Fighting the Odds with Bess
Bess Hagans - Executive Director Thriving Beyond Breast Cancer
When we stop to reflect on our lives and be grateful for all we have, it can be easy to overlook the privilege of being in good health. According to the CDC, each year in the United States, about 240,000 cases of breast cancer are diagnosed in women. In a true story of resilience, Bess Hagans is paving the way for survivors to navigate through their cancer journeys. Through her non-profit, Thriving Beyond Breast Cancer, Bess & her partner Elisa DiMeo have created an organization based on their own experiences and aimed at helping those going through the very same thing.
Bess Hagans is a 34-year-old wife, mother, businesswoman, & advocate based out of Columbus who has had more than her share of first-hand experience with the healthcare system and its flaws. After undergoing the 5 rounds of IVF that resulted in her beautiful daughter, Bess and her husband made the move from New York to Ohio. Following the move and birth of her baby, Bess found herself feeling lethargic, fatigued, and struggling to get through her day to day. After several doctor visits that yielded no explanations, Bess had reached the point of giving up. When talking to some friends, she brought up her concerns that it may be cancer that was making her feel this way. The following day while relaxing, she came across the lump in her chest that ultimately led to the diagnosis of her stage 3 breast cancer.
After an OBGYN appointment that led her to a mammography exam, Bess was still feeling confident that it couldn’t possibly be cancer. “I went in having no idea that I would be getting diagnosed with cancer that day so I went by myself. I was not expecting that I would need any support with me. It turns out that on the mammogram and ultrasound, it was so evident that I had cancer, that they didn’t even want to wait until the weekend was over to do the biopsy,” she shared. Once the diagnosis was presented and the biopsy taken, Bess still had to wait an entire week before finding out the stage of her diagnosis and if it would be treatable or terminal.
Apart from the trauma of being blindsided by her diagnosis, Bess then had to navigate the results of her stage three results as well as the chemo treatments that followed. “It was very very scary. I just assumed I was going to die. The first chemo that I did (AC) is supposed to be one of the most intense chemos that there is, and it wasn’t doing anything to my tumor. For two months I was literally contemplating what was going to happen to me and how I was going to write my will and all of these things.” During this difficult time, Bess found herself turning to the breast cancer community in order to find solace in her struggles. What she found in that space was ultimately what led to the creation of Thriving Beyond Breast Cancer and her desire to give back to the community that got her through her own personal health journey.
The breast cancer community online was a huge part of Bess’ story and is the group she credits for helping her navigate such a difficult time in her life. The comradery and understanding among survivors is such a deeply supportive part of her journey, and those also experiencing the same or similar diagnosis. Bess shared, “I felt like I could be seen. The second I would follow someone or share my story, they would reach out to me. And this is hundreds of women. This tells you something about how tight-knit the breast cancer community is. It feels like a sisterhood, but one that you don't want to be part of. But if you do end up being part of this club, it sucks but at least there are wonderful people to lift you up and guide you.”
Ultimately, after fighting through the struggles herself, Bess was motivated to create a space for others after her to have the knowledge, support, & resources that she found most helpful in her experience. “After going through my infertility, IVF, stage three diagnosis, and almost dying, I just felt like I could relate to women who are really truly in the thick of it,” she told us. This attitude of helping women through their lowest and most difficult points is what led to her involvement in a podcast and finally the creation of the non-profit.
Bess said, “We realized that we were actually so lucky. We have really good health insurance, we come from an extremely privileged background, and we have the means and the resources to get us through this. There are so many things that affect the young cancer community that wouldn't affect an older person. The problem is that in this middle-income range, that’s where the gap is. If you're low income, you're usually getting that government assistance which is great for them but then you also have this other group of women who are living paycheck to paycheck.” This is why Thriving Beyond Breast Cancer has a steadfast goal of not only providing financial assistance to the community but mental health resources as well. There are so many layers to the experience of fighting this illness, and TBBC is determined to provide as much guidance as possible for those who have been forced to tackle these challenges.
We asked Bess about women who inspire her and she told us all about her mother who works in the non-profit space as well and had been through her own cancer experience in her 30s. Having a very similar situation at a similar time in her life made talking with her mother, during her journey, very easy for Bess. She told us, “My mom has been able to have candid conversations with me about death, the meaning of my existence, my legacy, and these very intimate conversations that didn’t even get emotional and were more just matter of fact. Talking through it with her felt like I was in a mental space where I could handle these things. She truly is the guiding voice of all of this and I am just so thankful for her.”
Bess also commended all of the women in the community who have embraced her despite their own lives and struggles going on. All of the women before her have not only paved the way but have held her hand and gotten Bess through her fight and efforts. “I have a new sense of how wonderful humans can actually be because the majority of these people are so good and are coming from a place where they want to serve and be helpful.”
Since breast cancer in men is far less common than in women, with that comes the differences in experience that women often encounter in regard to their health concerns. It can be difficult to navigate the ins and outs of the healthcare system for any patient but the added layer of being a woman can make getting the help you need that much more impossible. Bess talked about her experience in a positive way and shared that she felt very seen, understood, and listened to throughout her experience. She also, however, views this as a lucky scenario and knows that it is rarely the case that the full scope of a woman's needs can be taken into consideration with a medical diagnosis.
In her previous experience with infertility, Bess shared, “Prior to this, I was going to a lot of doctors for my infertility, and it ended up being that 99% of the work falls on the women. We are the ones doing the shots, having the egg retrieval, and the implant. We aren’t usually taken very seriously even though we are the ones carrying the burden.” She also talked a bit about her male doctor and the physical exams that went along with getting cleared for IVF. At that time, she had gotten a breast exam as part of the general exams and there was no note of any irregularities. A few months later, she had found her own egg-sized lump and was left wondering how it went unnoticed for so long.
Driven by her personal journey and introduction to the breast cancer community, Bess has created a safe haven for others with her work through Thriving Beyond Breast Cancer. Mental health and sexual health are a huge part of their efforts and they are in the process of developing programs with a local hospital to create a support group that can be joined by women who can benefit from the community aspect of the experience. Their goals are to continue to expand and have a variety of support groups in various hospital systems to help everyone involved and even benefit the medical and insurance institutions. With all of it being so intertwined, all of the layers of financial, physical, and mental issues come up together and must all be addressed in order to make a change.
We touched on the privilege of being unaware of all that lies beneath a negative health diagnosis of any kind. It is so easy to forget, or even be unaware of, the different aspects that can impact a health journey. Bess shared, “I didn’t know how broken our healthcare system truly was until all these things started happening to me.” This is a huge reason for our interest in this topic for this month as it is so important to be aware of flaws in a system, even when you may not be a part of that system yourself. It was truly so educational to speak with someone who not only experienced these struggles firsthand but has navigated their way through it all and had chosen to pass on that knowledge to others facing the same.
In situations like this, we often seek out affirmations that can help get us through. For Bess, this exists in the form of both a personal mantra and words of wisdom. In situations where her anxiety takes control and the idea of a returning illness or overcoming obstacles presents itself, Bess shares with us her reminder that “Worrying does not add another day to my life.” This mantra helps to get her through times when things can feel overwhelming and the thoughts of returning to the struggles she's already overcome once before begin to creep back in.
Similarly, Bess shared her words of wisdom for all who could use a bit of self-reflection and insight from someone who has overcome her struggles. She shared the strangeness of confronting death at such a young age and really contemplating what life can be and what it can mean when we’re gone. “I feel like my entire life I've been working toward having my daughter and everything I do is for her. And the thought of me leaving and the thought of her not knowing who I am after all of that shit broke my heart I was devastated. So, I made that my mission from the day I was diagnosed that my kid is going to be proud of me. They're going to know who I am, and I am going to leave a legacy.”
Beyond the moving stories and passed-on wisdom of those who have been through breast cancer, or any other serious diagnosis, there is a call to action for everyone to look beyond their privileges and seek out ways they can make a positive change. Above all else, the best way for anyone to support and encourage the work that Bess and others like her advocate for every day, is to uplift and involve ourselves in organizations such as Thriving Beyond Breast Cancer. On their brand-new website, TBBC visitors can find all the information on ways to get involved and support the organization. For anyone wanting to go the extra mile, their messages and contact form are always open to ways they can collaborate and work with you. They are Ohio-based and are continuously refining their programs with the goal of expanding all over the country in the future.
Bess Hagans's story is not only one of resilience and strength but also one of kindness and depth. Beyond being a shining light and a source of joy, she is also unafraid to talk about difficult topics. Having gone through her experiences as a thoughtful and intentional person, Bess shows just how important it is to foster a sense of community and pay forward the kindness once shown to her. In the face of adversity, she has overcome her own struggles while almost immediately turning around and creating a space to provide the same support she was given, back to those who need it now. It was an honor to hear Bess’ story and learn all about Thriving Beyond Breast Cancer's efforts and missions. We are proud to support them and their programs to benefit those navigating their cancer journeys.