Breast cancer survivor, Mary Olsen Kelly, has written Tools & Tips from the Trenches with Breast Cancer and Chicken Soup for the Breast Cancer Survivor’s Soul.
STACEY GUALANDI: Author, business owner, public speaker, and breast cancer survivor, Mary Olsen Kelly is an inspiration to millions. We sat down with Mary at her Black Pearl Gallery on Balboa Island in Newport Beach, California to gather some pearls of wisdom from this incredible survivor.
MARY OLSEN KELLY: I’m Mary Olsen Kelly. I’m an author. I’ve written three books – two of them directly about breast cancer and one of them is about healing. I’m also the owner of a chain of pearl stores called the Black Pearl Gallery stores in Hawaii and California with my husband.
I always was looking for the gift or the lesson in everything that happened to me on a very, very challenging medical journey. And because I work in the world of pearls – some people look for the lemonade made out of lemons – well, I look for pearls. We all have, you know, many different things in our lives, the challenges – not just cancer, I mean everyone. No one gets through life unscathed. We have divorce, we have death of family members, we have financial problems, we have everything that we have to face. And we also have cancer and breast cancer and diseases of all kinds. So like the pearl oyster, maybe we can take those irritants and turn them into something of great beauty in our life.
“You have cancer. Oh yeah, it’s cancer.” I know exactly what time of day it was. August 3, 2000 will be forever etched in my mind. Because in that moment your entire life just completely changes. My husband Don and I went together and didn’t expect to hear this as the outcome of my biopsy. For some reason, I’m so healthy I just thought, “There’s no way.”
Don and I went home in shock, laid on the bed, planned my funeral. I mean really. You don’t know; you just don’t know. There’s got to be a better way to tell someone they have cancer, which is why I wrote this book: Tools and Tips from the Trenches of Breast Cancer. This is the book that I want doctors to give someone when they say “You have been diagnosed with breast cancer. Here, this is going to really help you understand what you’re facing.” I mean I wanted down-to-earth, basic homespun knowledge, like how did you just get yourself to show up for that first day of chemo? How did you even get yourself to walk in the door? You know, what did you do, what helped you?
So I was writing and writing and writing and writing, and that’s actually how I got the idea to contact Jack Canfield. So I sent him off an email and I said “Are you doing a Chicken Soup for the Breast Cancer Survivor’s Soul? If you are, I want to submit some stories. And if you’re not, I think it’s a really good idea.”
So he wrote back and he says “Well, what a great idea. No, we’re not doing one. Why don’t you write me a proposal?” So I wrote a proposal, gathered about 25 stories together, sent it in to him and I got the book. But it was such an honor to communicate with survivors all over the country and to hear their stories, and to just say, you know, “You inspire me. You are courageous. You are heroic.”
Everybody has their own spiritual path. I just think it is a very important time to tune into that. When you’re facing your own fears of death, you know, you have your mortality slammed up against your face, something you didn’t think you’d face until you were in your eighties or nineties. There are women getting it in their twenties, just too young, way too young. So you find yourself dealing with those kinds of life and death issues and I think it’s very natural at that time to call upon whatever is your path to God.
One of the main gifts of a serious illness is that all the little stuff just falls away.
I went through the standard protocol at that time, which was surgery and then eight rounds of chemo and then six and a half weeks of radiation. So it’s about a nine-month process. And at the end of it, you know, you’re bald – you have no hair anywhere, you have no eyelashes. In my case, I gained a lot of weight because they give you steroids for the chemo and I just was like puffed up, but I was so happy to be alive, and I didn’t care about that other stuff. I didn’t care about hair; I didn’t care about weight. Who cares? You know they say, “Don’t sweat the small stuff.” It’s all small stuff. It’s so small.
And you get really clear on what’s important in your life, and that’s to me, the people that I love and the people that love me. That’s all. Nothing else. Very simple. Very simple. And very true. And so then your life kind of gets easier after that because – and Don and I were both kind of Type A go-for-it people and with breast cancer, we took a conscious step back and we said, “No, that’s it. We’re not working so damn hard anymore.” For what? For what? You could be dead tomorrow. You just never know how much time you have. So if you want to do something, if you have dreams of going to Europe, if you want to start a business, if you want to write a book, you better just do it. Because you just never know. You never know how much time you have, and so that’s really how we’ve been living.
STACEY GUALANDI: Mary is currently working on a project for children who have mothers with cancer. You can check out her other books – Chicken Soup for the Breast Cancer Survivor’s Soul, Path of the Pearl, and Tools and Tips from the Trenches – in bookstores and on her website at 1bestttt.com.