How my breast cancer diagnosis led to me building a community of thousands w/ Allie Brudner

We at Diem believe strongly in not only providing accurate, evidence based information, but also showcasing the amazing work being done in the women’s health sector. We are honored to have spoken with Allie Brudner, co-founder of The Breasties this week to understand the incredible resources they provide to women within the community affected by breast and reproductive cancers (this includes carevivors (carevivors), previvors (such as those with the BRCA gene), and survivors (those diagnosed with cancer). They hold events, wellness retreats, and had an inaugural Camp Breastie in 2019. They hold space for women to work together to understand lived experiences, provide insight about navigating the healthcare system, and provide support to advocate for themselves and each other. The only way to describe The Breasties is pure magic.

I sat down with Allie Brudner, a badass breast cancer survivor after her diagnosis at 28, who happens to also be a pretty awesome speech-language pathologist, professor at New York University, and a co-founder of The Breasties. Sign up for our newsletter to learn about Allie’s thoughts on self-advocacy, cancer, relationships, The Breasties, and moving mountains.

Having worked in pediatric oncology for four years prior to entering into nurse practitioner school, I observed first-hand the magic that lies in between the horrible moments of cancer. Between the grief of losing life as you know it, taking medicine that feels like it’s almost killing you to kill the cancer, and experiencing physical changes that can make you feel unrecognizable to your own self, therein lies these unspoken vacant spaces where life is lived. These moments are the magic beans that somehow get you through some of the seemingly insurmountable grueling moments, at least I think this as much as an intimate outsider.

Talking to Allie, it is clear that this magic too exists among the female adult population affected by cancer. I feel extremely lucky to have gotten an hour to speak with her, because I’m my professional opinion, she in her entirety is the purest form of this magic. When Allie was 27 years old, in the process of planning her wedding, she found a lump in her breast. At the time, it was fairly ominous and felt like other parts of her breast tissue. Feeling reassured that she had just had a physician breast assessment, she moved forward planning her wedding. It wasn’t until the end of that year that she noticed the once ominous lump became more conspicuous. She scheduled another appointment with her gynaecologist who proceeded to reassure her the lump was a non-issue. However, Allie advocated for further testing to ensure it’s innocence. Not only was the lump malignant, she was diagnosed with triple negative breast cancer (an aggressive form of cancer) and found out she has a BRCA gene mutation. For those who are unaware, a BRCA gene mutation increases one's risk of developing breast and gynaecological cancers exponentially.

Allie explains that she feels privileged to have had access to Memorial Sloan Cancer Center, and although out-of-network, received hospital-provided funding to pay for her treatment at the institution. Disturbingly, she continues to hear stories of women within the community who are faced with excruciating medical bills and care choices based on their insurance provider, or worse, having no insurance at all. Despite her overall positive care experience, she still was forced to make decisions regarding her care such as whether she would proceed with radiation or oral chemotherapy, having minimal prior knowledge of breast cancer prior to her diagnosis.

While being a kick-butt cancer survivor at a young age, Allie is also a speech-language pathologist and professor at New York University. Shortly after she completed her active treatment, still on oral chemotherapy, she co-founded The Breasties, a non-profit organization that caters to women who have been affected by female cancers, whether these women are carevivors, previvors, or survivors. Explaining to me that regardless of how they are affected by cancer, all members of The Breasties are inclusive. Allie explains the inclusivity of the organization, explaining that all Breasties “have the same north star.” It is clear that The Breasties is honing in on the tiny magical moments of cancer and magnifying them. The Breasties offers a variety of retreats and networking events, and recently had an inaugural “Camp Breastie” in order to cater to an even larger number of women.

You may ask why networking is so crucial to not just the survival, but the ability to thrive after being affected by a cancer diagnosis. Allie explains, “I had one surgery in November to remove my fallopian tubes, I didn’t know that you could do it in a two-step way so I could still have kids. [...] I knew about that because other people in the community who got that surgery. […] That is the beauty of The Breasties, that expertise is within the community, […] not that they are providing that medical advice […] but their unique perspectives bring a whole different kind of education.”

An already struggling healthcare system does provide women’s healthcare, but it is not tailored to young women. Enter, The Breasties, the hub for which women are able to share those experiences and support each other to achieve optimal health. It is important to point out that yes, care providers do have your best interest at heart and it is absolutely necessary to continue to have follow-ups and annual physical assessments. But, as Allie points out “you are the expert of your own body.” As a registered nurse, I have to agree. The only person that lives in your body 24/7 is you, and therefore it’s essential for women to have the skills to advocate for themselves and navigate the healthcare system to meet their needs - access to the right communities helps with this.

Allie and I do have a moment where we both acknowledge that had she not advocated to receive further testing of her breast lump we wouldn’t be talking with one another today. Despite having overcome the almost unthinkable at such a young age, I ask her about moving forward, she explains “it’s interesting and it’s hard to find this new identity for myself […] recognizing I’ll never be the person I was because this experience definitely changed me, in a lot of ways. In a negative way, it obviously caused fear and anxiety and a lot of darkness. But more than that I am in a position where I am almost grateful it has brought so much positivity to my life and so many amazing people and brought me purpose. I think my experience is always going to be a big part of me, but every day it becomes less and less of my central identity and The Breasties now kind of replaces the cancer part of my identity which is really cool. […] It took me a long time to realize that it doesn’t have to be before cancer [me] and after cancer [me], it’s kind of just me and my story and what I have learned along the way.”

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