By Laurel Thompson | Photos by Julie Ulstrup Photography
In honor of Breast Cancer Awareness Month, three local survivors share their stories—from diagnosis to remission—and how they’re helping others on the road to recovery.
No one is ever truly prepared for a breast cancer diagnosis, especially those with low risk factors and nofamily history of the disease. is was the case for threelocal women whose worlds were shaken in 2019 when, despite living healthy lifestyles, they received the news that no onewants to hear. But rather than losing hope, each took it as an opportunity to focus on what matters most and embarked on a journey of healing.
In spring 2019, Cassie Cilli was living her best life: she had quit her job in the beauty industry and moved
to New Zealand, where she spent her days working at a restaurant, traveling and running long-distance races. At one particular race, she won a green stone necklace that she holds near and dear to her heart— so near that she reached for it one day and felt a lump on her chest.
“Without the necklace, I doubt I would have noticed the lump,” she says. “I had never done any kind of self-breast exam before this, so it was a shock to feel something strange there. Even though I knew deep down what it probably was, I immediately started Googling the possibilities, and not to my surprise, everything pointed in the direction of cancer.”
Cilli headed to the clinic for a mammogram where her suspicions were later confirmed: she had developed stage 2 breast cancer at age 32. Despite renewing her visa several days prior, she was suddenly faced with the decision to stay in New Zealand for a second year or move back home for treatment. She ultimately chose to move back to Loveland, where she currently lives with her dad.
“I just thought to myself, ‘What if I’m dying and I don’t get to see my family again?’ I have friends
in New Zealand that were really supportive of me, but I felt like coming home was the right decision. I had a long year of treatment ahead of me and really needed that strong support system at home,” she says.
The treatment started as soon as she got back to the United States, with chemotherapy sessions every three weeks for four months, then the lumpectomy and removal of affected lymph nodes. Following that was radiation every weekday for six weeks at the Banner MD Anderson Cancer Center in Loveland.
“The period between diagnosis and treatment is very overwhelming—the phone is constantly ringing and you’re setting up all these appointments and procedures you need to have,” she explains. “What made matters worse was that I still couldn’t gure out why this was happening to me. I’m young, I’m a vegetarian and I’m really active, so it just didn’t add up. Cancer really doesn’t discriminate.”
It was at this point that Cilli decided to focus on the positives and forget about the potential causes. She had received an incredible amount of support from friends and family—they drove her to and from treatments and even set up a GoFundMe to help pay for her care. That’s when she got connected with Hope Lives!.
“Hope Lives! really changed things for me—I thought I’d end up using the vouchers for a lot of
the spa treatments and other healing services, but I actually ended up using most of them for therapy,” she says. “I have never been one to talk about my feelings much, so it was hard at rst, but I de nitely needed an outlet during that time. All my friends were getting married or having kids, and here I was balding from chemo. Therapy really helped me embrace this obstacle I’m overcoming in life and view it more as a victory than a setback.”
Today, Cilli is focusing on giving her body what it needs, whether that be a walk outside, a short jog or binge-watching reruns of Gossip Girl in bed. As an ambassador for Hope Lives!, she is sharing her story with others in the hope that they assess their risk factors early and pay attention to their bodies.
“Follow your intuition and check in with a doctor if things don’t feel right,” she says. “Ask lots of questions and don’t be afraid to choose the path of treatment that you are most comfortable with. No one’s cancer story looks the same, and you can reclaim some of the power over this disease by tuning into your body and allowing yourself to receive the care and attention you need.”
All her life, Jen Brennan has been a living, breathing example of what it means to be healthy: she eats organic, teaches yoga nidra and even has her own line of all-natural, homeopathic skincare products. Her yoga practice in particular has sharpened her senses and made her even more in-tune with her body, so when she felt an abnormal pain underneath her arm, she immediately knew something wasn’t right.
“I was only 47 at the time, and I had no family history of breast cancer, so it was a bit of a shock when the mammogram results came in and I got my diagnosis,” she says. “On September 11 of last year, I got a call from the radiologist saying that I had a rare, invasive type of breast cancer. 9/11 is a tough day anyway, so it kind of seemed appropriate to get that type of news—I felt like my world was ending, and it was, as I knew it.”
Still grappling with the fact that she was now a cancer patient, Brennan broke the news to friends and family: “When you receive a diagnosis that has the potential to take your life, it becomes a wakeup call—not just for me, but for everybody—about how fragile life is. It’s the kind of news that can really shake up a lot of people’s worlds, so I tried to hold space for them to express their feelings and concerns as well. From that moment on, we were all in this together.”
Having come from a holistic background with minimal medical intervention, radiation was a major hurdle for Brennan. It seemed to her as though nearly everyone who had started with cancer treatment ended up succumbing to the disease at some point, and she even had people in her yoga classes who were on the long road to recovery. But after consulting with her family and the doctors at Banner MD Anderson Cancer Center in Greeley, she decided that it was best to move forward with a lumpectomy and radiation therapy.
“There comes a point where you have to be willing to allow yourself to receive the care that may be necessary, even if there’s a danger component to it,” she explains. “I had a lot of belief patterns and expectations for my health that I had to let go of for the time being so I could focus on the path ahead. It really came down to making a conscious decision to give more power to my peace than to my pain.”
Once the cancer was removed, Brennan went through 20 sessions of radiation ve days per week and began working one-on-one with a specialist
at the University of Northern Colorado Cancer Rehabilitation Institute. But what she didn’t expect was for the doors of opportunity to swing wide open during her rst radiation treatment when a nurse handed her a pamphlet for Hope Lives!.
“I was at a pivotal point of thinking ‘I can either sink or swim,’ and it has been the thing that has helped me swim rather than sink,” she says. “There’s part of you that feels like you’ve lost all connection to normalcy in life when you’re going through radiation, but when I learned about Hope Lives!, I was introduced to a wonderful community of healers that are willing to walk alongside you and truly improve your quality of life during and after cancer treatment.”
Brennan has since returned to many of her pre- cancer activities, such as volunteering for hospice and making natural skincare products, but this time she’s doing even more to give back.
“There’s nothing more touching than receiving something handmade when you’re undergoing cancer treatment, so I’m going to start donating care packages with my soaps, bath salts, lotions and other natural skincare products to Hope Lives!,” she says. “I’ve also been volunteering at the infusion center and I hope to start leading breast cancer support groups—I just want others who are going through this to know that they aren’t alone and there is still life to be lived, no matter what their diagnosis looks like.”
When Kimberly Gagnon moved from California to south Fort Collins with her family nearly seven years ago, she couldn’t help but notice the cancer clinic billboards around town and uttered a few words that would soon change her life: “Wow, seems like this would be a great place to get cancer.”
At the time, Gagnon was traveling frequently for business and didn’t think to visit the doctor for regular mammograms until her best friend passed away from advanced colon cancer at age 45. With no family history of breast cancer and no symptoms to raise a red ag, she had no reason to suspect that anything abnormal would show up on the scan. So, when she got a call from the radiologist at UCHealth asking her to come back in for additional tests, the realization started to set in.
“Going through test after test with no de nitive answer was very frustrating at rst, and when they nally had an answer for me, I had to go into the clinic to receive the news,” she says. “So, my husband and I went in for the of cial diagnosis on July 24 of last year and just started laughing at the irony of the situation, though we were at least a little relieved that we had an answer and could move forward with a treatment plan.”
The next several months were trying for Gagnon, as she underwent surgery at the UCHealth Cancer Center to have a tumor removed along with several lymph nodes for testing, followed by six-and-a-half weeks of radiation, Monday through Friday. Luckily, the mammogram picked up on warning signs early enough for the disease to be classi ed as a non-aggressive form of stage 1 breast cancer, so she didn’t have to go the chemo route. And for that, Gagnon is incredibly grateful.
“In all other senses of the word, I was really healthy for a 53-year-old,” she says. “I had never experienced any major medical events in my life, aside from having four kids and a hernia years prior, so I was just really glad I didn’t have to go through chemotherapy in addition to the lumpectomy. Radiation can still be pretty rough—it kind of leaves a burn mark where they inject you, and
it’s really exhausting when you have to do it ve times per week. I did lose some of my armpit hair for a while though, so I can’t complain about that!”
Gagnon’s sense of humor and strong faith have carried her through the challenges of cancer recovery— that, and a strong support system of friends, family and some of Northern Colorado’s top medical experts. She has been given lots of resources to tap into, including holistic health practitioners, nutritionists, physical therapists and more who assisted in the healing process during and post radiation.
“I got connected with a local nonpro t called Hope Lives!, which offers tons of specialized services to help you through the recovery process. They give you vouchers to use for things like acupuncture, massage and chiropractic adjustments, as well as counseling, energy work and so much more,” she explains.
“It was really a blessing to be showered with so much love and attention by these specialists and donors within the community—I even got to pick out a hand-knit blanket and beanie at Hope Lives!, and I was given a scarf at the UCHealth Cancer Center that a high school boy made out of the kindness of his heart.”
Having just celebrated the one-year anniversary of her diagnosis, Gagnon is well on the road to recovery and shares her story with others battling breast cancer as an ambassador for Hope Lives!.
“I really do believe that everything happens for a reason, so I just want to encourage people who are going through cancer to focus on the good that is happening around them during this time,” she says. “Know that you are loved and supported and have so many resources at your ngertips—all you have to do is accept the help.”
Laurel Thompson is a Fort Collins native and CSU alum. When she isn’t writing for local lifestyle publications, you’ll nd her soaking up the sun, cooking something delicious, or reading a good book while sipping an iced coffee. To comment on this article, email firstname.lastname@example.org.