'We cannot plan everything in this life'
Breast cancer survivor Emily Hansen is the 2020 honorary chair of Steppin' Out in Pink. She shares her story to stress the importance of annual physicals, the harsh reality that breast cancer can affect anyone, but most importantly, to help others going through similar challenges.
Emily Hansen will never forget the moment she sat down and looked around Gundersen's Cancer Center waiting room. She and her husband, Dave, were surrounded by people who looked sick and were nearly twice their age. She hoped it was just a dream—that she'd wake up and breathe a sigh of relief.
God had other plans.
"I felt a lump under my left armpit. I honestly thought it was from stress," says Emily, a nurse and mother of four, who at the time of noticing the lump, was also caring for her father in hospice and helping her father-in-law through advanced lung cancer.
A seemingly healthy young woman, Emily postponed her annual physical until life settled down. In April 2018, her primary care provider, Stacie Hoffman, PA, General Internal Medicine, recommended having the lump checked out. Days later, Emily's world crashed when she was diagnosed with stage 2 breast cancer.
"Cancer was the last thing that I had even thought about. I didn't have any risk factors for breast cancer. My initial reaction was, 'I don't have time for this,'" Emily recalls.
Ironically, cancer forced Emily to slow down and count the blessings that few 34-year-olds appreciate.
In the days following her diagnosis—a time when you'd expect anxiety and turmoil—Emily felt "overwhelming peace like never before."
"No matter what happened, I knew Dave and I would get through this, and it would make us better people. The belief that there is something bigger than us, that has a greater plan than we can imagine for our life gave me strength," Emily says.
Gundersen's Center for Cancer & Blood Disorders team was another source of strength. "I've worked with many Gundersen employees, as co-workers, but I'd never been a patient at this level. The outpouring of love, support and honesty from these people that I had never met before was incredible. They made it known we weren't alone in this fight," she describes.
It was the unconditional love of her care team—and her entire army of supporters—that helped Emily rise above eight rounds of chemotherapy, a double mastectomy and reconstructive surgery, and one month of radiation therapy.
To honor her journey, Emily got a tattoo on her 36th birthday. Now inscribed on her wrist is the word "faith," written in the shape of a cross.
"Whatever I'm going through—big or small—my tattoo reminds me that faith has gotten me thus far, and it'll get me through whatever else my future holds. This is incredibly comforting, as I learn to accept that we cannot plan everything in this life," she says.
It's wisdom, like this, that Emily gained by taking a seat in the Cancer Center waiting room on that dark April day.
"As humans, we tend to focus on people's outward appearances. What cancer taught me was how much we share internally—how alike we really are—despite our age or physical differences," she says.
It's one of the reasons Emily continues to share her struggles and successes in her "Fitness and Faith journey" on Facebook.
"When I received my diagnosis, I found a lot of comfort in hearing other people's stories. That's what we are all on this Earth for—to help lift each other up and give each other hugs and words of encouragement on the hard days."
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