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What the “Big C” Taught Me About Life

Posted by Keri Bertolino on

You’re never prepared to hear the words, “You have cancer.” And, technically, I never really did. On Friday, November 13, 2009, I was sitting in my office awaiting a phone call back from Brigham and Women’s Hospital with the results of a biopsy. I had been having chest pains – similar to a panic attack – and was unsure why. A trip to the ER confirmed that I had a tumor in my chest close to my heart, causing the shortness of breath I had been experiencing in the weeks prior.

The doctors at Brigham & Women’s wanted to determine what this was so they would know how to treat it. That Friday afternoon, I got a call from someone other than a doctor – a lab assistant, maybe. But she told me she couldn’t go through my results with me, only that they would be sending everything over to Dana-Farber and would “be in touch regarding next steps.”

I hung up and sat there stunned. This couldn’t be good. Dana-Farber was a cancer hospital. Did this woman really just unknowingly tell me I had cancer? In short, she did, and the following week I was there meeting my new team of doctors, who explained that what I had was mediastinal large B-cell lymphoma, a rare type of non-Hodgkin lymphoma. With no known cause, this cancer is typically found in young women my age. They assured me that, because it was an aggressive form, it would be easier to treat and that I’d have a series of chemotherapy treatments over the next several months followed by radiation.

I sat in the room with my doctors, my parents and boyfriend, and I couldn’t focus on anything anyone was saying. It was as close to an out of body experience that I’ve ever had until I heard the words, “…and you will lose your hair.” Looking back, that seems like a really vain time to burst into tears, but for me, this is when things got real. I had cancer. I was going to have chemo and lose my hair. How was this even happening?

I panicked inside, but I didn’t have much time to think about it because I was scheduled to start treatment the very next morning.

I spent the afternoon at Dana-Farber in meeting after meeting, answering questions and making decisions that made me realize the long-term impact these treatments were going to have on my body (decisions like freezing my eggs, which had to be made that day). I spent the night at the pharmacy filling prescriptions for anti-nausea medication and other drugs that would help with the side effects of chemo. Standing alone at Rite Aid waiting for my prescription, I wondered how the hell this was really my life. I got home and immediately jumped online searching for anything I could find on my specific type of cancer to see what I was in for. Sadly, I didn’t find much in the way of others who had documented their treatment.

I felt lost and confused. One minute, life was so “normal” and then overnight it had been turned upside down. It’s taken me eight years and a lot of reflection to write this post, but I think it’s important to share in case you or someone you know is going through something similar. Going through this experience was life-changing – and not necessarily in a bad way. It taught me a lot about myself. It changed the course of my life and made me so much stronger in every sense of the word. And, I could not be more grateful for the following lessons I learned along the way.

Attitude is Everything

Sitting in a treatment room full of cancer patients was my first real life lesson in how your attitude and perspective can greatly impact your experience and results. I didn’t want to play the victim. I didn’t want to take a leave from work or have anyone feel bad for me. Sure, I’d have breakdowns to my parents and my boyfriend, and a few “why me?” moments, but for the most part, I knew my prognosis was good. It was aggressive, but it was curable, and I was going to beat it.

Every third Friday, I spent the day with the wonderful nurses at Dana-Farber to whom I am forever grateful for their compassion. When I told my mom, “I love coming here – everyone is so nice,” she (looking horrified) told me not to get used to being here. But that’s the attitude you have to have when going through anything like this – look for and appreciate the good things. You’re going through it regardless!

I continued working at the PR agency I’ve been with for 14 years now and, performance-wise, had my best year ever at work. Work gave me something else to focus on other than being sick.

My friends called me “Little Warrior.” It was the first time in my life I felt strong, despite being so physically weak.

There’s No Room for Negative Self-Talk

I was fortunate enough to grow up with a high metabolism and a body type that didn’t require working out. But that all changed during chemo. The last of the five drugs in my regimen was Prednisone – a steroid that contributed to weight gain during treatment.

No matter how hard I have tried, I’ve never been able to get my pre-cancer body back. That has been one of the hardest things to get used to. When I get down about it, I have to remind myself to be grateful that I have a healthy body now. One that I appreciate more than I ever have and take care of it much better through regular exercise, mindfulness and a healthier diet.

There’s a quote that comes up in my Instagram feed every so often that says, “Your body hears everything your mind says.” This is always a powerful reminder to think nice things about my body, even on the days when getting into skinny jeans is a struggle.

It’s OK to Outgrow People

Going through something as big as cancer will change your relationships. It will strengthen the bonds you have with your family and friends who are there for you when you need them most. It will test relationships with those who don’t know what to say and don’t reach out at all. Most importantly, it will make you less tolerant in the years following for anyone who doesn’t appreciate having you in their life.

I know that everyone was meant to be in my life for some time, for some reason. But for me, cutting ties with friends who made me feel “less than” enabled me to make room for the new and wonderful friendships that happened post-cancer. It’s allowed me to spend time with people who value and appreciate our friendship just as much as I do. Today, I am fortunate to be surrounded with a close-knit group of supportive women I’m lucky enough to call my best friends.

Outside Your Comfort Zone is Right Where You Should Be

Let’s face it – no one likes stepping outside of their comfort zone. That’s why it’s called a comfort zone! It took about a year or so after treatments to step outside of mine. I hired a personal trainer to help rebuild my body. I wanted to get strong and I wanted to start running. Never having run a day in my life, starting was a struggle – but I started. And I quit. And I started again. I joined a boxing gym whose owner wanted to know, “Why do you fight?” I knew why I fought and silently wondered what others who boxed alongside me had been through that gave them the fighting spirit too. I joined a run club. I was the slowest. I worked harder. I ran all 37 sections of Harvard Stadium with my run coach, Bobby. It was quite possibly the proudest I have ever been of myself for not quitting even though it was the most grueling experience. 


In 2014, I ran my first half marathon on the Dana-Farber team alongside my best friend in honor of my mother, a breast cancer survivor; my uncle, who was battling cancer and has since passed away; and my boyfriend’s mom, who had passed away after her short battle earlier that year. Four years later, I’m training for my second half.

I never would have attempted any of these before getting sick. Now, I love pushing myself. Sure, it’s uncomfortable at first. And, yes, I still book the back row every time I go to SoulCycle (shout out to Bike 53!). My “around the worlds” and “tap back push-ups” leave a lot to be desired, but you’ll find me smiling throughout the entire ride knowing that my body can do this. After everything, I can still do a tough workout and smile my way through it with the help of some incredibly motivational instructors.

What You Put On and In Your Body Matters

As careful as I am not to put too much attention on not getting cancer again (basic rule of manifestation), I do make more conscious decisions about the products I use and the foods I eat. Essential oils have replaced perfumes and over-the-counter medications. Instead of popping an Excedrin when a headache comes on, I grab Selenite and a clear quartz point. When I feel anxious, I put a few drops of a calming plant-based elixir in my water. I’ve stopped eating all meat, limit my dairy and am moving toward a plant-based diet.

Searching for effective all-natural healing regimens led me to crystals, Reiki and meditation. Learning how to heal myself made me want to share that knowledge with others, which is why I started Moonlight + Sage.

Listen to Your Body

If there’s one thing you walk away from this blog post with, I hope this is it: Listen to your body! The first day I experienced chest pains, I was at my grandmother’s funeral. I figured it was anxiety, so I let it go. The pain didn’t go away for weeks, but I chalked it up to grief and continued to let it go. Finally, I went to my primary care physician. I told her about my shortness of breath and what felt like panic attacks, and she ran some tests. I woke up later that night to a voicemail telling me to get to the ER immediately.

Just like your body is listening to your self-talk, it’s also talking to you. Listen and take action.

“Someday” is TODAY

Don’t wait to start a business someday. Don’t wait to make that big move you’ve been dreaming of someday. Don’t wait to travel to Europe someday. Having cancer has made me want to do everything – now. As much as possible, as soon as possible, as fast as possible. Do I over-commit to everything? Yep! Does this burn me out? Absolutely. But that’s the choice I make (and one that many people don’t understand) because I know that “someday” isn’t promised, so if you want something, get off your butt and get it NOW!

While I would never wish this journey on anyone, I know that I am a better person for it. My learning and growing didn’t start the day I was done with treatments and I am not sure it will ever end. All I know is that I am so grateful for the path I’m on.

Monday, April 30 marks my eight-year cancer-free anniversary. I plan to celebrate with a 7am SoulCycle class, where I’ll to continue to be a ‘little warrior’, pushing myself outside my comfort zone and reflecting on how far I’ve come in the past eight years.

Thank you to everyone who has been a part of this journey.





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  • Nancy Feldman on

    Hi Keri,
    I read your blog that your Mom shared with me & I was blown away & how you wrote so candidly about your cancer journey. It is so amazing that cancer can open us up to so many choices we never made before.

    I have had melanoma in my head and have been on my journey for ten years & now it has returned. Last year I moved back to Rockport to my roots & am grateful for my family & long time
    friends here who have supported me along the way.
    Thank you for showing others how the journey begins & hopefully ends
    for all cancer survivors.
    You are positive & strong & that is what it takes to survive.
    Nancy F

  • Josie on

    Sharing your journey with others is very inspiring, no matter the challenges you faced you managed to stay positive and look at you now. You go girl.🌟💫Showing many others in the same situation, to stay strong and positive.

    Sending you love and light🌸🦋

  • Mom on

    I know it was hard to share this and for me, I cried reading it. It is something no parent ever wants for their beautiful child. You came through it, stronger than before. We are so proud of you. You always continue to amaze us. We are your biggest fans.

  • Melanie on

    Awesome 👏 to see how you are truly shining. This was veautifully written.

  • Janet on

    You’re amazing and your story is an important one to share with other cancer victims and survivors… thank you and continue to be happy and strong, living life to the fullest!

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