In 2004, just three months after her wedding, 31-year-old corporate giant Caryn Sullivan was diagnosed with breast cancer. She had no family history, and she felt she was well-educated regarding the signs and symptoms. When she felt a lump, she went to see her family physician.
After a few tests, she got the news every single woman fears. She had breast cancer – invasive ductal carcinoma. “I was so young, so healthy,” she couldn’t believe this was happening to her.
Caryn’s treatment of choice was aggressive therapy; she had a bilateral mastectomy followed by chemotherapy. Physically and emotionally, she was a mess, she recalls, until she got the green light. She was cancer-free. “I was a good patient, I listened to my doctor, I followed all of his instructions,” Caryn announces.
She jumped back on the corporate bandwagon believing she was one and done, and nine years later, the cancer returned. Caryn was diagnosed with Stage 4 metastatic breast cancer.
“All I knew was that people die when they have Stage 4 cancer,” Caryn says. “I had a 5-year-old son; my emotions were all over the place again,” especially with what she thought might be a death diagnosis.
The young, corporate mother was determined to beat the odds. “It was devastating, but you don’t have to be devastated,” she reflects. Instead of trying to survive, she was going to thrive.
“I was the dutiful patient the first time,” she notes, but the second time she became the patient advocate. She started “deep diving,” as she called it, arming herself with a lot more information about her disease, and not from the internet. She began calling herself a student of her own disease. She wanted to find out what people who had terminal cancer were doing to improve the quality of their life. She saw two commonalities: exercise and healthy eating.
Caryn changed her eating habits overnight. “I was in such a dark place; I needed some control over my life. My cancer was controlling me, and I needed to change that,” she says.
“I can control my exercise and my eating and that is what I did.” Hot yoga and clean eating became her new habits instead of chips and pop on the run with her corporate job.
She also began playing the “grateful game” with her family every day. “We ask each person what they are grateful for and why, instead of talking about their bad day. It helps focus on the good, it makes you smile. Whenever we talk about hardships in life, we try to focus on the positive,” she notes.
And she walked away from the corporate world.
Before she was diagnosed with her second cancer in 2013, Caryn lived in the fast lane of the world of sports and entertainment, largely for Disney, ESPN and the Minnesota Timberwolves basketball team. Her long intense hours often were fueled by soda pop and chips. When she heard she had Stage 4 cancer, her focus changed from looking good to being well. She started a business called Pretty Wellness, a healthy lifestyle media and content creation company designed to inspire others to take small steps toward improved health and happiness.
“If we take care of ourselves, it helps us to heal and cope,” Caryn believes. That is why she wrote a book “Happiness through Hardship,” a guide for cancer patients that is full of ideas on how to navigate this unexpected journey. One chapter is titled, “Google is not my doctor
“There is so much misinformation on the internet, please go there delicately,” she advises. “Let someone help you with the research and ask your doctor, the person you’ve entrusted with your health and your life.
She advises others to “live an intentional life! Choose positivity and purpose!” Today, Caryn delivers motivational speeches, conducts webinars across the country and hosts a podcast, “Happiness through Hardship,” in hopes of inspiring others to find happiness through hardship.
She recently was a guest on The Breast of Everything podcast, hosted by Comprehensive Breast Care Surgeons Ashley Richardson, DO, FACOS; and Linsey Gold, DO, FACS, FACOS.