Name: Mary Connolly
Hometown: Upper Arlington, OH
Job title: Marketing Manager
Organizations involved in: Women for Economic and Leadership Development (WELD), Veritas Community Church, OSU Young Professionals Network
Passions: Spending time with friends and family, pursuing a relationship with God, traveling to new places, providing support to young adult cancer survivors – both through the treatment process and also in adjusting to life after treatment
Q: How would you describe your current state of health and wellness?
A: It has been 7 years since my cancer diagnosis and I am healthier than ever! I think of health and wellness as encompassing more than healthy diet and exercise – although both of those things are important. I experienced anxiety and depression following my cancer diagnosis, but it was something my doctors never asked me about. Mental health issues, whether genetic or brought on by a specific circumstance in life are often overlooked even by people who know those struggling the best. It took me two years to reach the point of making an appointment with a counselor. It was the best decision I could have made and I wish that I would have done it sooner. Processing everything that I experienced through my cancer diagnosis from family reactions, to losing friends and gaining a new perspective on life were an important part of my healing process. I have learned to cherish each day, to enjoy the time I’ve been given and to invest in relationships with people.
I feel so passionately about this issue, especially for young survivors, that I wrote a book about my experience. I so desperately wanted to have another young adult survivor that I could talk to when I was going through my cancer diagnosis, treatment and life after – someone who had been through it before and could share their personal experiences with me. Celebrate Sarcoma chronicles my experience adjusting to life after cancer and sums up everything I would tell another young survivor over coffee.
Q: Have you always been healthy… or did you “flip” your life? If so, what was the catalyst for change?
A: My mom is a dietitian, so I was raised learning how to eat healthy, exercise regularly and make healthy lifestyle choices. My cancer diagnosis at 21 completely changed my life though. It was the first time anything traumatic had happened in my life and no one had prepared me to know how to work through anxiety, depression and the general uncertainty that accompanies a cancer diagnosis. I also discovered that my family did not have the communication skills to talk about the ways in which my diagnosis was affecting us all differently. We all silently struggled and were unable to talk with each other and process what was happening as a family. I am now in school part time to become a social worker so that someday I can work with cancer patients and their families to help provide support and improve communication skills for other survivors and their families in the future.
Q: What helps you make your change “stick”?
A: I schedule down time in my planner every week so that I have time to process what is happening day to day. At first it seemed strange to schedule appointments with myself, but I learned that if I didn’t, every bit of my weekends would get filled and leave me with very little time to rest and rejuvenate for the next week. Instead of thinking about all of the things I “should” be doing, I give myself permission to have some down time, whether it’s watching some Netflix, taking a nap or reading for fun.
Q: How did your battle with sarcoma impact your opinions about fighting the disease and other forms of cancer?
A: I learned that cancer does not discriminate based on age, race, gender or any other factor. Young adults especially feel like they are immune to a disease that generally affects older adults. It’s simply not true though. No one is entitled to good health. 1 in 2 men and 1 in 3 women will be diagnosed with cancer in their lifetime. Prevention is the key to taking very intentional steps to decrease the risk of developing cancer now or in the future. The work that FLIP is doing to educate young adults about the importance of diet, exercise and lifestyle choices now is critical to our long-term health. The choices we make today will impact us in the future whether we want to believe it or not.
Q: It’s great to get advice from experts; But, it’s more important sometimes to hear advice from ordinary people that we can all relate to. So… what’s your advice for someone that wants to make a change in his or her life?
A: Start with something small and manageable. It’s important to have some small “wins” before moving onto larger, more challenging changes. Don’t look at what other people are doing and compare yourself. Recognize that each person is unique with their own personal battles and challenges. Focus on where you’re at and what you need to do to improve something in your life. Do it for yourself, not someone else. I typically set a goal and give myself room for error. Be kind to yourself. I have also been known to bribe myself with a meaningful incentive when I’m trying to establish a new habit!
Q: Inspiration is a powerful weapon in our fight against cancer…. help us pass it on. Who is someone that inspires you that you believe would be a good fit for our next INSPIRE interview?
A: Doug Ulman is a great example of someone whose cancer diagnosis as a young adult was transformed into a desire to better support survivors and to one day eradicate this devastating disease. He uses his personal experiences as a platform to advocate for resources that he did not benefit from personally. He has dedicated his life to improving the lives of cancer survivors, both through establishing new partnerships and programs, and through raising research funds to discover new treatments and one day a cure.