Being diagnosed with breast cancer is a seismic life change at any age, but Angela Lerro was not thinking about that possibility when she went to the doctor to have a bleeding nipple examined. Just 28 years old and with no family history of the disease, Angela was blindsided by the news. After a negative mammogram and ultrasound, she underwent surgery to stop the bleeding and that’s when the doctors discovered the cancer.
A few days after surgery, Angela had an MRI of her breast to see if the cancer had spread. “The MRI lit up like a Christmas tree,” she recalls, and the decision was made to perform a single mastectomy as soon as possible.
While her activity level was constrained by her treatment, Angela was able to take advantage of less strenuous therapeutic offerings at Tower. She embraced the healing arts, and as a result, “my whole life has shifted.”
She is involved in many of the offerings at Tower, including Cancer Free Generation, meditation, and Reiki circles. It has resonated so personally that she became a certified Reiki practitioner, providing Reiki treatments for fellow survivors.
At the point in Angela’s recovery when she was ready to work on her physical strength, Tower was there too. Now 32, her cardio health has improved 25-35 percent since completing her treatment and joining the exercise and rehab programs at Tower.
She marvels at her increased physical and emotional strength.
“It’s terrifying, being so young and facing this,” she says. However, the support, encouragement, and friendship that she has gained through Tower and its programs has given her new perspective. Through her life-changing battle, Angela discovered a career in the healing arts that has nourished her own healing process while assisting others in making similar strides.
“After living with metastatic neuroendocrine cancer for several years, I finally came to Tower’s office for Flori’s awe inspiring Expressions of hope and healing class and knew I had found my home away from home. After the first class I spent a good half hour, in the hallways and then in the basement by our cars, dishing and adoring our fellow students and our beloved, no nonsense but ALL love, Miss Flori! A Sisterhood like no other…a quick but solid bond and a safety net…a place in the middle of a maze for ones spirit to soar again! It was so powerful and real. I finally made it to my car and before my car door closed my face was drenched with happy tears…tears of surrender…tears of great great gratitude, ‘everything is going to be okay’ tears!
Within a short time everything was NOT OK. I was very sick again BUT it was only my physical state that wasn’t ok…I was stronger emotionally thanks to just a few short classes with Flori! I had been through this a few times now but THIS TIME it was different because I had Flori’s voice in my head and the encouraging smiles from LA CanSurvive/TCRF and the newly formed Sisterhood and Brotherhood bond with my fellow cancer warriors in my heart.
This time I had a vision of what my life could be LIVING with cancer rather than dying, fading crumbling, isolating, fearing, shaming, guilt tripping with cancer. But rather LIVING and THRIVING and even celebrating life with this little sissy side kick cancer. And THIS TIME I know I could get over this hump and one day I would return to your wonderful 3rd floor Mana (spirit, aloha, and goodness).”
With a family history of breast cancer, Helen Wong understood the need to be proactive with her health vis–à–vis cancer recovery. Her eldest sister is a 30-year survivor, and another sister passed away from the disease.
Prior to her July 2014 diagnosis, Helen admits to being preoccupied with the caretaking of her parents rather than keeping tabs on her own health. Due to a strong family history of female breast cancer, her primary care doctor suggested that she see a breast surgeon for further examination and testing. A subsequent MRI biopsy showed DCIS (Ductal Carcinoma In Situ), and ultimately, the mastectomy pathology confirmed invasive stage 1 breast cancer. Helen had a mastectomy on one side and underwent physical therapy for nerve damage and loss of muscle.
After searching for an appropriate program, she learned about the nutrition class at Tower and promptly signed up. The post-cancer fitness program came to her attention shortly thereafter. Worried about being rejected, she was assured by Tower that as long as her doctor gave the okay and she remained committed, she would be welcome.
“The people who come in, we all share the same stories. It’s unspoken, the journey that we’ve gone through. The instructors are very compassionate, and they’re trained to deal with post-cancer,” she continues. “I have osteoporosis. They take into consideration what you can or cannot do under normal circumstances and will alter the exercises so you can get the most benefit.”
After her first three months in the program, Helen was evaluated, as are all participants. The results indicated vast improvement in her balance as well as heart rate, stamina, muscles, and mental attitude. “I’m learning from others how they cope with their situation,” she says. “There’s a real connection between the instructors and the students. And then there’s a connection between the students. It’s like a big family. I found a niche where there’s a lot of support and love.”
“That environment,” Helen reflects gratefully, “It’s medicine.”
“People forget that simply taking a few deep breaths can change the way they feel about certain situations. If they slow down, elongate, and expand their inhalations they won’t react so much to the changes that they face. They can observe them better if they step back from whatever is challenging them in the moment. Even if it feels like they’re in the ring with Mike Tyson, it’s helpful to roll with the punches. I remember thinking that way throughout my little battles with cancer; and I still do that type of thinking, just ’roll with the punches.’ It’s a good way to live.“
Be in the moment. It sounds so simple. Even when life is going at a steady pace, being in the moment tends to be an active process. Life has a natural tendency toward change. Sometimes we initiate it and sometimes change is without choice. Either way, the ability to be in the moment is a practice that can be beneficial to us all.
Eight years ago, while climbing up to Vernal Falls in Yosemite, John Sheriff experienced a feeling he never had before. He described it as an aura of sorts, nearly knocking him off his feet. While he recognized it wasn’t normal, he dismissed it as a one-time event. One month later, he was driving to work and was alarmed to find that he had lost control of his right hand and spilled his iced coffee. He had lost the strength in his hand without knowing it. Although he went to work that day, it was a pivotal moment.
After seeing several doctors, he learned he had a 7cm x 5cm anaplastic oligoastrocytoma brain tumor. The tumor was removed in an eight-hour surgery that was expected to take five hours.
John is full of light, positivity, wisdom, and refreshing humor. It makes sense that he would call his brain tumor “Timmy.” Thanks to his extraordinary brain surgeon, over 90% of “Timmy” was removed, and for the next two and a half years he completed radiation and 24 rounds of chemotherapy. It tested every ounce of his mental and physical capabilities. Over a period of months, he spent many hours in speech and language therapy. John recounted his initial resistance to speech therapy. To relearn at the first-grade level when your mind is still that of a healthy 35-year old man felt completely contradictory. It was through mindfulness that John realized he needed to accept this moment and let go of his resistance. John persevered and fully recovered his speech and enjoyed several years without having to undergo any cancer treatment.
Two and a half years ago, however, life took another unexpected turn. During a regularly scheduled MRI, new tumor growth was discovered. This was particularly jarring because John wasn’t having any symptoms. His doctor told him about a clinical trial that would require taking two pills every morning for the rest of his life. Amazingly, since joining the clinical trial, John’s tumor has been shrinking. He has met each milestone with an extraordinary amount of grace and gratitude. “This day and age is the best place for us because of medical advancements. I am a miracle because of that and we can all be miracles because of that.”
A good friend of John’s from the Benjamin Center told him about the Magnolia House Patient Programs at Tower. “The encouragement and comradery you get to build with the other participants makes it feel like we are all a team. We are in it together and helping each other. If you have cancer, you are going to do everything possible to crush it.” John is currently in the Fitness Rehabilitation program and participates in several other classes at Tower, such as Pilates, Reiki, and Tibetan Bowl Sound Meditation. John shared a powerful perspective he gained while watching a movie played in the beginning of the fitness program. “In the movie, there were two sets of mice and both had cancer. One set of mice was given a sofa—figuratively—and the other set was running a wheel. I am on the wheel because the mice with the wheels showed amazing improvement—and less cancer—than the mice with sofas. Whether a good day or challenging one, I think about those mice and it helps me stay on this path of wellness.”
While the last eight years of battling brain cancer have been a road with many challenges, John speaks of resiliency. “No matter how hard things can get or how challenging the current moment might be, the ability to be social and share experiences at Tower allows us to see that we can get through the tough moments and opens us up to new experiences that bring comfort and happiness.” John hopes that by sharing his story, people can see how far he has come and that in those moments of doubt and weakness, it will help them hold on a little tighter and know it’s possible to get through it. “In every class, I am surrounded by amazing cancer fighters who provide me with such strength and perspective. I am humbled by the Magnolia House community because I know we all face different challenges and some of theirs are much greater than mine.”
The way he faces his cancer demonstrates John’s natural and inspiring energy. Yet, there are challenges. John has learned just how powerful the mind can be in facing those daily challenges. “You can’t avoid change. Yoga and meditiation help me live in the present and handle emotions as they come.” Change happens in all areas of life, whether it’s a job, relationship, health, or even hair loss. John said he was surprised that losing his hair was difficult, especially as a man. It was the first thing he said to his coworkers: “I am not going to have hair.” John was surprised to find that he actually cared about such a thing.
Along with learning how to cope with change and the challenges of cancer that can test the greatest parts of one’s body and mind, John has also found happiness and healing in doing the things he loves to do. Golf is a great passion of his, so he aims to play a couple of times a week. Being in the open grass and fresh air, doing something he loves is incredibly beneficial to his overall wellbeing. “Doing or thinking of those things that make you feel happy and excited can help lift your mind, strength, and spirits. It might not always be easy, but it is always worth trying.”
John’s wonderful wife and two young kids remind him every day that being in each moment is the exact place he wants to be. His heart is overflowing with gratitude to his family, his team of fellow cancer fighters everywhere who inspire him every single day, and his remarkable and compassionate medical team that paved the way for him to be a miracle.
Marcia Braun was a tenure teacher at a community college. The job had her working extra hours, nights and weekends doing administrative work that took time away from her teaching and much-needed “me” time. Needless to say, she was looking forward to retirement and indulging in some much-deserved R&R, including traveling and spending time with her husband. But her excitement for her upcoming freedom was hampered by a nagging feeling that something big was going to happen to her.
“Somehow, I knew there was going to be a huge change,” she says. But she certainly didn’t anticipate that it was cancer—an unwelcomed guest.
Two days after her retirement, she was hit with a devastating new reality: a routine mammogram caught a tumor, and she was subsequently diagnosed with breast cancer. Her surgeon assured her that because her tumor was very small, and removing it would be enough—chemotherapy and radiation wouldn’t be needed. But the plan quickly changed. The new plan was to have five sessions of chemotherapy and thirty-seven sessions of radiation therapy. At first, it didn’t seem so bad. But as time went on, she felt sicker and sicker. She was nauseous all the time, losing weight rapidly, and unable to sleep. Though unpleasant, to say the least, she had anticipated this physical pain and discomfort to some extent. What she did not anticipate was the crippling fear and anxiety that came with it.
Reluctantly, she visited a therapist who recommended Ativan, a commonly prescribed anxiety medication. It helped with the nausea, the sleeplessness and the anxiety, but unfortunately, she became dependent on it. She decided to taper off it, which was its own painful process, leaving her with even more crippling anxiety. “You know you want to put up a fight, you know you want to survive, you know you want to live… but it’s just overwhelming,” she explains. “It’s killing you… you can’t think straight. It’s just too much.” Luckily, as Marcia learned, Tower provides alternative, holistic programming at no cost to all cancer survivors to help with this often overlooked portion of the healing process.
Marcia knew that other patients were participating in yoga classes through Tower. She enjoyed yoga in the past, and wanted to begin attending, but her anxiety was so bad that she was too afraid to even drive to the class. She eventually worked up the courage to try. “I just started going to the yoga classes, and time passed… and I LOVED it,” Marcia exclaims. “I felt stronger…both physically and emotionally.” She continued going to yoga, and started taking advantage of the array of services that Tower provides, including the fitness rehab program, nutrition workshops and reiki, to name just a few. She found that the power of a sound, peaceful mind was allowing her body to do its natural healing work.
Now Marcia is cancer free, and practicing mindfulness—focusing her attention to the internal and external experiences of the present moment. Because of the education she received on nutrition, diet and exercise, she takes better care of herself than ever before. As painful and scary as cancer was, living through that experience only served to teach her how to better care for herself. She has also made new friendships. “Lots of my friends now I’ve met through Tower, and many of us have the same story,” she says. That is a story of resilience, thanks in part to Tower’s multifaceted approach to healing the whole person. With her new beginning and new journey, Marcia can finally settle into the joys of retirement.
Maya Edwards remembers the feeling of numbness that washed over her when she was informed in August 2010 that she had rectal cancer. “I was like a zombie during treatment, so it was very difficult for me to relate to what it was all about,” she recalls. Already petite, she dwindled down to 85 pounds as she endured two rounds of chemotherapy via a medicine pack she would wear around her waist for a week at a time. At her lowest point, Maya spent a week in the oncology ICU at Cedars-Sinai when her body stopped producing white blood cells.
Feeling frail and weak, Maya began searching for activities and programs that would help build her strength post-treatment. She heard about Tower’s cancer rehab program and “jumped right on board,” she says, “and it completely changed my life.”
Her body is strengthening, which, she says, is building the clarity of her mind.
“I wasn’t expecting so much benefit from it, but…it’s making my life so much better…My gratitude is to Tower.”
Maya vows to remain spry and active as she continues to work as a yoga therapist herself, training clients and coordinating her teaching schedule around her Tower activities.
At age 75, she now counts six years in remission. “My muscles are starting to come back,” she says with a laugh. “I have improved stance and posture, and I just feel stronger.” The balance exercises have been particularly helpful in her continued recovery. She praises fitness trainers Sanan Mehserdjian and Jacquelyn Fischer for their patience, encouragement, and therapeutic knowledge.
The condition of having cancer, no matter how severe it is or where it’s located, Maya describes as a “completely transformational experience.” In the peaks and valleys of recovery, the quality of aftercare is a difference maker that can turn surviving into thriving.
I awake and realize it’s Thursday, it’s chemo day. And as I lay in bed gathering the strength to get up, I would ask myself… again… ‘how am I going to get through this?’ And like many other women going through the same thought process, we probably all did the same—we got up and we did it. But how we did it is different for all of us.
I chose to honor myself, and by that I mean I chose to look in the mirror, apply foundation to my rather grey pallor, draw on my eyebrows, do my eyes the best I could (it’s hard when you have no eyelashes, but I learned a few tricks of the trade!), and got dressed with all the femininity I could muster! I know this way of thinking isn’t for everyone, but it worked for me. It helped me regain some control over what was going on in my body. Was I vain to want to look good? Perhaps, but more importantly, I wanted to walk into the infusion room holding my head high and looking as glamorous and as in control as I could be!
It seemed women who were getting treatment were curious about who I was. I was asked if I was really sick. Was I really wearing a wig? How was I getting through this emotionally? So, if these women were asking, how many more women across Los Angeles were asking the same questions? I began to think that something was missing in terms of how we see ourselves, and though we couldn’t change how many infusions we were to receive, we could change how we looked and how we felt.
There were so many subjects I became aware of on my journey that I wished were addressed. There was a lot of talk on acute care, but nothing on post-care. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to educate, support, and provide women going through treatment an opportunity to look and feel their best?
Tower Cancer Research Foundation, The Meryl Kern Survivorship Program and the Blush Panel Series provide educational and intimate discussions. We will be providing conversations with top physicians, surgeons and psychological professionals in a safe and comfortable environment, as well as medical and beauty services to those who can’t afford it.
My hope is to help other women get the answers to the many personal and intimate questions they might have, and to survive cancer with dignity, beauty, and inner strength.
Sanan Mehserdjian is unique in that she is able to assist in others’ recovery as she finds her own footing in survivorship. A promising basketball player while in high school, Sanan was eventually diagnosed with Ewing’s sarcoma, a rare pediatric bone cancer that affects close to 200 children and young adults each year.
About treatment, Sanan recounts, “The only thought I had in my head was pushing through and just surviving treatment.” Her Lebanese Armenian family background was a source of support, and her old high school basketball team arranged a surprise party during her treatment to lift her spirits. As soon as she was physically able, she turned to exercise, which helped her relieve the malaise she was feeling.
While she found that the prognosis for a “normal” college life after treatment was not realistic, she nonetheless returned for her senior year and graduated from Loyola Marymount University in December 2015 with a degree in sociology and an interest in medical sociology.
One day during her senior year, Sanan came across a posting in the LMU Sociology Department. It read: “Are you a cancer survivor?” She recalls thinking, “This can’t be true, it’s too random.” She became involved in an LMU fitness recovery program similar to what Tower offers. Two months after finishing treatment in June 2016, she began working at Tower as an instructor specializing in cancer rehabilitation.
Witnessing the milestones of progress that those enrolled in the program achieve is especially enriching for Sanan. The instructor/student relationship has proven mutually beneficial. Sanan met Angela at LMU, and the two have remained close. “[Angela’s] been helping me with my spiritual and mental health and has also become my Reiki practitioner,” says Sanan. She especially enjoys working with Jacquelyn Fischer, praising her colleague’s ability to individualize each person’s workout based on specific needs. “I think we’re a really good team,” says Sanan, who adds a layer of shared experience to her understanding of the rehabilitative process.
Wise beyond her years, Sanan offers insightful reflections on her experience dealing with mortality at such a tender age. “Mentally, it takes a toll,” Sanan admits. “It’s a delicate part of your life, when you’re transitioning into an adult. [Cancer] kind of puts a halt on all of that. People want to baby you, [and] you’re at the point in your life when you want to take care of yourself.” Sanan continues to be in active treatment for her disease and is grateful for the incredible staff at Tower. She is part of an intimate Tower community that is teaching individuals in recovery to do just that: take good care of their whole selves. “I am so grateful to be part of such a supportive team.”
“This past year has been long and tough, but I can say with certainty that I could not have faced my diagnosis without Tower Cancer Research Foundation. Tower’s LA CanSurvive Patient Support Programs are remarkable. The exercise classes help revive my strength and energy and the Young Adult Breast Cancer Support Group helps me gain the emotional confidence to embrace my new normal. The friendships made with my “breast friends” through all of LA CanSurvive classes and events will be cherished forever as they are one of my many silver linings in this journey.
Cancer does not define me, but it has made me a stronger woman. From the bottom of my heart I thank Tower Cancer Research Foundation for providing cancer fighters, thrivers and survivors with a community of perseverance, resilience and hope.”