December 2014, she got the devastating news that the cancer, once confined to her colon, had spread to her lungs. Her prognosis, they said, was likely terminal.

But rather than give up hope, Ryan sought support from online research, fellow cancer patients and survivors, and her medical team. When she brought up immunotherapy to her oncologist, he quickly agreed it was the best course of action. Ryan's cancer, like a majority of colon and pancreatic cancers, had been caused by a defect on the gene KRAS, which can result in a very aggressive cancer that is virtually "undruggable." According to the medical literature, the relatively smooth protein structure of the KRAS gene meant that designing inhibitors to bind to surface grooves and treat the cancer has been historically difficult. Through her support systems, Ryan discovered an experimental immunotherapy trial at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in Bethesda, MD., and called them immediately to see if she was eligible. After months of trying to determine whether she was a suitable candidate for the experimental treatment, Ryan was finally accepted.

The treatment, known as tumor-infiltrating lymphocyte therapy, or TIL, is a testament to how far modern science has evolved. With this therapy, doctors remove a tumor and harvest special immune cells that are found naturally in the tumor. Doctors then grow the cells in a lab over the next several weeks with a protein that promotes rapid TIL growth – and once the cells number into the billions, they are infused back into the patient's body to fight the cancer. On April 1, 2015, Ryan had her tumor removed at the NIH. Two months later, she went inpatient for four weeks to have the team "wash out" her immune system with chemotherapy and infuse the cells – all 148 billion of them – back into her body.

Six weeks after the infusion, Ryan and Patrick went back for a follow-up appointment – and the news they got was stunning: Not only had no new tumors developed, but the six existing tumors in her lungs had shrunk significantly. Less than a year after her cell infusion, in April 2016, the doctors told Ryan news that would have been impossible just a decade earlier: Thanks to the cell infusion, Ryan was now considered NED – no evaluable disease. Her body was cancer-free.

Ryan is still NED today and continuing annual follow-up appointments at the NIH, experiencing things she never dreamed she'd be able to live to see, such as her children's high school and college graduations. She's also donating her blood and cells to the NIH to help them research other potential cancer treatments. "It was an honor to do so," Ryan said of her experience. "I'm just thrilled, and I hope my experience can help a lot more people."

Patrice Lee, PhD, VP of Pharmacology, Toxicology and Exploratory Development at Pfizer

Photo courtesy of Patrice Lee

Patrice Lee got into scientific research in an unconventional way – through the late ocean explorer Jacques Cousteau.

Lee never met Cousteau but her dreams of working with him one day led her to pursue a career in science. Initially, Lee completed an undergraduate degree in marine biology; eventually, her interests changed and she decided to get a dual doctoral degree in physiology and toxicology at Duke University. She now works at Pfizer's R&D site in Boulder, CO (formerly Array BioPharma), leading a group of scientists who determine the safety and efficacy of new oncology drugs.

"Scientists focused on drug discovery and development in the pharmaceutical industry are deeply committed to inventing new therapies to meet unmet needs," Lee says, describing her field of work. "We're driven to achieve new medicines and vaccines as quickly as possible without sacrificing safety."

Among the drugs Lee has helped develop during her career, including cancer therapies, she says around a dozen are currently in development, while nine have received FDA approval — an incredible accomplishment as many scientists spend their careers without seeing their drug make it to market. Lee's team is particularly interested in therapies for brain metastases — something that Lee says is a largely unmet need in cancer research, and something her team is working on from a variety of angles. "Now that we've had rapid success with mRNA vaccine technology, we hope to explore what the future holds when applying this technology to cancers," Lee says.

But while evaluating potential cancer therapies is a professional passion of Lee's, it's also a mission that's deeply personal. "I'm also a breast cancer survivor," she says. "So I've been on the other side of things and have participated in a clinical trial."

However, seeing how melanoma therapies that she helped develop have affected other real-life cancer patients, she says, has been a highlight of her career. "We had one therapy that was approved for patients with BRAF-mutant metastatic melanoma," Lee recalls. "Our team in Boulder was graced by a visit from a patient that had benefited from these drugs that we developed. It was a very special moment for the entire team."

None of these therapies would be available, Lee says without rigorous science behind it: "Facts come from good science. Facts will drive the development of new drugs, and that's what will help patients."

Chiuying "Cynthia" Kuk (they/them) MS, 34, third-year medical student at Michigan State University College of Human Medicine

Photo courtesy of Cynthia Kuk

Cynthia Kuk was just 10 years old when they had a conversation that would change their life forever.

"My mother, who worked as a translator for the government at the time, had been diagnosed with breast cancer, and after her chemotherapy treatments she would get really sick," Kuk, who uses they/them pronouns, recalls. "When I asked my dad why mom was puking so much, he said it was because of the medicine she was taking that would help her get better."

Kuk's response was immediate: "That's so stupid! Why would a medicine make you feel worse instead of better? When I'm older, I want to create medicine that won't make people sick like that."

Nine years later, Kuk traveled from their native Hong Kong to the United States to do exactly that. Kuk enrolled in a small, liberal arts college for their Bachelor's degree, and then four years later started a PhD program in cancer research. Although Kuk's mother was in remission from her cancer at the time, Kuk's goal was the same as it had been as a 10-year-old watching her suffer through chemotherapy: to design a better cancer treatment, and change the landscape of cancer research forever.

Since then, Kuk's mission has changed slightly.

"My mom's cancer relapsed in 2008, and she ended up passing away about five years after that," Kuk says. "After my mom died, I started having this sense of urgency. Cancer research is such that you work for twenty years, and at the end of it you might have a fancy medication that could help people, but I wanted to help people now." With their mother still at the forefront of their mind, Kuk decided to quit their PhD program and enter medical school.

Now, Kuk plans to pursue a career in emergency medicine – not only because they are drawn to the excitement of the emergency room, but because the ER is a place where the most marginalized people tend to seek care.

"I have a special interest in the LGBTQ+ population, as I identify as queer and nonbinary," says Kuk. "A lot of people in this community and other marginalized communities access care through the ER and also tend to avoid medical care since there is a history of mistreatment and judgement from healthcare workers. How you carry yourself as a doctor, your compassion, that can make a huge difference in someone's care."

In addition to making a difference in the lives of LGBTQ+ patients, Kuk wants to make a difference in the lives of patients with cancer as well, like their mother had.

"We've diagnosed patients in the Emergency Department with cancer before," Kuk says. "I can't make cancer good news but how you deliver bad news and the compassion you show could make a world of difference to that patient and their family."

During their training, Kuk advocates for patients by delivering compassionate and inclusive care, whether they happen to have cancer or not. In addition to emphasizing their patient's pronouns and chosen names, they ask for inclusive social and sexual histories as well as using gender neutral language. In doing this, they hope to make medicine as a whole more accessible for people who have been historically pushed aside.

"I'm just one person, and I can't force everyone to respect you, if you're marginalized," Kuk says. "But I do want to push for a culture where people appreciate others who are different from them."