Audra Byrne: I Survived Cancer and Here Is How I Did It
An Interview With Savio P. Clemente
Accept the help of your family and community. I was surrounded by the strongest support system I’ve ever felt in my life. My husband and kids were with me every single day. And what my immediate family couldn’t do — my extended family and friends took care of unconditionally. There were countless meals made for us, rides to and from school and sports for my kids, family and friends who sat with me during treatment, who cared for me after my three surgeries and all the little things in between. There’s no way I could’ve bounced back like I did if it wasn’t for the help.
Cancer is a horrible and terrifying disease. Yet millions of people have beaten the odds and beat cancer. Authority Magazine started a new series called “I Survived Cancer and Here Is How I Did It”. In this interview series, we are talking to cancer survivors to share their stories, in order to offer hope and provide strength to people who are being impacted by cancer today. As a part of this interview series, I had the pleasure of interviewing Audra Byrne
Audra Byrne is a wife and mother of three from Parker, Colorado. Despite a healthy lifestyle and no family history of cancer, she was diagnosed with breast cancer in November 2019. She underwent 16 rounds of chemotherapy treatments — the final 12 during the COVID-19 lockdown.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! We really appreciate the courage it takes to publicly share your story. Before we start, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your background and your childhood backstory?
Thank you for allowing me the opportunity to share my story. I hope it will land in the hearts of those who need it most.
I grew up a standard little girl of the 80’s and 90’s. My childhood was full of fun memories that came from playing outside all day with my best friend and not coming back home until the streetlights came on. Growing up in Texas there was always enough heat to keep us running around barefoot and exploring the neighborhood. My parents worked hard and gave me many opportunities. They were also very healthy, active, and athletic which led to a very active life for me that I still participate in today.
Now married and a mom myself, I’ve continued to model health, athleticism, and longevity to my own kids. Living in Colorado we have countless opportunities to enjoy a state that prides itself on being active and present for all that beauty that surrounds us. My husband and I love watching our kids participate in their sports and passions. It’s an honor to guide them to be vibrant and adaptable human beings who can give back to this world one day.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
Never Say Never. It’s what I live by. The backstory was a pivotal game changer in my life. In the early days of getting to know my husband we had an untraditional start to our relationship. Both being very stubborn and always wanting to be right we often find ourselves in big “push/pull” type discussions. During a small spat, he once said something along the lines of “When we get married….” which I quickly shut him down with “Even if we were the last 2 people here, I’d never marry you, Brian Byrne.” Without a pause he came back with “Never Say Never.” And I as much as I hate to admit being wrong, he was right.
We’ll celebrate our 20th wedding anniversary this coming July 2022. I had “never say never” engraved on his wedding band before our wedding day. Those three words have shaped our entire marriage and the strength upon which we stand in all we do. And little did I know “Never Say Never” would take me straight through a head on collision and nasty fight with cancer.
Let’s now shift to the main part of our discussion about surviving cancer. Do you feel comfortable sharing with us the story surrounding how you found out that you had cancer?
It’s an honor to share my story.
What was the scariest part of that event? What did you think was the worst thing that could happen to you?
The scariest part of the event was finding out that even though I thought I was doing all the right things by being healthy, eating right, exercising regularly, and trying to manage my stress, cancer still got me. It still showed up even when I thought I had so much control. I did all the things they say to do to keep cancer away. But cancer had other plans. It didn’t really care who I was or how hard I had worked to keep it away. Not having control over how cancer was invading my body and how quickly it spread was very scary. I think any cancer survivor would agree with me when I say the worst thing that I thought could happen to me was death. When the word CANCER belongs to you, I don’t know how you can’t not think about death.
Being diagnosed at 42 after trying to be as healthy as I could I was in shock, and I was angry. Anger and fear are best friends, they go hand in hand. At least they did for me.
How did you react in the short term?
With no family history of cancer, breast cancer was the last thing I expected. Every year, when I went for my mammogram, I’d always gotten a clean bill of health — until this one. After my official diagnosis I would tell myself “It’ll be OK” but I was so scared that I would just become overcome with emotion. There were a lot of tears. It blew me away.
Facing your own mortality is devastating but I was particularly concerned about my teenage daughters and my son, who was only 7 at the time of my diagnosis. I was so worried about how this was going to impact them and their development.
Before I began chemotherapy treatments, my husband and I had many conversations with our kids. The hardest was with my son. Explaining to him — in 7-year-old terms — what was going on was tough. He let me know right away that he was terrified of me losing my hair. I knew that I had to fight cancer with every tool I had available to me to help maintain some sort of normalcy for my family. I was determined to let my kids see me do everything in my power to preserve any parts of me that I could. It was my way of having a tiny bit of control against a disease that was destroying my body. I told myself right then “Cancer’s met it’s match”.
There were many things I did to push my way through all the trauma of my treatments. One of the biggest commitments I made was the attempt to preserve my hair. Fortunately, my oncologist had the medical treatment DigniCap, a cooling cap that helps chemotherapy patients keep their hair, available to her patients.
My oncologist had me on a 16 round chemo regiment that is known for being very hard to save hair even with scalp cooling. My oncologist told me that I could certainly try to save my hair during chemo but that I would be the 1st patient in her office to do it on my drug cocktail. She told me the chances were slim.
Never Say Never.
I dove all in and followed every rule the DigniCap prescribed. My treatments were 8 hours long and they were tough, especially with a frozen scalp as part of the equation, but I was determined to prove cancer wrong and fight for a slice of normalcy for myself and my family.
As my treatment progressed, I kept surprising my oncology team week after week. My oncology nurse was so committed to preserving my hair alongside me. I know it wouldn’t have been as successful without her. She was so diligent and invested in my success. And we did it!! I kept 80% of my hair! It was a hard fight that I won; cancer didn’t get to take that part of me.
After the dust settled, what coping mechanisms did you use? What did you do to cope physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually?
It’s hard to think of “coping” during cancer treatment. Many people often tell me that they’re in awe of my strength during my cancer diagnosis and treatment. While this always feels good to receive positive energy from others, I often think to myself, “but what choice did I have.” Fighting cancer is an out of body experience. It’s one where I often found myself standing outside myself looking in the mirror and still not believing that it was me who was going through chemo, a double mastectomy and extended treatment protocols, as well as doing all of that during the pandemic crisis of COVID.
Shock is weird. Coping is weird. As soon as the doctor told me I had cancer I started to physically do everything they told me to do that would help me to fight. I also had to learn how to ask for help. I’m incredibly independent and I’m usually the one to give the help, not receive it. But, when you’re physically incapable of doing your everyday things you learn quick that help is a balm to the soul. Refusing help for so long in my life like I did kept me from growth and intimate connection with others. Cancer actually gifted that intimacy and connection back to me.
Mentally I counted the days, for every day that passed I crossed it off in my mind and only looked forward. Emotionally I cried every day. Every. Single. Day. It was a cleansing, a way to wash out the toxic fumes of a disease I didn’t invite to the party. And spiritually, I meditated, prayed, and got as close to God as I could. On my sleepless night filled with worry I’d repeat my favorite bible verse over and over in my head to remind myself that something greater than myself was at work in my trauma.
Is there a particular person you are grateful towards who helped you learn to cope and heal? Can you share a story about that?
As a family, we tackled this head-on. From day one, my husband told me “I will never leave your side” which he never did. I am most grateful for him and our three children. We were a tight knit team who went through the trauma together, no one left behind. My kids not only experienced the fear and anxiety of having a parent fight a terminal illness, but they also had their safety net stripped away from them when the world shut down during COVID. My kids got a front row seat to the ugliness of cancer very quickly when they no longer had a school to go to or the ability to spend time with friends who were welcome distractions. Cancer COVID, as I like to call it, took things to a whole different level. Now we’re forged in stone, the five of us. We process life very differently and understand things about each other no one else will even be able to.
I also consider my oncology team to be the greatest gifts of my whole story. They were an incredible lifeline during the worst time of my life. They fought for me as hard as I did. I was blessed to have their expertise as well as their extensive cutting-edge technology. They believed in giving me every opportunity to heal physically and emotionally.
In my own cancer struggle, I sometimes used the idea of embodiment to help me cope. Let’s take a minute to look at cancer from an embodiment perspective. If your cancer had a message for you, what do you think it would want or say?
If cancer had a message for me, it would be….”Come and Get Me.” And I did. I not only grabbed cancer by its ugly horns, but I overcame it with every ounce of strength I had. When cancer and I first me on that shocking day in November 2019 I was angry, scared and beyond resentful of a disease that I couldn’t believe was at my door. Now, on the other side of all the things cancer took me through, we’ve made peace. It may sound crazy but now I’m grateful to breast cancer and the things it’s taught me and the person it’s transformed me into.
What did you learn about yourself from this very difficult experience? How has cancer shaped your worldview? What has it taught you that you might never have considered before? Can you please explain with a story or example?
I see my entire world through a completely different lens. And I feel blessed that I had this transformation at such a young age in my early forties. I now get to spend the second half of my life seeing the world so much brighter and sharper.
I see life through time and understanding that the moment we’re in is our life, life isn’t out there waiting for us to show up. It’s happening right this second whether we want it to our not. So, I look at it for what it is, and I keep my eyes open, so I don’t miss a thing. Because just when we think something is “never” going to happen to us, it does. And then it’s over.
The physical fight of cancer is over for me, but the fight for life it’s given me will carry me forever.
How have you used your experience to bring goodness to the world?
I’m a very faithful person and I believe God walked along side me during cancer so that I can use His strength to be the light for other women like me staring breast cancer head on. I made a promise to myself that I’d share my strength with anyone who needed it. I will not let it go to waste.
It’s so much work to be a person who is angry at life. I believe it’s so much easier to be a light for others. We need light more than ever right now. Life is short and there’s so much negativity in the world, if I can help light up the dark by shining as bright as I can with a smile or kindness or simple goodness to everyone fighting their own battles, then I’m doing my best.
What are a few of the biggest misconceptions and myths out there about fighting cancer that you would like to dispel?
I think the biggest misconception and myth about fighting cancer is the portrayal of person who is a shell of themselves, with big black circles under their eyes, complete hair loss and utter weakness. Yes, cancer patients have very hard days, and we lose a lot of ourselves during treatment, but we’re still very much alive. We still have an identity that goes beyond being a cancer patient.
One of the things that devastated me right after my diagnosis was the idea of losing so much of myself, especially my hair. While many might say that “it’s just hair” or that being so concerned about hair loss is vain, there’s another perspective. When something unexpectedly takes away the things about us that shape our lifelong identity it’s then that we can’t imagine being without. My entire life I was known for my natural platinum blonde hair. Losing it felt like such a blow to my spirit during cancer. I didn’t want to experience that loss and I wanted to preserve as much of myself as I could for my own self and my kids. I wanted to not just be a cancer patient, I wanted to still be Audra any way I could. Because I used DigniCap, I was able to keep 70 to 80% of my hair and still feel like a whole person. A lot of my friends said if they didn’t know my story, they wouldn’t even know that I was going through chemotherapy because I had my hair and my spirit.
Based on your experiences and knowledge, what advice would you give to others who have recently been diagnosed with cancer? What are your “5 Things You Need to Beat Cancer? Please share a story or example for each.
1 — Accept the help of your family and community. I was surrounded by the strongest support system I’ve ever felt in my life. My husband and kids were with me every single day. And what my immediate family couldn’t do — my extended family and friends took care of unconditionally. There were countless meals made for us, rides to and from school and sports for my kids, family and friends who sat with me during treatment, who cared for me after my three surgeries and all the little things in between. There’s no way I could’ve bounced back like I did if it wasn’t for the help.
2 — Ask all the questions you can. Find great medical care and doctors/treatments you can trust. If you don’t feel like you’re getting the answers that feel right to you, don’t be afraid to seek out another opinion. This is your life; you’re allowed to kick over every stone until you find the one that makes sense to you.
3 — Trust that you can do this. It’ll seem insurmountable at times. But your strength lies as deep as you’re willing to dig for it. Go to the ends of the earth to make it through the next day. The end will come, it always does.
4 — Watch something funny every day. Binge watch comedy, Schitt’s Creek carried me through. Find a reason to laugh every single day. It will make things lighter in such a heavy time and help you to feel normal even when it’s not.
5 — Be grateful. Take this terrible disease and turn it on its head. The last thing cancer expects is your gratitude for its destruction. Reframe what’s it taking from you to the things you’ve gained because it’s in your life and forcing you to face it.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the greatest amount of people, what would that be?
I would encourage others to remember who they are even when they don’t recognize their life. Even though cancer changes everything in an instant, you can still be you. You can still look like you, you can still wear the makeup, do the workout, take the kids to sports, go to dinner with your friends. Cancer can’t keep you from your own spirit and the power it holds to preserve whatever you need to carry you through this crazy time.
I will always encourage others to Look into DigniCap to keep their hair as I did. There are not a lot of things you can control in your life when you have cancer and need to undergo chemotherapy, but hair loss is something you can. You can keep your hair if you want to, if you need to, if it matters to you. Be ok with using a tool like DigniCap that is there to help you maintain your dignity and to expedite your healing process.
When you look in the mirror and see the same person you always did, it’s a huge part of the healing.
We are very blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them. :-)
I’m an incredibly curious person, and I love listening to other stories. There are many people I’d choose but at the top of my list is Simon Cowell. I admire empathic honesty, leadership, and time sensitivity. I respect his authenticity and his commitment to honoring himself and what he likes. He follows his instincts and admits when he’s made a mistake. To me, the principles of life are just that simple. What a world it would be if we could all just call it like it is.
Thank you so much for sharing these important insights. We wish you continued success and good health!