In September 2010, Hollye Jacobs was awakened in the middle of the night with a stabbing pain in her right breast. Three more times that week, the same thing happened. As a nurse, Jacobs assured herself that breast cancer doesn’t typically hurt, and that it was probably nothing serious. After all, she was a healthy, happy, vegan-eating, marathon-running 39-year-old mother with no history of breast cancer. But she decided to have it checked out, just to be sure.
The gynecologist wasn’t worried, but referred her for a mammogram and ultrasound—again, just to be sure. The news took her breath away: “You have 4 tumors in your right breast and 3 in your left,” the radiologist said. “We need to do a biopsy immediately for what I highly suspect to be breast cancer.”
As a nurse, social worker, and child development specialist with experience in an intensive care unit and both adult and pediatric hospice, Jacobs found herself in the unique position of moving from the side of the bed as a health care professional into the hospital bed as a breast cancer patient. She had been trained to heal. When she became a patient, the healing process became very personal.
“It felt like I had no control over my body.”
Breast cancer, it turns out, was only the beginning of what would be a long road of physical and emotional trauma—but it would also reveal her own resilience and her passion for teaching others how to cope with life’s twists and turns.
The good news: After a double mastectomy, chemotherapy, and radiation, Jacobs was declared cancer free—but as any cancer survivor knows, all that treatment isn’t without collateral damage. At 40—just five years after giving birth to her daughter—Jacobs was catapulted into menopause twice.
Chemotherapy helped rid her body of cancer, but it also essentially shut down her ovaries and triggered an immediate onslaught of menopause symptoms. Hot flashes, insomnia, and mood swings— just to name a few symptoms—hit hard and fast.
As is relatively common with post-cancer women in their early 40s, Jacobs got her period four months after stopping chemotherapy.
“It was ironic, because I had never gotten a regular period in my life,” she says. Ovulating meant that her body was producing estrogen, which was a risk factor of a breast cancer recurrence. . Because Jacobs’ cancer was estrogen positive—meaning the hormone played a role in the tumors’ development—she also needed anti-hormone medication to prevent a recurrence. The meds made her so sick she couldn’t function, so the only other option was a full hysterectomy.
In 2011, Jacobs had her uterus and ovaries surgically removed, which threw her into a second (final) round of early menopause. After a sudden cancer diagnosis, grueling treatment, and initial round of menopause, Jacobs felt like her body—the same body that birthed her daughter and powered through marathons and long shifts as a nurse working with hospice patients—was rebelling against her.
“I would have these phases where I’d be having a hot flash, and I felt like I was just losing my mind,” Jacobs recalls. “It felt like I had no control over my body.”
As her symptoms worsened, so did her ability to function in everyday life. Her cancer treatments had already left her in a haze of anxiety and depression, and the hormonal roller coaster often made activities of daily living feel unbearable. Hormone replacement therapy, which some people take to mitigate menopause symptoms, wasn’t an option for her.
"Changing my perspective was imperative"
Thanks to her training as a nurse and social worker, she knew a thing or two about how to cope, especially the importance of enlisting a support system. “It’s amazing that despite the fact over 260,000 people are diagnosed with breast cancer every year, it still feels so isolating,” she says. “For me, changing my perspective was imperative and that process began by talking with other people who had gone through treatment-induced menopause.”
As she had conversations with others who had walked a similar journey, she realized that her emotions, including confusion, anxiety, and despair were normal—and as a result, those emotions became less overwhelming.
Her experience as a nurse coupled with the support of others who had gone through the experience before her also helped Jacobs re-frame her thinking when she would catastrophize her menopause symptoms. She knew, despite the physical and emotional difficulties she was facing every day, this was a normal physiological process. “When my head would get spinny, I would remind myself, this is menopause, and it will pass,” she says. “When I stopped fighting the process, everything was just more peaceful.”
This practice of acceptance became a core coping mechanism. Rather than fixating on all that cancer and menopause had taken from her, she reframed her thoughts to focus on what she could do to be kind to herself. She ate nutritious foods and took walks in nature. She spent time with loved ones and partook in hobbies she enjoyed. When a hot flash hit, she paused, took deep breaths, and reminded herself that the process was temporary.
After about eight months of daily intensity, Jacobs’ symptoms began to wane. Now, she’s taken what she’s learned during her breast cancer and menopause journeys to empower others experiencing similar circumstances.
Jacobs is the author of a New York Times best-selling book about coping with breast cancer, The Silver Lining: A Supportive and Insightful Guide to Breast Cancer, and she coaches others who want to grow their own resilience. “When a client is going through challenging circumstances, I share with them two of the most important lessons that I learned from my personal experience: reassurance that they are never alone and asking for help is a sign of strength, not weakness.”
As told to Ashley Abramson
Ashley Abramson is a freelance writer primarily covering health, psychology, and relationships. She's been published in The New York Times, Washington Post, and The Guardian. She lives in the Milwaukee area with her husband and two young sons.
About Hollye: Hollye Jacobs, RN, MS, MSW is a resilience coach, speaker, nurse, social worker, child development specialist, and author of the New York Times bestselling book, The Silver Lining: A Supportive and Insightful Guide to Breast Cancer. She has appeared on Good Morning America, the CBS Morning Show, The Doctors, and Dr. Phil.