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Breast cancer 'thrivers' share the 5 things they wish people knew

TODAY logo TODAY 10/22/2021 Kerry Breen

October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month, and to honor those affected by the disease, TODAY is highlighting the stories of those who are dealing with the illness.

NBC News' Donna Farizan spoke to a group of women who had been diagnosed with breast cancer and were all at different stages in their fight with the disease.

The four women spoke candidly about what their experiences have been like, and shared tips on how people can best support loved ones diagnosed with breast cancer.

1. Not everyone wants to be called a survivor.

When it comes to talking about breast cancer and its effects, the women interviewed emphasized how much language matters.

Alicia Chaun, 51, who was diagnosed with breast cancer in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, said that she prefers to call herself a "fighter" when explaining her situation.

Related: Shannen Doherty says she's continuing to live her life, as she deals with stage 4 breast cancer.

"I feel like I have to fight," Chaun said. "In the very beginning, especially, I had to fight every day to get up, to go to treatment, to just almost live."

Meanwhile, Lindsey Baguio Gerhard, who was diagnosed with the illness at just 30 years old, prefers to call the fight against breast cancer "an experience," rather than using more common words like "journey."

"I don't want to call it a journey, because 'journey' implies that there is a destination," Gerhard, 37, explained.

Breast cancer patients also have preferences for what they're called when they're in recovery or remission. NBC News' Kristen Dahlgren recently penned an essay where she revealed she'd rather be called a "thriver" than survivor something she shares with 48-year-old Tomika Bryant, who was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2013.

Related: Since I last shared my story on the TODAY show in October 2020, I have endured three more painful surgeries.

"With cancer, you don't have any control over (it), but I do believe that in the midst of it all I thrived, hence the reason why I like to use the word thriver," Bryant said. "I think if you think that you're thriving, and you look at it towards a goal that you're trying to reach, it's really important."

2. We don’t always want to talk about cancer.

Obviously, a cancer diagnosis has a major impact on someone's life but that doesn't mean they want it to be the centerpiece of every conversation.

"We don't always want to talk about cancer, especially when we're in the midst of treatment," said Bryant.

Instead, try just being there and supporting them.

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"My advice to a lot of people is 'take action,'" Bryant continued. "Go pick up their kids, just take them somewhere. Even if she doesn't ask you, just go pick up the kids (or) bring a meal. ... Go and sit with her and have a conversation."

Chaun said that one of those surprise visits from a friend was "the best" way she could have been supported.

"I had a friend who said 'Can I do anything for you? Do you need anything?' And I said no, of course ... I was in bed all day, and she ended up coming over," Chaun said. "And it was the best thing. That's what I actually needed. I needed to (feel) almost normal."

Related: Weslinne Cespedes worried about leaving her house as COVID-19 cases increased, but she knew she needed cancer treatment to keep her health — and life — on track.

3. Every breast cancer patient’s experience is different.

No cancer patient will have the same experience. People will experience different symptoms, varying forms of treatment, and be given a range of prognoses.

For Bryant, tackling breast cancer meant making sure she looked good so that she could try to feel good.

"I didn't let breast cancer define who I was," Bryant said. "There was ugly happening on the outside. On the inside, I needed to make sure the outside did not reflect that. Every time I went to chemotherapy, you would have thought I was going out, like on a date. I was in high-heeled shoes. I always had on red lipstick."

Related: There are some unusual symptoms that women may not know about.

4. There are helpful ways to support the friends and family of those going through treatment.

While those diagnosed with breast cancer may shoulder the burden of that diagnosis, their friends, family and other loved ones are also affected. Chaun said that she saw that first-hand with her husband.

"We only think about the person that has breast cancer, but I know it also affects my husband," Chaun said. "He's my rock. He's my everything."

Gerhard said that she and her husband had to learn how "to talk" through the situation.

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"I've had to realize that my husband has his own experience of my breast cancer diagnosis," Gerhard said. "We've just learned to talk through the discomfort, talk through the hard stuff, but also give him space and then come back to it when we're both in a better mental space and clear-headed."

5. There’s life after diagnosis.

Ivis Febus Sampoyo, 66, who was first diagnosed with breast cancer at 38, said that when she first received her diagnosis, she worried she would not be able to be there for her children, then 2 and 10 years old. Now, after beating breast cancer twice, she's attended both of their weddings.

"I can say that I've been blessed," Sampoyo said. "I've danced at both (their) weddings. I'm now Nana and I have my beautiful granddaughter. I've been able to watch them grow up, share their birthdays, whatever they're dealing with."

Related: I always wanted to make things magical for my two sons. My breast cancer diagnosis didn't quite fit into that plan.

Gerhard said that her own cancer diagnosis almost "gave (her) the opportunity" to develop more confidence in herself.

"(Cancer) helped me let go of the inner critic, and I learned to have more confidence in my voice, my story, and not let my insecurities and fear run the show," Gerhard said. "I thought I knew what I wanted out of life, and then I went through all that treatment, and I had to adjust and redefine my story and my identity, and now I've chosen to just live life on my own terms, whatever the future holds."

Gerhard isn't the only one who was able to grow during her breast cancer journey.

Related: Shannen Doherty is sharing unflinchingly real photos from her breast cancer journey to urge fans to get mammograms.

"My breast cancer diagnosis has made me realize I am stronger than I thought," Chaun said. "I really didn't realize that I could, with the help of my husband and family and friends, pull through this."

Bryant said that her cancer journey has had the "silver lining" of creating a supportive community of women.

"While I hate cancer, I love the pink sorority that we have created," Bryant said. "I just love, love, love the way, the community, we are, and how nurturing and helpful we are, and how we want to be to one another. We are literally a family."

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