The first speech Lynne Vestal ever gave as a breast cancer survivor took place on an empty plot of land. It was the groundbreaking ceremony for the Mercy Cancer Center West Lakes addition. She spoke from the heart, and when she was finished, everyone in the audience stood up. “Are we going somewhere now?” Vestal thought.
The crowd wasn’t going anywhere. They were giving her a standing ovation.
There were many tears and many thank-yous. One gentleman in attendance approached Vestal to tell her how important it was for her to share her story for her own sake. She was confused by this, stating that she was fine. The more she thought about it, the more sense it made. It was a two-way street.
“What it made me realize is how important it is to teach and share your experience,” said Vestal, who has been cancer-free for five years.
Vestal’s private practice office now coincidentally sits on that same patch of dirt she gave the talk at three years ago. While her focus has been eating disorders, she now incorporates cancer survivors into her client base.
Many times patients will come to her knowing Vestal has battled cancer and come out victorious, beautiful long hair and all. It took her some time to get used to injecting her personal struggles into the dynamic, but eventually she got it right.
“The balance is how do you not make it about yourself but also say, ‘I totally get ya,’” Vestal explained. “I think if we connect on some things, we want to share that. We’re just human. It would be a foolish waste of some really good information for a person if they didn’t know that.”
Vestal’s goal isn’t to tell the survivors what to do or how to do it, but rather to help them excavate their own wisdom.
“People that don’t go through pain and suffering like that don’t understand,” said one patient of hers.
“She was the pot of the gold at the end of the rainbow for us,” told another.
Vestal likes to tell her patients, “You pay for my skills, but I care about you for free.”
Nearly every patient she sees – cancer survivors, people with eating disorders, everyone – will explain upon the first meeting that life didn’t quite turn out the way they had planned.
Vestal can speak from experience since getting diagnosed with breast cancer in 2005 never fit into her agenda. And she does, giving many talks a year on her experience, showing a photo of her with a bald head on the projector. It took a toll on her, and she went through many similar phases as the clients she sees today. Missing work, missing kids’ sporting events, depression, hair loss, weight gain, the whole gamut.
She learned that we’re all under an illusion of control.
“The good news is you’re the pilot of your own plane,” she said. “The bad news is you’re the pilot of your own plane.”
She had her hands on the yoke, but the lightning and the turbulence were messing with her.
“I had this image of an hourglass, and the sand was just going way too fast and I couldn’t slow it down,” Vestal said. “I felt that way for a long time. It was really frightening.”
Vestal had to suspend her practice during her recovery, and after nine months away, she walked into her office, sat down in her chair, and she cried.
“I thought, ‘How am I going to start this all over again?’” she recalled. “Do I have the ‘mojo’ to get back into it again?”
Then the phone rang. It was a common hospital call requesting that she see a patient. The woman on the other line didn’t give Vestal a chance to interrupt as she provided the case and date of birth. She had no idea Vestal had ever been gone.
“I just kind of went, ‘Welcome back!’” Vestal said with a laugh. “And within a month everything was back. I was busy.”
She had returned, but with a twist. Vestal used to be a self-proclaimed workaholic. The first time a patient asked after her comeback if she ‘did nights,’ Vestal thought for a few moments and responded, “No. No I don’t.”
She went home to her kids, cooked them dinner, went to sporting events, took her twin daughters on separate trips to Europe.
Tomorrow she’s hopping a plane to Nepal to go check out Mount Everest on an 18-day hike with a group of 13 other cancer survivors.
“The only thing I can control is how to live my life,” Vestal said with a smile and all the time in the world.
The hourglass never stopped. It’s just been filled with a lot more sand, which makes it feel as if the grains fall more slowly. Enough to enjoy the flight of life again, passenger or pilot.
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