In 2011, award-winning writer Judy Pearson squared off against a rare and aggressive form of breast cancer. She survived. But don’t call her a cancer survivor—call her a cancer winner.
“Think about a football coach who is going up against his arch rival and fighting to win the game,” Judy, 59, explains. “If he defeats the other team, you wouldn’t say he survived the game. You would say he won.”
It’s clear that Judy didn’t merely survive her cancer; she conquered it. And in the process, she learned invaluable lessons about faith, humor, courage and the things that bind us together. Now, along with fellow cancer survivor and friend, Karen Shayne, Judy is on a mission to empower cancer survivors around the globe to adopt the same winning attitude.
In 2012, Judy and Karen launched The Women’s Survivor Alliance, a 501(c)3 non-profit committed to empowering, educating and connecting women whose lives have been touched by cancer. On paper, Judy Pearson and Karen Shayne may be business partners, but it quickly becomes evident that their relationship is much deeper than that.
“It is truly a sisterhood,” says Karen, 46, a health care administrator from Nashville, Tenn. “That’s what we formed—not a business partnership, but a sisterhood. We complement each other. We finish each other’s sentences.”
Fittingly, it was survivorship that brought the two women together in the first place. Judy and Karen met in 2012. At the time, Karen—an ovarian and uterine cancer survivor—was organizing the first ever National Women’s Survivors Convention. Judy, a freelance writer and public speaker, was working on an article about survivorship. Hearing about Karen’s efforts, she contacted her to lend a hand.
“I was experiencing so many survivor issues myself. I basically stalked Karen until she called me back,” Judy recalls with a laugh. “I told her I would volunteer, speak for free—anything. I just wanted to help.”
As the two women got to talking, the dream only got bigger and bigger: “We realized that there needed to be something more sustaining than an annual convention. So together we founded the Women’s Survivor Alliance,” Karen explains. “It’s all ages, all stages, all women, all cancers.”
The Women’s Survivor Alliance, or WSA, is intended to serve as a source of support and information for recovering cancer patients everywhere. Particularly, the WSA sheds light on the immense burdens survivors face in the days and years after cancer diagnosis. As any cancer survivor will tell you—and as Karen’s and Judy’s personal experiences bear out—even after treatment has ceased, the cancer never truly goes away. Rather, it remains profoundly a part of their new identity.
Karen, for instance, was diagnosed with ovarian and uterine cancer when she was only 20. Even now, 25 years later, cancer continues to rear its ugly head. “At 25, I got thrown into menopause,” she says. “That was no fun. Now, I’m really experiencing the after-effects from chemotherapy. I have bone issues, skin issues, gum issues.”
After a confrontation with cancer, there also are a number of psychosocial issues that arise. “Once you have had cancer, it ups your chances of reoccurrence,” Judy explains. “Those doubts are always in the back of your mind. You think, ‘Am I running against the clock? Is it going to come back?’ You try not to live your life around that. But it’s still there. It’s kind of a little thing you always carry around with you.”
Karen’s initial dream a number of years ago was to host a gathering for Nashville women survivors in a park. This summer it will debut on a much grander scale: The National Women’s Survivor Convention, held at the Gaylord Opryland Resort in Nashville, Tenn., August 22 to 24, is set to be a one-of-a kind experience for women survivors of all types of cancer from all over the world.
The event offers an educational, entertaining and informative program comprised of keynotes, empowerment sessions, makeovers, a fashion show, a writers-in-the-round event and a 5K walk/run. Familiar faces will include Shannon Miller, convention honorary chair and former Olympic gymnast; Olympic figure skater Scott Hamilton; hair stylist and BRAVO TV personality Tabatha Coffey; Dr. Susan Love, a breast cancer research advocate and renowned surgeon; and Dr. Otis Brawley, the executive vice president of the American Cancer Society. The convention will culminate with a concert by country music star Martina McBride at the Grand Ole Opry.
The convention is drawing survivors from all corners of the globe—from Canada and England to Australia and Germany. Karen and Judy say it is incredibly empowering for women survivors to unite on such a grand scale.
“As women, we’re very nurturing. We like to talk out issues we’re facing. We find strengths in numbers. We’re empowered by other women’s stories,” Judy says.
“It’s really about learning how to cope,” Karen adds. “I think this event is just as important for Judy and I as it is for everybody else. We’re looking for that support too.”
With the convention, Judy and Karen hope to convey a powerful message to cancer survivors from all walks of life. “The biggest thing we want to get across to survivors is that they are not alone. They will always have ongoing support from us,” Judy says. “We’re unveiling a digital magazine at the convention, and it will have a directory of resources. Because that’s the biggest thing. People think, ‘Is this normal? Am I supposed to feel this way? Am I the only one who feels like this?’ And the answer to all of that is, ‘You are not the only one who feels this way.’”
For more information about the Women’s Survivor Alliance or to register for the upcoming National Women’s Survivors Convention, visit www.survivorsconvention.com.