Rebecca Phillippo: Breast Cancer Survivor

Rebecca Phillippo was the featured speaker at Support Connection’s Annual Celebrate Life Day on June 5, 2016. The story she shared was powerful and touched everyone who attended. She is happy to share it again here.

“I want to first thank everyone for being here at Celebrate Life Day, and thank Support Connection for always providing us a safe and loving forum to count on. I will never forget the day I decided to call Support Connection. It was that first conversation with Andrea that showed me I did not have to go through any of this alone.

I am honored to be asked to speak today. I thought I would know exactly what to say. After all, it is my story. But in truth, looking back on my experiences over the last 6 years was harder to do than I thought. Not because of how painful it all was, though much still lingers with me. But more because looking in the past was not what my personal experience taught me. Cancer not only taught me a new meaning to gratitude, and a higher level of thankfulness, but it reminded me to just keep moving forward.

My life today looks nothing like I would have ever dreamed. It’s better. It is not traditional; ordinary; fearless; or challenge free. But it is full of many gifts and truly original to me. It is my story…

It was late winter, 2010. I was in love. I was in love with life and in love with mountain biking. I had just turned 36 and my then boyfriend had just moved in with me. I was training hard all winter for the upcoming mountain bike racing season. I was excited to challenge myself and push hard to advance to the next level of racing. The long cold winter rides turned into warmer and longer days and it was now the end of March, and I felt almost prepared for the season to start. I kept wondering if I would be ready for the first race, but little did I know what I had really been training for.

When I’m mountain biking in the woods, I am meandering through the trees and the rocks and trying to follow the dirt path. Some trails are smooth; some have larger rocks, roots, trees. For the most part, the trails have a sense of familiarity to me; no matter how fast or slow I ride, I feel free and in control. But there is always that time when I might turn the corner too fast, or my tire hits a rock just so, and I’m am knocked off balance, or worse, off the bike. It happens. It’s part of the experience. It can hurt sometimes, but I have been lucky enough to be able to get up and finish the ride or race that I had set out to do that day. I never realized how much riding my bike in the woods would become a metaphor for my life moving forward.

It was February. While doing a self-breast exam, I noticed something. It was a lump. It was in my left breast. It didn’t appear to be something other than that and I waited. I waited almost two months to see if it would go away. Of course, we all know how that ended since I am standing up here in front of all of you.

It did not go away and I knew.

It was now early April. Following an ultra sound, mammogram and biopsy, my fear had become reality. It was like that moment on my bike, when I turned that corner and that unexpected rock was there. This time, it was going to be a lot harder to just get up.

It was April 15 and I had just heard those awful words: you have cancer. I was more than knocked off balance that day. I had just had the trail beneath me taken away. I remember crying a lot. I remembered saying ‘This cannot be. I have my first race in 10 days!!’

Needless to say, I did not race that season, but I used that strength to get me through a long road of treatments. I had 5 surgeries in the course of 2 years. Due to the staging, I had to have chemo, radiation, and then Herceptin for a year. I have been on hormonal therapy ever since and have been put into chemical menopause. I had breast reconstruction only to have my body reject it. Many of the choices we have to make are unfair. Especially for those of us diagnosed so young.

I am 42 now- just over 6 years from my diagnosis and almost 6 years to the date from my first surgery. The emotional and physical scars will always be a part of me. I choose to not allow it to hold me back.

Somewhere during my treatments, it was suggested to me by my aunt to write a list with two columns. The left side would read what cancer had taken away from me. The right side would be the list that would forever grow as it was the list of what I would get back as time went on. While that list was significantly imbalanced to the left, today, it would be overflowing to the right.

Cancer took so much from a lot us. It brought me to my knees many times. But it is the people and opportunities that have been opened up to me over the past 6 years have changed my life forever!

Of course I am grateful that I was able to get up that day and every day since. I had amazing doctors, amazing support, and did what I needed to do. All I really wanted to do was to get back on my bike and feel confident in my body again. I wanted my life back. It has taken me a while to get back up to speed. Getting older, while a gift, has its own challenges. I watched as my peers excelled in the sport I loved. I watched friends marry and have babies. I watched as others’ lives moved forward but at the time it seemed mine was standing still. I am not really good at sitting on the side-lines.

While there were and continue to be many people that helped me along the way, there is one woman that would open doors for me that I will forever be grateful to. Her generosity and belief in me helped me to come out on the other side of this with a purpose.

It was February 2011. I had just finished radiation and signed up for a 50 mile mountain bike race that June. I was trying to convince myself I would be ready to race again. It was during that time that I met Joy. She was the founder of a wonderful program, Body Wise Connection, which offered free Pilates to cancer patients. This is when the magic started to happen.

I continued working with Joy even after the program had ended for me and she continued to help me build up that confidence in my body again. She not only helped to get me to that start line that day in June but also helped me to complete my own training as a comprehensive instructor! Around the same time I completed my training, Joy moved to California leaving me the opportunity to continue the amazing business she had started. It has been life changing. I owe it all to Cancer. If I never had Cancer, I would have most certainly never have met Joy and started down this amazing new path I have been on.

While there are a lot of things I wish didn’t happen and things I wish I could get back, I have to choose to keep moving forward.

I never did marry that man or have children of my own, but today, I am healthy and cancer free.

Despite the aches and pains of the effects of treatment on my body, I am back racing competitively again and riding stronger than I thought I could.

In 2015, I opened my own Pilates studio and named it Forward Movement Lifestyle, inspired by my experiences.

I continue helping others whether in the studio with my work or volunteering in my biking community, because giving back is the least I can do and it just feels good to do so!

I try to surround myself with and give love and hope on the bad days and the good days. Life even without cancer is not always what we expect.

And no matter what happened to me or what may be on the trails ahead – I still consider myself one of the lucky ones.

Today, I celebrate life with all of you!

In the words of Albert Einstein: “Life is like riding a bicycle. To keep your balance, you must keep moving.”