I saw Jenn McRobbie’s generosity and desire to help others firsthand last year when I was hosting an NFMCPA fundraiser on Fibromyalgia Awareness Day. Jenn was a friend of a friend and wanted to help with our cause; she sent me four copies of her book Why is She Acting So Weird? A Guide to Cultivating Closeness When A Friend is In Crisis.
I wondered how her book would relate to those of us with fibromyalgia. I began reading it and knew immediately that it would help anyone who knows someone living with chronic pain or going through any major life crisis. It teaches others to understand what their friend is going through and how they can help.
“It’s hard to maintain friendships when you’re sick. You can’t depend on your energy or pain levels, so you often have to cancel or change plans. Her book will give you insights into what your friend is thinking plus several things you can do for her that will actually help. I fully intend to have every single one of my clients read this book and pass it along to their friends” ~
Tami Stackelhouse, Fibromyalgia Coach, Author
Jenn shared the following insights in my recent interview with her.
What was your life like before being diagnosed with cancer?
Before I was diagnosed with cancer, I was a content family woman who was just on the edge of beginning a new career as a life coach. Up until that point in time, I’d worn many hats in my life. As far as my working life was concerned, leaving the traditional job of being an attorney to raise my daughters was the best decision I ever made. My husband was (and still is!) super supportive of my decision to stay home with the kids. But as the kids got older, I found that I was craving something else in my life. By this point, I knew I loved helping people. But, I hadn’t found the exact “form” that helping would take. I have always believed that people are good and that every person has within them the power to be happy. When I found out about life coaching, it seemed like a natural fit for me. I love being a guide for others. I’ll hold your hand. I’ll give you tough love. I’ll cheer you on. I’ll provide or help you find all the information you need to make a decision. But, I won’t make that decision for you. That’s up to you and you alone. When I coach, I’m all about empowering clients to make and do the things that will lead to their utmost happiness.
When and how were you diagnosed?
I was diagnosed with breast cancer on November 4, 2013. The weeks leading up to that diagnosis were probably the scariest weeks in my life. Sometime in the beginning of October 2013, I noticed that the nipple on my right breast seemed flatter than the other one. When I asked my husband if he thought that was different than usual, he confirmed that my nipple had not always looked like that. Over the next few weeks, the nipple began to retract further. I didn’t quite panic; after all I was 38 and had breast fed two kids — my breasts had been changing rapidly since my first daughter was born in 2007. I also knew that I had my annual appointment with my OBGYN scheduled for the end of the month. So, I waited to see him. At the appointment, as soon as I opened my robe, my doctor pointed at my right nipple and said, “Has your nipple always looked like that?” At that point, I think I began to understand that something was very wrong. He ordered an immediate diagnostic mammogram, which I got the next day. The rest is, as they say, history.
How did your life change as you learned to live with your diagnosis?
You know, I considered myself to be a very healthy person up until that point. Was I a few pounds overweight? Sure. Did I over-imbibe food and alcohol occasionally? Sure. But, I exercised, ate healthy most of the time and led a pretty active life. Being diagnosed with cancer throws all those thoughts of being “healthy” on their head. I had to wrestle with this idea that, perhaps, I was “sick.” I also had to cope with the idea that the treatments I surely was going to need were going to make me sick. It’s weird. It was strange being healthy on the outside, yet knowing (1) that I had something very dangerous inside of me and (2) that the treatments I would have to undergo would rob me of that health. This was super difficult to process.
When I was in “treatment mode” — moving from one appointment to another — that was sort of the easy part. The hardest part has been the aftermath. The process of living AFTER the hurries and worries of treatment. That’s where all the real work happens. The lasting physical impacts are few but potentially serious if not managed: lymphedema of my right breast and arm, significant scar tissue, skin damage and loss of feeling of whole sections of my right side. The psychological impacts are still working themselves out. With cancer there is always a fear of recurrence. It’s hard to live every day with that underlying fear in my mind. So, I had to decide that the fear couldn’t define me day in and day out. I can’t “rid” myself of it, but I can let it fuel me instead of sucking me dry. This process has resulted in me being even more driven to help people. It is harder for the fear to consume me when I am putting it to use protecting others.
What treatments did you go through?
Mastectomy, chemotherapy and radiation therapy. It all began with a sentinel node biopsy in November 2013. This surgery is often done in concert with a lumpectomy or mastectomy, but I had it done separately to determine whether or not I could do immediate reconstruction at the time of my mastectomy. When the lab work came back showing that the cancer had spread to my lymph nodes, I knew that I was going to need all available treatments. After assessing all my risk factors, I opted for a unilateral mastectomy. In December 2013 I had a mastectomy of my right breast. During that mastectomy, my surgeon also removed all of my underarm lymph nodes and gave me an “expander,” which keeps the skin stretched and taut during further treatments, enabling a better cosmetic result upon reconstruction. Once I had healed from the surgery, I began chemo in January 2014. I received 4 rounds of “TC” (which is the short form for the chemotherapy drugs Taxol and Cytoxan). The rounds were spaced three weeks apart. So, I finished chemo in March 2014. After healing from chemotherapy, I started radiation therapy in April 2014. Radiation consists of daily treatments, five days a week for about five to six weeks. I then had reconstructive surgery in December 2015. I opted for a procedure called the DIEP Flap, where my own fat was taken (from my stomach) and transplanted onto my chest to simulate a breast. It is a long involved surgery that leaves many physical scars, but I like knowing that I don’t have anything “foreign” in my body and that my own tissue was used to reconstruct my breast.
Congrats on being cancer FREE! How long has it been?
I was officially declared cancer free in May 2014 after all my treatments. But, the date I choose to celebrate my “cancerversary” is my diagnosis date. I choose that date because that was the day I decided that I had cancer, but cancer didn’t have me. So, it’s been just over two years now!
I read that you have always been very passionate about running.
Why was it so important to you to keep running and help others run?
This is such a good question! My oldest daughter (she’s 8 years old) just completed her first 5k run. It is so rewarding to watch her gain control over her own body and to do something so healthy with it. What’s funny is this: I wasn’t always passionate about running. I hated it. I ran track in high school because I knew it would be good exercise for swimming (my primary sport). I ran in college because the Army makes you run. But after that, I would have told you that I only ran when chased. When my oldest daughter was born, I had lost sight of the amazingness of my own body. I wanted to exercise to gain strength and sanity; the only way I really knew how to do that was to run. I worked my way up in mileage and speed and discovered that I was a faster and stronger runner as an adult than I had been as a child. This surprised me and spurred me to continue running. Now I’m so passionate about running and helping others run because the lessons running taught me are lifelong ones. Running taught me three amazing things: (1) that my body is capable of amazing feats, (2) that I can do anything I can put my mind to, and (3) that I love being alone with thoughts because it’s the best time to enjoy my health and freedom. Who wouldn’t want to share those messages with the world?! 🙂
Which came first – writing the book, becoming a life coach or a motivational speaker? Do you have a favorite?
Being a life coach came first and, frankly, I’m so glad for that. Life coach training — at least the program I did through Martha Beck — was a lot about doing my own work on my own stuff. So, it gave me a lot of tools that helped me to gather my wits to write the book. I also use my life coaching skills on myself every time I speak. Just because I like speaking doesn’t mean I’m not terrified before I stand up on stage. 🙂
My favorite, to be honest, is speaking in front of groups. Although I love writing and I love coaching clients, I thrive on the energy of a room full of people. I am an extreme extrovert, by nature, so being on stage or at the front of a room talking out my issues feels natural and right.
What helped you decide to write your book Why is She Acting So Weird? A Guide to Cultivating Closeness When A Friend is In Crisis?
I always wanted to write a book. I have like three unfinished novels sitting on my computer right now. But, the impetus behind starting this book … and actually FINISHING it was this: this was a story that needed to be told right away to start making a difference in this world. I wrote the book as a sort of catharsis for all that happened to me since my diagnosis with cancer. BUT, I wrote it with the goal of helping others learn from my mistakes and from what I experienced and from what I encountered. It was this drive to get a message out there that I felt people needed to hear that drove me to write this book, finish it, and get it published.
Although you talk about your friendships during your struggle with cancer, your book has been helpful to so many others living with other illnesses. Why do you think so many can relate?
Thank you! And yes — I wrote this book with hope that it would be applicable to ALL crises, not just cancer. People in the cancer community responded right away, of course, because they were able to directly relate to my experiences. I’ve been overwhelmed and so thankful for the response from the vast number of other communities though that have told me they’ve benefited from my book in some way. I’ve heard from people with chronic pain and people with chronic illness. I’ve heard from people with depression, people in the midst of divorce and people whose friend’s crisis is long over. I think there are two main reasons why it’s so relatable.
First, I wrote this book from my heart. When you put your love and experience out there in its raw form, it’s easier for people to put themselves into your shoes. They can see themselves in me or my friends — at least that’s what I was aiming for. So, I’m completely thrilled that this has come to fruition.
Second, the experiences in this book were all really my “hero’s journey.” Not that I am a hero, that’s not what I mean. The Hero’s Journey is a classic writing pattern that’s been used for centuries. There are 12 stages in the hero’s journey, but basically it starts with the ordinary world and then progresses through some trial and ends with the subject coming out the other side with lessons learned. Who can’t relate to that experience? We all have faced crises in our lives and we will face more. It’s part of the human condition. Crisis is the reality of the world that we live in. The actual subject matter of my crisis is sort of irrelevant. I could have been writing about losing my job, my child being sick, my parents aging because the thought processes, fears and emotions of those journeys are overlapping. They’re all the same. Substitute your friend’s crisis or your crisis for mine, and you’ve got your own hero’s journey laid out in front of you.
Tell me about the three core concepts at the heart of your coaching:
Live, Love and Be Free.
Ah yes, my core concepts. What’s interesting about those is that they came to me in a dream. I never consulted with a branding expert or marketing specialist. In the dream, I was on stage and surrounded by people. I recall being told (but by whom, I’ll never know) that I had to hurry up and tell everyone what they needed to know. In my dream, I blurted out: LIVE — LOVE — BE FREE. And then I woke up. Not one to ignore divine intervention, I developed them into my core concepts. To me, they are all entertained parts of living a satisfying life.
To LIVE is to believe in yourself and your innate capacity for happiness.
To LOVE means having faith that things are going to work out.
To BE FREE is to acknowledge your place and your talents
and to pursue those in a balanced way.
I’m certainly not an advocate for dropping everything in your life to pursue what you think you love. I think that comes as a surprise to most people. We all have responsibilities, and those responsibilities don’t always make us happy. I believe that we must learn how to sway the pendulum of activities that we engage in so that, on aggregate, we are happier than we are sad or frustrated or angry. The ways I know how to do that are to cultivate how you LIVE, how you LOVE and how you can BE FREE.
Melissa: As a part of your coaching, you offer interactive conference calls. What can someone expect if they were to participate in the calls?
You can expect the unexpected! Ha! No, really. The calls I do with clients are one-on-one. You and me, we talk. We figure things out. I often give you “homework” to help you in the places where you’re stuck. I’ll help you question all those old belief systems that aren’t serving you and your life any more. There’s no set script for coaching with me. You drive the train.
I’m in the process of noodling some group coaching opportunities. In these calls, you can expect to say things you never thought you’d say to strangers and to grow through others’ experiences. You’ll learn how to support others
As if your plate isn’t full enough, you are a motivational speaker too!
What topics do you talk about?
Ha! Well, as I noted above, this is my favorite activity by far. A little secret: if I could sustain my whole business just through speaking engagements, I would! Yipes! I kind of can’t believe that I’m admitting that to you. But, it’s true. Mostly this is because I love speaking so much. I feel like the impact is so heady and powerful when you get to experience group energy. So far, I’ve done a lot of speaking to groups of cancer survivors and their caregivers and women entrepreneurs … although I’m open to audiences of any type. I have spoken about building resilience after a crisis, how to have the tough conversations in your life, coping with friends and family during/after a crisis, how to deal with waning motivation and procrastination, my experiences as an author, and
breast cancer advocacy! The topics have been wide and varied — just the way I like it!
As a chronic pain patient, I do not like being labeled or thought of as my disease. You stated; “You’re not the fat girl or the smart guy or the loser or the procrastinator. You’re YOU. And you’re a collection of things that can’t really be labeled. So, I chose “UNdefine Yourself” to connote that you are more than a label. As far as labels go, I have had a lot. I’m a daughter, sister, wife, mother, athlete, soldier, lawyer, breast cancer survivor. Along with each of those labels, I tried on a lot of different personas over the years.”
How do you use https://undefineyourself.wordpress.com/whats-undefine/ to reach out to those who you are trying to help?
Life Coach, Author, Speaker
Melissa Swanson is a chronic pain patient, advocate, and author. Through her Facebook page, she offers positive encouragement, medical information, resources, and support to 14,000+ fibromyalgia and chronic pain patients. In addition to her own blog, Melissa has been published in “Living Well with Fibromyalgia” and the NFMCPA “Advocate Voice.” She’s a graduate of the 2014 Class of Leaders Against Pain Scholarship Training sponsored by the National Fibromyalgia & Chronic Pain Association and a member of the Leaders Against Pain Action Network.
You can find Melissa at: