ACLP Survivor Spotlight: Christine Handy

ACLP Survivor Spotlight: Christine Handy
Portrait of Erika Crespo Erika Crespo

Tell us about yourself. Where are you from, how do you spend your time, and what do you do for work and play?

I am originally from St Louis. I moved to Dallas to attend Southern Methodist University and stayed in Dallas for 25 years. Then six years ago I moved to Miami. Each day I try to work out for an hour, which usually consists of tennis, a brisk beach walk, rowing, paddle boarding, or swimming. I also love to ride my beach bike around sunset.

After my workout, my busy day begins. I send frequent inspirational messages to my social media network. I also spend time responding to hundreds of messages each day. This is a priority for me. I feel a loyalty to those who take their time to reach out to me.

I am a motivational speaker. Prior to the pandemic, I was traveling around the country speaking to large audiences. Now, my speaking is mostly on Zoom and also on an app called Clubhouse. My story—told through social media and my book, Walk Beside Me–has had an impact, which has resulted in frequent interviews on TV, radio, and podcasts. I love sharing my story because I know that the power of storytelling can make others feel less alone in their pain, suffering or trauma.

I am an active board member of two non-profit organizations. I also spend about 15 hours a week working on my Master’s degree in Literature and Creative Writing at Harvard. In addition, I signed with a modeling agency over a year ago. I started modeling at a young age and had to stop for about ten years due to illness. It feels good to be back in the industry.

Lastly, but most importantly I have two sons. Although they are in college, I make time each day to encourage and love on them.

Tell us about your diagnosis. Did it come as a surprise or did you suspect something?

Being diagnosed with breast cancer blew me away. I was shocked. I have no family history of the disease, I was 41 years young and a self-proclaimed athlete who ate meticulously healthily. To say the diagnosis spiraled me into a deep depression would be an understatement. I had just had another life-changing illness that ended up with my right arm being fused. I was in NYC for a six-week post-operative check-up with my orthopedic surgeon. I was clumsily taking a shower at a hotel with my casted arm hanging out of the curtain, when I grabbed the bar of soap, washed my left breast and felt a lump under my nipple. Having lived through the year in countless doctor’s offices, three surgeries on my arm and months of physical therapy, I truly believed there was no way that lump would be malignant. I had suffered enough, was my bargaining chip to God.

Five days later I was diagnosed with an aggressive breast cancer.

We read that between October 2012 and December 2013, you spent every week in the chemotherapy chair. Tell us about your experience with chemotherapy and surgeries. How did it affect your mindset?

Chemo was life-changing for obvious reasons and maybe some not-so-obvious ones. My career depended upon my external beauty. When I lost my hair, I felt I had lost myself. My self-esteem was too wrapped up in my physical attributes and I had no idea who I was inside. I was also facing a tremendous amount of chemotherapy—28 rounds per week, week after week for 15 months. Having a 11-year old and a 13-year old made a huge impact as well. Trying to care for myself was extremely difficult, but to take care of anyone else felt almost impossible.

Because my arm was freshly fused, the pain of that, both emotional and physical, was mighty. For quite a while, I was scheduling chemo treatments between breast and arm surgeries. I had a mastectomy during that time, but I wasn’t healthy enough to take off the non-cancer breast until almost 3 years later.

It has taken me years to heal from all of that. My body is still reacting to the trauma. I lost three teeth to chemo, I developed heart issues because of the chemo and it also caused a liver spot. Between my cancer and my arm, I just completed my 23rd non-elective surgery.

Due to all of this, my mindset changed considerably. I felt lost and alone at the initial diagnosis. Fortunately, I had a mountain of women friends who stood by me during this time. They told me they would stand for me until I was able to stand for myself and they lived up to their promises. My journey was long, and one of my fears was of being abandoned. I never felt abandoned by them or my family.

About a month into my cancer journey, I started to really fight for my life. When that shift happened, my mindset changed.

I started to work on my self-esteem. I poured into my faith and slowly started to feel whole even when my body felt nearly destroyed. The chemo left me bald and so sickly that I was often isolated to a room in my home or in the hospital. My weight dropped so dramatically that my oncologist wanted to place a feeding tube in me. He gave me a few weeks to get my weight up and with prayer and a
lot of mashed potatoes my body started to respond. I went from 94 Pounds to 100 and that ended the tube conversation.

Tell us about your book, Walk Beside Me. What did you hope to achieve by writing it? Had you ever written a book before?

My book Walk Beside Me was birthed out of a strong desire to show the true power of female relationships. By uniting, my friends showed me that my life was worth saving. I let go of the pettiness of caring about what society thought of me and focused on community, faith and friendship. I came to realize that I could really help others through storytelling. I wanted to share the emotional transformation from being dependent on false idols, on material things, to living a life of purpose and serving. Not that material things are wrong or undesirable, but I was focused so much on earthly things that I forgot what the purpose of life was. Cancer refocused my Why and I am grateful for that. The only career I had ever had up until my diagnosis was modeling. Writing and storytelling became my passion after I was well. Walk Beside Me is my first published novel. I have more to come.

What would you like to tell other women who feel they are dealing with the stigma of a mastectomy?

I don’t recall feeling a stigma of a mastectomy until recently. I was able to get really beautiful implants after my mastectomies. For several years, I believed the prize after my cancer was perfect fake boobs. They were a size B, they didn’t sag like my real ones and I loved the way they looked in clothes. But last summer, I realized the implants and the perky chest was not the prize at all.

I developed a staph/MRSA infection in the left implant and chest wall. In an emergency surgery, the entire cavity was removed. Right in the middle of the pandemic, I laid in that hospital bed all masked up in immeasurable pain and wondering what could happen next. My love for those implants was taken away and I was left to figure out how to move forward with a new vacant chest. I had to really dig deep into refocusing on my life as the prize and to also remember it was my inside that mattered not the external shell the world defines as beauty.

I believe it’s ultimately our mindset and how we respond to trauma that makes or breaks us. Reframing losing my breasts twice became the only way for me to get through it. I knew that my story had purpose in that terrible pain and disappointment, and that If I could share it and be vulnerable, I could help others going through the same life-shattering moments. That was the gift of all this loss.

What lifestyle changes have you made as a result of your experience?

The real lifestyle choices I made are deeply personal. I left toxic relationships and poured into the people who gave me hope and urged me on. I also moved to a city where I could spend more time outdoors. These decisions were very tough. Yet, I realized deeply that tomorrow was not promised to anyone and that meant the choices I made everyday were very important.

I had been an athlete and my eating choices were always extremely healthy. So those things I kept the same. I added a couple supplements, vitamin D and Milk thistle. I walk every day and I try to avoid diet soda which I used to drink too much of. I limit my alcohol intake to one glass of wine. I never really drank very much, but I believe limiting alcohol has a lot of benefits.

The more impactful changes included what voices I was willing to listen to and whose I was not. I also realized my worth was not in my external beauty but inside that counted.In this revelation, I understood that moving forward in my life meant severing some long-term relationships which was hard but necessary.

Is there anything you would like to say to women who, as a result of breast cancer treatment, no longer feel as feminine?

A stranger recently asked me if I was a man or born a woman. The question completely unraveled me for a few days, I even cried. It hadn’t quite been a year since my implants and rebuilt breast cavities had been taken out and I was still getting used to being flat, or more truthfully, concave. It was in those few days after that awkward question, that I realized it did matter to me that I lost what I believed was my most feminine part. Yet, it also led me to own my new look in a more profound way. I felt in some regard I was now more beautiful. Because I let go of trying to be the same as others. I further embraced the physical qualities that made me unique.

My value is so much more than society’s opinion of what I should look like. So I turned that sadness into power and started to flaunt my vacant chest. Not to prove a point to anyone but to walk freely in who I was. When I look in the mirror, I see the crazy amount of scars, but I am whole and I am feminine without my chest. For me, my faith in God defines my beauty, not other people.

What inspiring quotes or lyrics have helped you through the hardest of times?

“Let go and Let God” has been a constant phrase I repeat quite often. I also love a quote from myself that I often share: “Today matters. How you choose to use it determines your future.”

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