Finding support services during treatment: Mia Tardive
Mia Tardive didn’t plan to see a mental health professional, join a support group, or try reiki as part of her experience living with breast cancer.
“When people talk about cancer recovery, they’re often referring to chemo and radiation, but cancer doesn’t just affect your body,” says Mia, a 43-year-old speech-language pathologist, wife, and mother of three who lives in Le Mars, Iowa. “Cancer affects so many avenues of your life — including your family, your finances, your religious beliefs. I couldn’t sort it all out myself.”
After her stage III hormone receptor-positive diagnosis in December 2017, Mia had chemotherapy, a bilateral mastectomy, and breast reconstruction surgery. Post-op sepsis and organ failure led to a stay in intensive care; radiation followed. She has since participated in clinical trials and has undergone additional reconstruction surgeries; however, Mia hopes the next surgery, scheduled for November 2021, will be her last.
During the twists and turns of these last 4 years, she has discovered that “there is room for fear, sadness, and grief in cancer recovery — and there are incredible outlets to help you navigate through it all. Seeking help doesn't make you weak; it makes you brave as hell!”
Mia spoke with LBBC contributor Stephanie Levin about why she decided to see a therapist and how that experience paved the way for her to seek additional — and other kinds of — support.
Stephanie: What made you decide to see a therapist?
Mia: I appeared strong and independent at home and with friends, but I remember showing up for a couple of oncology appointments; I was really emotional. I would get teary-eyed. You’re in the cancer center, you’re there facing your demons. Seeing me that way, my oncologist asked if I had considered therapy. To be honest, before that, I really hadn’t. When I was first diagnosed, my care team had given me those kinds of resources, but I had thought, “I got this, I’m fine. I’ve got to be a mom and I’ve got work and I’ll still run races.” I hadn’t needed therapy. But, at that moment, I just said “yes.” I didn’t even hesitate.
I started seeing a therapist who specializes in oncology patients. I think the first time I went, I was there for 2 hours — and it felt like 10 minutes! My therapist reassured me that I wasn’t crazy, that I wasn’t having a breakdown or anything. I was just emotionally dealing with some really heavy trauma because of what I’d been through. Everything had caught up with me.
I needed someone to help me. Since my therapist specialized in oncology patients, she understood the cancer part of it, not just the emotional stuff, which was really helpful to me.
Stephanie: How often and for how long did you see the therapist?
Mia: About a year. I saw her weekly for a while and then we tapered to monthly sessions. I still use the tools I learned in therapy. Then, right before COVID shut everything down, my therapist and another social worker started a cancer survivors’ support group for women living with breast, ovarian, or cervical cancer, which I joined.
Stephanie: What was that experience like?
Mia: It was an 8-week course. We started in person, but unfortunately COVID derailed that, so we finished out the series virtually. The dialogue was fantastic. What was really cool about it was the camaraderie I had with other women who could relate to what I was talking about. There are still several of us — we call ourselves “survivor sisters” — who talk quite often by text or phone or on Facebook.
Stephanie: How was participating in that support group helpful to you?
Mia: When I was first diagnosed with cancer, I didn’t really want to talk about it; I didn’t want anyone to know. I live in a small community, and I didn’t want everyone staring at me — I didn’t want to be that person. I wanted to appear fine, healthy, and OK. I didn’t need to talk to anyone about it.
I’m really grateful that I got to point where I could see the value of participating in a support group; I took so much out of that experience. It was an amazing opportunity to be supported by people who understood what I had been going through, and being there for other people who were going through similar things was really powerful.
Stephanie: Was it important for you to connect with other young women for support?
Mia: In my support group there were women of all ages, which was great. I was one of the younger survivors, but age just wasn’t really a thing. There was camaraderie for all of us — and I learned from the older survivors, too.
That said, during radiation I would look around the room and I was very aware of how young I was. There is definitely a place for connecting with young survivors because our circumstances are unique — we might be raising families or have reproductive concerns that don’t affect older survivors. And I did get that from other groups and activities.
Stephanie: How did you find resources geared toward young people?
Mia: Because of COVID, opportunities were limited, but I did receive advocacy training and find support from a group called the Young Survival Coalition. Also, in December 2020, I participated in a virtual Gabfest conference hosted by Elephants and Tea for young people impacted by all types of cancer — survivors as well as caregivers. Wow, it was really powerful. It was really interesting to be introduced to young people living with a lot of different types of cancer. You felt like people really got you. That group has also given me opportunities to write and chat and connect with other young survivors. I am also participating in LBBC’s Young Advocate Program.
Stephanie: What has that experience been like?
It’s been great. It’s an honor to be able to meet and learn from so many phenomenal women. I hope to use my passion for making a difference for others in the breast cancer world. What I'm learning with LBBC is to take my advocacy efforts to the next level.
Stephanie: In what other ways have you received support?
Mia: Last winter, my left breast had to be removed due to a staph infection; walking out of the hospital without a breast was devastating for me. I felt emotionally lower than I ever had. My cousin who is a reiki practitioner in Idaho reached out to me. She knew what I was going through, knew I was hurting emotionally, because I was posting on my blog. She wanted to help. I had never received reiki treatments, but I thought, “it can’t hurt. I need help.” I was down-and-out, and when she called me, I thought, this is it. So I agreed to try distance reiki, and we’ve been having virtual sessions weekly ever since. Our sessions include Theta healing, another energy healing practice. These sessions have really helped me find peace; it’s been absolutely lifesaving.
Stephanie: What have you learned since your diagnosis?
Mia: That it’s OK not to be OK; it’s OK to be vulnerable. That [realization] took a long time for me. I still carry with me all of the tools and things I’ve learned — from individual and group therapy, my virtual support network, the reiki and Theta healing. And I hope all of those things will help me thrive. That’s the goal — and to have learned a whole bunch of stuff along the way.
For more information about getting help and support for breast cancer, visit our page on building your emotional support community.
This article was supported by the Grant or Cooperative Agreement Number 1 NU58DP006672, funded by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Its contents are solely the responsibility of the authors and do not necessarily represent the official views of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention or the Department of Health and Human Services.