In February 2019, UNC Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center profiled inspirational breast cancer survivor Anita McAllister here. In honor of Breast Cancer Awareness Month in October, we caught up with Anita to chat about her continued journey as a survivor and her exciting travel plans to come.
How have you been doing since UNC Lineberger did a feature story on you in February?
Everything is going really well! I’m back at work as a healthcare consultant. I started back to work March 1 where I travel every week – usually I’m on the road Mondays through Thursdays.
I still have neuropathy from my chemotherapy treatments, but I’m just learning to live with it. It gets better, but it’s not gone. But I’m not going to let that hold me back. I’ve had to change some things – I can’t get up as early for work travel anymore, and I’ll check a suitcase instead of carrying one on myself – but I’ve made it work. My company’s been very flexible with me, and I know how lucky I was with that. Now that I’m back, they understand I can’t do everything the same that I used to. I know how fortunate I am.
You have always loved travel and adventure. What’s on the horizon for you?
I’m training for a trip to Patagonia that will be November 1st-15th. It’s an all-women trip, a group that I also went to Machu Picchu with in 2017 before I was diagnosed with breast cancer. There was a woman on that trip that was a survivor as well, but I didn’t know it at first. I remember when we did the hardest climb with the highest altitude on Day 2, and she broke down in tears. She shared her experience as a survivor with everyone later that night. As bad as chemo and radiation are and as much as they tear you down, it was an incredibly emotional and empowering experience for her to make this climb and be able to say, “I can do this.” When I became a breast cancer survivor, I finally understood how powerful this is on a personal level.
This time last year, I was getting chemo. I constantly felt like I had been hit by an eighteen-wheeler. But here I am, a year later – I’m going to go do this climb in Patagonia and test my body to the extreme, but I know I can do it. If you can survive any cancer, and any treatment that goes with it, you can do anything.
What are you looking forward to the most about your trip?
Saying, “Oh my gosh, look at what I’m able to do.” I’m very excited about it. I know it’s going to be emotional. But it’s a personal testament to myself. It’s not going to be easy, and I’m not expecting it to be easy. Long, rugged days of hikes and unpredictable weather, but it’s going to be such a reward and I’m really looking forward to it. My niece is going with me – I wanted to share this experience with someone special, and she’s a physical therapist (which I’m going to need every day!). I got everyone little patches to put on their backpacks after we’re finished, to commemorate our trip together but as a shout out to breast cancer awareness as well.
In UNC Lineberger’s profile, you said you want to be an advocate and mentor for other breast cancer survivors and patients. How have you done this?
Any time I hear of someone who has been diagnosed with breast cancer, I offer my contact information. If they wish, I will speak with them and share stories. I always try to stay in contact, and even send little goodie baskets sometimes. I also urge every woman to have their regular mammograms.
I would love to start a book where breast cancer patients and survivors share tips, experiences, and lessons learned, similar to a community cookbook. Then it could be sold to others with proceeds benefitting breast cancer research! There’s no directional manual for cancer. You don’t know what you’re doing, you just follow what the doctors say. There’s no right answer to every question and everyone’s experience is different, but we can all share the things that got us through it.
As the cancer patient, everyone kind of expects you to let them know that you’re okay. You have to be the strong one, even though you’re the one who has the disease! When people call or come by to check on you, you feel the need to say “Oh, I’m fine,” even if you’re having a bad day or feel unwell. You have to put your best face forward because you want your loved ones to feel okay, too. That’s why it’s so important to have a support group of cancer survivors, with whom you can be vulnerable and not have to have the burden of saying “everything is fine.” You have to have a safe place.
I also make sure to tell patients to not be afraid to use their resources, like the Patient and Family Resource Center at the N.C. Cancer Hospital. As a patient, it’s not your job to make everyone else feel good all the time – you have to remember to take care of yourself.
What is important for us to know during Breast Cancer Awareness Month?
That diagnosis is a difficult time. It doesn’t matter what the diagnosis is, whether breast cancer or another cancer. It doesn’t matter where you are on the spectrum of diagnosis – it’s just such a difficult time. It’s not what anyone wants to hear or plans to happen to them. Just know that there is a whole community out there to support you, and you need to take advantage of that.
As a breast cancer survivor, sometimes being courageous just means saying, “I’ve done all I can do for today.” That’s a sign of courage, too. When you’re through with your journey, you’re still not going to be able to do what you’ve done before, and that’s okay. You just do things differently. And what really happens is, you figure out what’s really important along the way.
If there is one thing you want our readers, donors, and survivors to know about your journey and about UNC Medicine/UNC Lineberger, what would that be?
I moved back to Chapel Hill all the way from South Florida for my cancer care, because I knew that the team, from the physicians to the ancillary support, at UNC Lineberger was what would get me to where I needed to be. I chose to come to UNC not because it was in my neighborhood or even close to where I lived, because I trusted them. I knew that they would do their job to the best of their abilities, which is a really high standard of abilities. That allowed me to then focus on the personal side of things. My message would be, you have to put trust in your health team, and then when you can work on everything else – faith, spiritual, and healing – you will get through it. You are going to come out of this a different person, but you will be different in really good ways.