5 Life Lessons From People Likely to Get Cancer

by Andi Last, Living LFS Secretary & Media Relations – I am part of a group of people with a rare genetic condition called Li-Fraumeni Syndrome (LFS). You’ve heard of the infamous BRCA, “the breast cancer gene?” LFS is like BRCA on crack. Men with LFS have a 73% lifetime chance of developing cancer. For women with LFS, the lifetime chance of developing cancer is nearly 100%. LFS “core” cancers are breast, brain, sarcoma and adrenocortical, but LFS can cause any kind of cancer. Some of us get more than one kind, or even more than one kind at a time. It can also happen at any age, although half of LFS cancers happen before the age of 30. No, unfortunately, I’m not making any of this up.

As you can probably imagine, such sobering odds can give those of us with LFS a very different – and sometimes twisted – outlook on life. Part of that twist is that some of us lovingly call ourselves “mutants,” since LFS is caused by a mutation of the TP53 “tumor suppressor” gene.

Recently I asked the members of our private Living LFS online support group, “If you could give one piece of life advice to non-mutants or other “normals” what would it be?” Following are some of the insights from this LFS family of ours – people who currently have cancer, have had cancer, have lost family members to cancer, or have been diagnosed with Li-Fraumeni Syndrome, a.k.a. “BRCA on crack.”

Don’t Wait, and Don’t Take Time For Granted

Lif eLesson 1: Don't Wait, and Don't Take Time For Granted

Ilonka: When possible I try not to delay doing things that I love to do. Read about Ilonka’s experience at the 2018 LFS International Conference.

Nina: Stop waiting to do things, or go places, or to do something for you. None of us are guaranteed anything, and it will never be the perfect time to do what you want/need to do. 🤗

Jonathan: Life is a terminal illness – for everyone. Your life consists of two dates and a dash. Make the most of the dash.

Your life consists of two dates and a dash. Make the most of the dash.

Nadja: To not take time for granted. I’ve just known about my LFS for a few months (and have never had cancer) but I’ve started to feel like “you never know what or when something might happen”. I try to get out and do fun stuff more than before and don’t think as much that “I can do that later”. Better to enjoy life while I can and my body is healthy! 🙂

Sonja: Find your peace and happiness inside yourself, not outside. Stop thinking: if I stayed healthy, if I became a mum, if I bought the house… In the end, it is not a children, a job, a fiancé, not even your health, that determines how much meaning, peace and happiness you have in your life. It is captured deep inside yourself. All you need, you can find inside yourself. Saying this, I know it is a big challenge to come closer to this source…I am failing on a daily basis, but hey, as long as I breathe there is still a chance to get there!

Prioritize Who You Spend Time With

Life Lesson 2: Prioritize Who You Spend Time With

Ilonka: Although it’s not possible to avoid, I try as much as possible to stay away from people with negative energy.

Emily C: To go ahead and cut the toxic people out because shitty people are just that, shitty. And they’re not going to change. So it’s better to go ahead and cut your ties before something major or life altering happens. There’s nothing worse than thinking you can depend on someone only to find out they simply don’t care, and a lot of times we know beforehand that we can’t depend on them but we expect that maybe they’ll change. We shouldn’t be surprised, but we still are. Relationships of all sorts should never be one sided. And we try to make excuses as to why we can’t cut them out. “But she’s my mother,” “but we’ve been best friends for 20 years,” “but they’re going through some really hard times right now”.

Be Genuinely Supportive: Just Listen

Life Lesson 3: Be Genuinely Supportive. Just Listen.

Andi: Many people don’t want to hear about real problems – or aren’t equipped to hear about them. Efforts to be helpful and supportive can do more harm than good. Since diagnosis I understand the phrase, “Everyone you meet is fighting a battle you know nothing about. Be kind. Always.” better than ever. Sometimes, genuine support simply means being forgiving, holding space, and only giving advice if it’s requested. 

Be Kind. Always.

Julie: I don’t know how to answer this. What is normal? A friend of mine died almost 2 weeks ago from colon cancer, she battled it for 2½ years. She wasn’t a mutant, but she’s the one who battled and died. I think she should have been the one to give me advice on life 😢

Mandy: My child is not defined by this. She is an amazing girl who is going to do amazing things and I am the lucky one because God chose me to be her Mommy.

Ru’a: Stop talking about cancer (unless you or someone you know is going through it, but too often its used in conversation casually)!!! Stop recommending me shows/movies about it!

Read What People With Li-Fraumeni Syndome (LFS) Want You To Know About LFS.

Samantha: ‘At leasts’ are not helpful. You can at least stuff in your own life, but people telling you at least is not helpful. For example, at least you know, or, at least you are not sick right now (yeah I may have survived the last one, but chances are more is coming, not if, but when) or at least one (or two) of your kids don’t have LFS (like it makes it ok that one or more do? Seriously?) or whatever, nothing takes away from the dark shadow lurking, ready to pounce. This life is real, it can be hard, and the mental load is much more than you can imagine. Please don’t at least us!!!

Greg (President of Living LFS): As someone without LFS, I’ve learned to “listen”. You don’t have to say the right thing, or anything at all, to support someone. Just be there. Read why Greg is a part of Living LFS.

Have Gratitude, And Love As Much As You Can

Life Lesson 4: Have Gratitude and Love As Much As You Can

Ilonka: The clichés are true, since cancer arrived in my life, I enjoy the little things in life so much more. I don’t take anything for granted, and I love and live more intense, in a good way, most of the times. Oh, and I hardly do material gifts anymore with the people that are most dear to me, I’d rather spend time with them instead.

Andi: The most important thing I have learned from having LFS, and having breast cancer twice, is to have gratitude, every single day. There is so much to be grateful for. Even the small, mundane, basic things. They can be gone so quickly. Appreciate them always. Read Mutant Vs. Monster: Andi Last’s Tale of Li-Fraumeni Syndrome

Andi Last: Gratitude for Every Day

Andi: Grateful for every day.

Monica: Treasure every moment you have with your family and friends. Don’t take life for granted, everyday is a blessing. Make sure you always say “I love you” to the ones that you love because those little words make a difference. Smile even if you feel like you don’t want to on some days. Monetary things are not as important as you think. It’s the small things, the quality time, that counts in life.

Andrea: Enjoy life, regardless what curve balls may be thrown your way. If you think you have hit rock bottom (ie. Financially) just know the sun is still going shine tomorrow and things are going to get better. Here is a good saying to live by, mutant or non mutant:  Yesterday is history, Tomorrow is a mystery, Today is a gift, That’s why they call it the Present.

That's Why They Call It The Present

Jenny F: If there’s anything I have learned, it is to continue to “look up.” I learned that in Toronto first by having to look up to see all the attractions and beauty it has to offer (my first time in a big city, so i had to teach myself to look up). I also realized while I was there that “looking up” refers to many aspects in life and with cancer: keep your head up, look up to God, look up to the clear beautiful blue sky, and last but certainly not all, look up and over and through the clouds, there is always something positive behind them. (Having an emotional day today because of my bone scan, so I had to remind myself of my own advice.)

Jenny in Toronto

Jenny in Toronto: look up!

Fannie: I don’t think people can learn from other people’s experience. This “enjoy every moment thing” happens only once someone tells you you’re gonna die, I think. I don’t think it can be passed on; I can barely apply it myself. I would say just love as much as you can. Love and give and feel and share and touch and breathe and observe and laugh and then love a little more. Beauty in an Unlikely Place: Fannie Remembers Her Mother’s Breast Cancer Journey. Also read from Fannie: some days, we just eat cake in bed to give ourselves a mental break

Linda H: Love till your heart aches.

Be You, Sparkle and Laugh

Life Lesson 5: Be You, Sparkle and Laugh

Rowena: My advice is just remember you can only be you. Don’t compare your life journeys to anyone else’s, as #1, you have no real idea what theirs is, and #2, yours will never be the same. We are all unique for a reason! ☺

Catherine: Be your TRUE self. There is not enough time or energy to apologize for owning your truth (unless you are an utter ass, then find a hardware store and buy some duct tape). Be and DO YOU! Who cares what makes Mr. or Mrs. Whomever happy. As we know all too well, this body is only borrowed for a bit. Use it for good and have fun! 

Brandy: To sparkle even in the darkness! Be your own light and light the fucking world UP!

Sparkle!

Also Brandy (heeding her own advice to sparkle!): Don’t half ass anything. Whatever you do, use your full ass.

Don't half ass anything. Whatever you do, always use your full ass.

Jennifer M: Find the humor in every situation. You may have to look hard, and it may be a bit twisted, but find it. And Laugh Hard!

Jennifer M. making the whole room laugh

Jennifer M. making the whole room laugh.


Mental Breaks and Living LFS, Fannie Shares Her Conference Experience

In April 2018, Fannie attended the LFSA REACH International Conference in Toronto. She shares her experience and the impact it has made on her coping with LFS since she’s been home. We are grateful to Fannie for her time and efforts making the Living LFS Exhibit Table a perfect representation of our group.

What we can learn when the mind can take a break.

Li-Fraumeni Syndrome can be so isolating. It’s a very unique feeling. Being scared all the time that is. My mutant sister Andi describes it perfectly. Most people will want to make you feel better about your horrible situation by saying things like: I too can get hit by a bus tomorrow! First of all, who are all these people that are getting hit by busses on what seems to be a daily basis!? What a weird-ass analogy… But that’s beside the point. I always use Andi’s metaphor to try and explain what it’s like. It’s brilliant and it goes something like this: Of course everybody can get hit by a bus, but imagine that this bus is basically chasing you around town and that it already killed about half of your family members. That’s how it feels to have LFS. You feel like you have to run for your goddamn life every goddamn day.

I have been diagnosed with LFS and brain cancer two and a half years ago. Since then, not a day goes by that I don’t think about cancer, multiple times a day. I have been done with treatment for a year now, but still. Not. one. day. Because cancer doesn’t stop with the end of treatment for any cancer patient. I don’t think you can never be the same after living through something so traumatic. Your body is forever scarred and your heart forever changed. People think you can “beat” cancer, that you can make it disappear, that you can make it go away. You can’t. Once you have it, it’s ever-present. And then there’s LFS. Because when you have LFS, you have to actively look for cancer on a regular basis. How fucked up is that? Worst Where’s Waldo ever…

When I heard that LFSA was organizing a semi-regular medical conference on Li-Fraumeni syndrome, I was excited. Excited, first of all because it meant I was going to get an LFS mental break. For some reason, the thought of being surrounded by LFS specialists and other mutants felt like a well-deserved lull from Li-Fraumeni Syndrome. I guess being with people who really understand meant I didn’t have to justify myself to anyone, not even myself. I almost felt like I was going home to my second family. I’m not one to expect people around me to understand what it’s like. How the fuck would they? I can barely understand it myself. They can’t understand, but they fake it well enough and they love me and help me so much. I can’t ask for more.

Going to the conference also meant I was going to meet some of my favorite mutants. They were all so amazing, but I particularly bonded with my brain cancer survivor buddy, Rowena. Once I started being able to understand what she was saying (that thick accent you guys! English is already my second language, so it was a challenge), I discovered such a warm and super interesting person. While our experience with cancer are quite different, we have a similar way of seeing life. We talked about how it feels to be put on a pedestal by our friends and family, because we are trying to live normal lives despite all this crap. How it’s heavy sometimes, and how it’s a weird situation to be in, especially when you don’t like to hug (neither of us are fans of hugging). We could laugh about super weird/unpleasant stuff, because what in hell can we do about it anyway? We talked openly about treatment, work, how having cancer in your brain is scary as fuck. How some days, we just eat cake in bed to give ourselves a mental break (and because cake cures cancer, of course). It was so refreshing to talk about all of this without filtering anything, because there was no need to. It was pleasant and refreshing to be just two normal chicks eating dinner and talking about our fucked up lives like they were normal.

This morning, when I woke up, I could feel it in my bones. It wasn’t going to be good news. So I told myself “Fannie, you have to channel your inner Rowena and power through whatever news they throw at you”. And then I started laughing. Not because the situation was funny or because I was slowly going insane (which I am, don’t get me wrong), but because I was guilty of doing something that annoys me to no end. I hate when people put you on a pedestal because they you are living life with cancer. Because, let’s face it, we’re no heros. Heros have a choice. We are up against the wall. We have cancer and we are just trying to make the best out of a horribly painful situation. What’s the alternative, really? So instead of trying to be strong, I chose to bring Rowena in my brain and in my heart. Not because she’s kicking ass at cancering (which she is), not because she’s an inspiration, but because she’s my friend.

That’s what the conference did for me. It gave me hope. Hope that medicine will save us all (I give them five years before I start sending them angry emails and breaking random stuff in the streets). It gave me the chance to get a picture with Dr. Schiffman (COME ON!). And it gave me hope that, whatever happens to me, I can find support from people who understand it all. And I think that’s all I need. My family, my LFS family, and hope. Hopefully, the next chapter won’t be so bad, because I can’t wait to attend the next conference. I think a mental break every two years is a pretty reasonable ask.