Survivor Stories -- Denise Underwood – Handful

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Survivor Stories -- Denise Underwood

on October 17, 2018
This past June, I marked 8 years of surviving and thriving! My pathology was triple negative -- which translates to, “we have no stinking clue what’s causing this cancer to grow” -- with medium to rapidly growing cells. I had ten lymph nodes removed on my left side and as a result did develop some lymphedema, but I started physical therapy as soon after surgery as the doc would allow, and I’ve learned to manage it well! My treatments consisted of mastectomy, lymph node removal, 4 months of chemo and lots of reconstructive surgery - 9 surgeries in all.
The hardest part of going through this hell and continuing on this journey back to health and life also turned out to be my saving grace: my 5 year old twin boys. They had to watch me go through so much suffering, and it was heartbreaking for me to know I couldn't protect them from the real, raw experience that came at us. They were the angels that saved me and seriously pulled me through in some of my darkest times. They didn’t know about death. They only knew about life and living and reminded me of that constantly. They were rock solid, and they were my light.  Their faith in me never wavered. I learned so much from them.  
I found the human support from my tribes to be the most important tool in fighting cancer. My family and my two peer support groups were invaluable. At the time of my diagnosis, my husband, kids, and I were living in Maryland. My entire family is here in Oregon, and I knew I would need to be surrounded by that level of love when I was going through treatment, so my husband agreed to pack up our family and move to Oregon. That was a huge sacrifice for him as everyone and everything he knew was in Maryland, but he knew it was the right thing to do for us. My family was right by my side throughout my treatment, especially my mom and sister. They never let me go to chemo alone, always making sure a family member was there with me, even though my infusion appointments lasted anywhere from 6 - 8 hours! I’m so grateful they were by my side. It made me strong and distracted me from self pity (we usually just were silly and making jokes the whole time, laughing continually in the chemo room).
It was a happy accident when I stumbled into the Young Survivors Portland group at a breast cancer conference, and it was life changing. I didn’t feel like I was alone anymore. There were other women in the group that had my diagnosis, and they were 5 years out! That was huge for me. It gave me hope, and that’s what I needed right then. They welcomed me with open arms from the moment they saw me. It was kind of like, “we’re sorry you have to be here, but don’t worry we are here for and with you.” I also was fortunate enough to find Breast Friends and go through their Thriving Beyond Cancer class once I had finished chemo, and it too was life changing. Sharon Henifin became a mentor, cheerleader, and dear friend. That class helped me dig deep and find the courage I had no idea was within me, and this was needed after going through chemo and multiple surgeries. I know not everyone is a support group type of person, so I would encourage people who are trying to support their friends and family to be real and be there for their loved ones going through cancer. One of my favorite quotes says “life can get messy, complicated and scary - show up anyway.” You have to show up for those you love and be there in whatever capacity they need. It never hurts to ask them what they need. For me I just wanted them to show up, and I figured we could take it from there.
After cancer, my priorities changed. I stopped living for the future and started to live for today, for the moment. That was huge for me. I have always been a planner, forever figuring out what my next move was. It was almost to the point that I was missing out on enjoying the moments that were happening all around me. I also took a serious look at my health and made some major shifts in nutrition and movement. I started to look at food differently, seeing each meal as an opportunity to do something good for myself instead of eating without thought. I also changed my entire viewpoint on healing and the impact that Eastern medicine can have on health and well being. I incorporated acupuncture, shiatsu massage and Reiki into my new self care schedule. My entire relationship between my physical body, my mental self, and my spirit came full circle and was reborn. I became so much more aware and in tune with myself, and I'm proud to say that continues through today. It’s far more sustainable and harmonious than the disconnection I felt before. I am ever so grateful that cancer helped me become more mindful.
I had two single mastectomies and then nipple sparing surgery from my right to my left so Handful pads are pretty awesome since my high beams are always on! I’m so excited about recently becoming certified to teach Zumba and a separate class to teach Zumba Kids! I’m thrilled to bring happiness, light, and energy to adults and kids and can’t wait to get my classes going! I dream of developing a class just for survivors and bringing it to the hospital in my community!
by Ann Whalen on October 17, 2018

Well said Denise! I was so excited to see your face and read your story! Would love to catch up! 😘 xoxoxo

by Ann Whalen on October 17, 2018

Well said Denise! I was so excited to see your face and read your story! Would love to catch up! 😘 xoxoxo

by Jody on October 17, 2018

Thank you for my new favorite quote — “life can get messy, complicated and scary – show up anyway.” You are living this and showing up. Thank you for continuing to put on the fierce face of badassery no matter how messy, complicated or scary it is. xoxo

by Jennifer Ferguson on October 17, 2018

Thank you for sharing your strength, inspiration, and how helpful finding support is (through family, friends, and local groups). It is a great reminder that “life will get messy, and yet, still SHOW UP”! I especially love that Cary commented that she has “not YET had the courage to go from avid student to teacher”, and that YOU are encouragement for her (to hopefully do so) 🙏🏽. Thank you for grabbing life and being BADASS! 💪🏽💕

by Cary on October 17, 2018

I don’t miss those dark days of going through treatment, but I do miss the warmth and laughter of our monthly gatherings and getting to see your smiling face and hear about your boys! I am so impressed by your life changes with a focus on mindfulness and especially your new chapter as a fitness instructor. I haven’t had the courage to go from avid student to teacher—thank you for giving me the inspiration to dream bigger. Keep rising, sister❤


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