Breast Cancer Survival: One Woman’s Story

In honor of breast cancer awareness month, we talked to Larchmont resident Mary Olson-Menzel, who was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2013. Olson-Menzel is now six-years cancer-free, but at the time of her diagnosis she had to juggle her family, treatments, and her job (she runs her own business). She took us through getting the initial diagnosis, what helped her through her journey, and tips for others going through this experience.

Life before cancer

Olson-Menzel is a busy working mother balancing life and work. She’s the president and owner of MVP Executive Search and Development and Co-Founder of SparkinSight Coaching. She leads executive recruitment and coaching on a national level across multiple offices, which means lots of travel, lots of meetings, and a very busy schedule. “I definitely worked 50 hours a week,” says Olson-Menzel. “I founded the company to inspire and create things on my terms and to also be there for my kids.” She was 46 when she was diagnosed with cancer (she’s now 52).

Getting the call

When Olson-Menzel first got the call from her doctor that she had breast cancer, she was “shocked, scared, my whole world went dark.” Her husband, Dan, was very supportive right from the start. “He came home the day of my diagnosis and went with me to the doctor to discuss our options for treatment plans.”

Being a mom, she was worried what a cancer diagnosis would mean for her kids. “I remember sitting in Manor Park [in Larchmont] shortly after my diagnosis and thinking I’m not afraid to die, but I was terrified of leaving my two older stepkids and my 3-year-old son behind.”

Telling her kids she had cancer was hard. “Luckily my youngest was so little at the time, he might not even remember the details. He knew that I took naps with him and snuggled in to watch a lot of movies and read a lot of books with him. I once heard him tell a preschool friend, ‘Don’t hug my Mommy too hard because she has a boo-boo on her chest.’”

Support from friends and the community

At first Olson-Menzel was reluctant to tell people, as she needed time to process the news on her own terms, but then word slowly got out. “My 11-year-old stepson asked his class to pray for me at CCD one Wednesday afternoon – I was humbled and amazed by the outpouring of support and love from my friends, family, and our community,” she says. Having that support made a huge difference; especially on the days it felt so overwhelming and terrifying. She remembers how the calls, meals, gifts, and time spent with friends and family, made it all just a little bit easier. “Once we had a plan, the friends that drove me to surgeries and treatments became the bright spots in my days,” she says. “Meals were really helpful, my book club hired a chef to make healthy gluten-free meals three days a week.” Her sister-in-law put together a calendar for people to drive her to treatments and drop off little gifts for the last month of her treatment schedule. Her nanny and husband made sure the kids were well taken care of.

Being kind to the body

Having cancer taught Olson-Menzel to be patient with herself and with her body. She learned to rest when she needed to and tried not to take on too much. “This was not natural to me, I was a successful business woman and a mom, balance and rest was not on my radar. This diagnosis taught me a lot about that.”

She started cancer treatment in March 2013 when she was diagnosed and finished in August of that year. Olson-Menzel had two surgeries in two weeks, then eight weeks of daily radiation followed by almost six years on Tamoxifen. She is now considered cancer-free. For the first five years, she had checkups every three months with her oncologist and breast surgeon. Now at year six, she sees her surgeon every six months and her oncologist every year.

Juggling work, family, and treatment

“My biggest struggle in the beginning was dealing with the fear that comes with a cancer diagnosis,” says Olson-Menzel. “Trying to hold it all together for my family, especially for my 13-year-old stepdaughter, my 11-year-old stepson, and my 3-year-old son. Trying to run my business without skipping a beat and keeping my clients happy was also a top priority for me.” It was a lot to deal with and looking back, she wished she had allowed herself to rest more and to reflect more as she was going through the process. One thing that really helped was writing her blog, mvpcancercourage.com. “It allowed me to process emotions through the written word and also gave me a place to direct family and friends for updates so that I was not constantly talking about it. The blog also became a place where others who were going through something similar could go to read about my journey.”

Where there other things that helped her? Olson-Menzel says meditation, prayers, walks, yoga, tea with friends, and snuggling with her kids made the biggest difference.

Giving back

Yoga was integral for Olson-Menzel. “I’ve been doing yoga for many years and I’ll say that I’m a better person when I have a regular and consistent practice. I am more mindful, more focused, more balanced, and much calmer.” She took yoga at the Equinox gym in Mamaroneck as well as classes at Larchmont Avenue Church and St. John’s Church. “My favorite yoga instructors are Robin Giacomo, Gunda Sabel-Sheehan, Megan Graham and Twee Merrigan (now teaching in Breckenridge), they dedicated their time and energy to my MVP Yoga for a Cure event! I also love Franklin Shire and Susan Malcolm at Equinox.” For her, yoga helped both mentally and physically. “Yoga and the people who supported me throughout my treatments made all of the difference. I was blown away by the support from family, friends, and community. So as soon as I felt like I could, I wanted to find a way to give back.”

Her husband had the idea of a yoga charity event and Olson-Menzel worked with her yogi friends and together they pulled together their first event for MVP Yoga for a Cure, the charity she started to fight breast cancer. ”MVP Yoga for a Cure was my passion and my mission for five years. We held it every October at the Larchmont Yacht Club who donated their beautiful space every year. We typically had about 75 to 100 participants and it was growing in size. We raised almost $100,000 to help fund research to find a cure and all proceeds were sent straight to the National Breast Cancer Research Foundation.” Many local merchants also donated items for the event’s raffle, including Pink on Palmer, Clutch, Hiawatha’s Martial Arts, Salon Firefly, Addison Street Spa, Vision of Tomorrow, Medallion Jewelers, and Chit Chat Wines.

Last year, she did some serious soul searching and decided to “sunset” the event. “I needed to focus more on my family, my health, and my business, which has been growing in leaps and bounds. It was bittersweet, but I felt so deeply that I had done what I wanted to in raising money and giving back,” she says. She now does pro-bono work for Bear Necessities (bearnecessities.org.), a pediatric cancer foundation that is near and dear to her heart.

Olson-Menzel also invites newly diagnosed women to her house for tea and support. Her message to others: cancer is something that people can recover from if caught early enough.

Advice for others

Getting a cancer diagnosis is not easy, and it’s easy to feel very alone or isolated, but it’s key to realize that you’re in this with others (your doctors, your friends, your community). Olson-Menzel recommends finding a team of doctors that you trust. She says: “Pray (if praying resonates with you). Meditate. Let the people who love you help you. You are not alone in this, even though sometimes it feels that way, and sometimes you have to swallow your own pride and independence to allow people to help you.” Get your mammograms, stay on top of your health and be as proactive as you can.

“I’m trying to continue to do the things that give me joy,” says Olson-Menzel. “Because that heals your cells. Happiness heals, deep and true happiness can make a huge difference.”

Judy Koutsky is a Westchester-based freelance writer.