Fulfillment After Illness

Cancer survivors take the stage to share their second acts

Meredith Mitstifer spent years struggling with infertility issues, only to find she was naturally pregnant right when she needed to have a cancerous mass removed from one of her ovaries.

She could either abort the baby and have the growing mass removed immediately, or wait four months. She decided to wait. When her son was born five weeks early with some lung issues, she waited another six weeks to start chemo so that she could nurse him.

"I was bald and a new mom and life was crazy," she said. "And about three months into it, my husband left me."

These are the grim realities of cancer diagnoses: relationships, careers and financial situations can all change for the worse. Not to mention the fear of the cancer returning that 70 percent of women survivors say they face. And sometimes, facing this aftermath is just as difficult as dealing with the initial diagnosis and subsequent treatment.

Judy Pearson, a breast cancer survivor, found herself facing problems after her treatment was over and was declared cancer-free. She's a writer by profession, and had a hard time getting back into the book she was working on. Support groups were depressing. She felt listless.

"I think the surprise was the fact that even though I had what looked like all the pieces in place to bounce back to my life, you can't go through a trauma like that without something being changed," she said. "[But] I started realizing from the stories that I read that survivors were using their lives and their experiences to do amazing things."

As a born storyteller, Pearson felt these women's stories—stories of not only living life after cancer, but of flourishing in an entirely new way during their "second acts"—needed to be shared. And so A 2nd Act was born.

The organization has several facets: it provides micro grants to women to start projects they consider their second acts, publishes survivors' stories on a blog and book and connects survivors to post-treatment resources. Money for the micro grants is raised through ticket sales to annual 2nd Act shows, in which survivors share stories about their own "second acts." Women survivors of all kinds of cancer are invited to audition to participate in the Tucson and Phoenix performances, billed as "sometimes humorous... sometimes irreverent... always inspiring."

"We help women discover their cancer's purpose in their lives, or we celebrate the women who have already found its purpose in their lives," Pearce said.

Mitstifer will be at the Tucson 2nd Act to share her story of her second act: raising awareness of ovarian cancer. She served on the national board of directors for the National Ovarian Cancer Coalition, and has participated in Survivors Teaching Students at the University of Arizona, sharing her story with medical students.

She also remarried and gained two stepsons in the process (an especial blessing because having more biological children wasn't an option after eventually having both ovaries removed, and she was told she needed to be cancer free for ten years before she could begin the adoption process). Her son is speaking at the NOCC Conference next year, and her husband is the coordinator for the Walk to Break the Silence (taking place at 7 a.m. on Nov. 5 this year at the UA Mall).

For her, a second act doesn't mean coming to view cancer as a gift, but using her experience to help other people avoid the pain she went through.

"I don't feel 'blessed' because i was scared out of my gourd that I would not be her to raise my child," she said. "It makes you so scared and so vulnerable and so alone, and that's the reason for my second act, is that I don't want anyone to go through that alone."

Kay Prince, a 20-year breast cancer survivor, calls post-treatment "the forgotten side of cancer care," because the medical process is so focused on the disease itself.

"When you're dealing with cancer, it's 'how can we get her well? How can we get the chemo and the surgery to get her well?'" she said. "After you get home, you've left the cocoon of treatment. There's not that safety net anymore."

After her treatment concluded, Prince decided to abandon the safety net of her corporate job as well and become a life and career coach. By developing two-day retreat programs, she helped people to find their passions and gifts. Just as she started to feel unsure about continuing the work, another breast cancer survivor called her to ask if she could develop a retreat for women dealing with life after cancer. Prince jumped at the opportunity, and, about two years ago, started Embrace, a retreat program for breast cancer survivors.

"It helps [survivors] figure out who they are and create a vision for the future," she said.

Although the stage lights went dim for these women's difficult intermissions, they have bravely taken the stage again to shine in the second acts of their lives–and, perhaps most importantly of all, to help others do the same.

A 2nd Act: Survivorship Takes The Stage will feature Pearson, Mitstifer and Prince sharing
their stories, along with five other female survivors., at 2 p.m. on Sunday, Nov. 5 at the Berger Center for the Performing Arts, 1200 W. Speedway Blvd. Tickets are $22 and will benefit A 2nd Act programs in Tucson. For more information, visit their website.

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