Nancy O’Brien: I Survived Cancer and Here Is How I Did It

An Interview With Savio P. Clemente

Savio P. Clemente
Authority Magazine
Published in
10 min readJun 12, 2022


Embrace the Doctor’s Visit — No, this isn’t a first-class ticket to Disney world; however, I am a true believer that knowledge is power. Doctors train to detect any issues and provide you with the best treatment plans and options based on your situation. Also, if possible, get a second opinion. Having more information gives you the power to make an educated decision that allows you to feel comfortable and empowered.

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 Nancy O’Brien to learn more about her current cancer journey.

Michigan native, Nancy O’Brien has overcome multiple challenges when it comes to skin cancer. In this interview, Nancy shares her journey to recovery.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! We really appreciate the courage it takes to share your story publicly. 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?

I grew up in the metropolitan area of Detroit, Michigan, with my two parents and my brother and sister; I am the youngest in my family. I wouldn’t trade my childhood for anything. My parents were phenomenal in the way they raised us. I often say we had a “Norman Rockwell” type of upbringing. My mom was young when she started her family, so in a way, she grew up with us. Education was always a significant part of our upbringing also. I was blessed to have parents who paid for us to attend Catholic schools and pay our way through college, which was amazing.

When I graduated from college, I started a career in outside sales, eventually landing a role with BusinessWeek magazine cutting my teeth in the publishing business. I took on a role selling advertising for our local Detroit News outlets, such as The Detroit Free Press and the Detroit News. Now, at 64, I care for my mother. My fathers passed away in December of 2021. I now look back on my childhood and think, “I’m a very fortunate woman. My parents have lived extraordinarily long lives, and my foundation is rock-solid.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

I have two. The first one is, “Happiness is a choice.” You wake up every morning, and you have a choice to start your day on sound footing. Of course, things can bring you down; however, it’s still a choice to live your life in the positive. Second, letting go of resentment. Resentment is when you take the poison and expect the other person to die. There’s no point in living in negativity. Blowing out someone else’s candle doesn’t make yours burn any brighter.

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?

I’ve been dealing with skin cancer for probably over 30 years. I am a white Irish girl, and the joke was always, you know, I don’t want to get tan; I want to get the blue out. When I was young, sunscreen was not a thing. My mother’s way of checking my skin exposure consisted of seeing if I was too red, giving me my brother’s t-shirt to cover up, and sending me into the shade or inside. So in hindsight, at 64, I’m paying for mistakes from probably when I was four.

In my 30s, I became more cautious about my skin. I found out about my skin cancer status by being extremely vigilant with skin care, sun protection, and seeing my dermatologist regularly. When my doctor found the first mole or unusual patch of skin, he said, “oh, that’s basal; we’ll just take care of that now.” I kept going back, and some of the areas of concern also ended up being squamous cell carcinomas, and there were a lot of them. So it goes from “we’ll take care of that one” to now, “wow, you have a lot of them.” Next, were the surgeries to remove them. I had many surgeries. They became routine for me. I had no less than 15 to 20 different skin cancer removal surgeries, including Mohs surgery throughout the years. At one point, we also tried topical therapy.

After multiple surgeries, my doctor recommended radiation as a possible option. My hope is that with radiation, I will have freedom from the recurrent skin cancers.

Currently, on one arm alone, I’ve finished 25 sessions of radiation, and by the time your readers see this, I will have started my next round on my other arm. I will undergo radiation on my upper arms and chest for 25 more sessions. I don’t know if I’m surviving right now. I mean, I’m alive, and everything’s okay, but I am trying to make the best of my situation by being proactive in getting rid of cancer. I pray to God it doesn’t come back in those environments.

It’s essential to find a good dermatologist and, in my case, a great oncologist. Realistically, you should schedule an annual skin care check from the top of your head to the soles of your feet, regardless of if you see anything or not. The skin is the largest organ you have, and, unfortunately, we take it for granted.

What was the scariest part of that event? What did you think was the worst thing that could happen to you?

I’m not scared because I know what I’m dealing with regarding my diagnosis. I’ve been on top of my skincare issues as soon as I was made aware I had one. I did research when I first found the cancerous spot and, you know, fatality rates are so low unless you fail to treat the issue. I know my situation is treatable, and it requires me to be on top of my body, and I encourage others to do the same.

How did you react in the short term?

I am remaining proactive and positive. I look for things. If I feel or see something that just popped up out of nowhere, I make an appointment. I’ve probably had 40 biopsies over my lifetime. You don’t look at me and say, “oh, wow, she’s got cancer issues,” however, I have become adaptable and aware over time.

After the dust settled, what coping mechanisms did you use? What did you do to cope physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually?

One of the best coping mechanisms in my cancer journey is realizing I am not alone, which has helped me cope physically and mentally with the disease. I have my family, but I also have the support of my dermatologist and my oncologist. You may run into issues, and if you can treat them earlier than later, that’s really the best scenario that you can hope for in beating this.

Is there a particular person you are grateful towards who helped you learn to cope and heal? Can you share a story about that?

I am grateful for the support of my family and friends. Honestly, that means the world to me. However, I would be remiss not to mention my physicians’ fantastic support and guidance, Dr. Thomas Boike, a radiation oncologist affiliated with GenesisCare, and Dr. Alexander Ernst, my dermatologist at Michigan Healthcare Professionals . Until recently, I’d never worked with an oncologist, so having both my physician and Dr. Boike working together to provide the ultimate care has been very helpful. Dr. Boike’s team has been patient in my recovery journey. The team is highly knowledgeable and thorough which has made the process easier.

In my 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 voice, I believe it would want to say “don’t take everything seriously” and “take care of things as they come along.” Additionally, It’s critical to keep a positive outlook. Being proactive and being in charge of your healthcare is essential, and your health should never come second. Don’t wait until your health situation declines because, unfortunately, issues can become untreatable.

What did you learn about yourself from this challenging 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?

Wear more sunscreen and stay in the shade! Ha! No, honestly, it would take a lot more than my current health situation to shape my view of the world. I know that sounds like a bold statement; however, I don’t believe God has forsaken me, if anything. This process has made me a stronger advocate for telling other people to be proactive about their health and get screened as often as possible. If you are concerned or have a gut feeling about something, seek medical attention. I came into this world as a positive person, and this will not shake me. Yes, it’s a gross inconvenience; however, this is not shaping my worldview.

How have you used your experience to bring goodness to the world?

I have become an advocate for my friends, family, and anyone I meet to my earlier point. I stress the importance of taking care of your health, being on top of what is happening with your body and noting any changes you notice. It’s imperative.

What are a few of the biggest misconceptions and myths out there about fighting cancer that you would like to dispel?

You tell people you have cancer, and everyone gasps and says, “I am so sorry.” There are as many different cancers and life situations as there are people that have it, and everybody has a different story and journey. Cancer does not have to be such a scary word. I do not want to reduce a diagnosis to not being critical or frightening in no shape or form. Anyone newly diagnosed, I am sure, is concerned; however, I think it’s important to know that your journey is your journey. Everyone has different reactions, different forms of cancer, and various treatments.

Fantastic. Here is the main question of our interview. 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.

Be in Charge of Your Destiny- I can’t stress enough that your life and health outcomes are up to you and no one else. It’s essential to be in charge of your life, especially when getting screened, being hyper-aware of any changes, and trusting your gut when it comes to your healthcare.

Be Proactive- Getting screened is such a vital part of the equation. It’s not always about finding a mole or lump or your own. In many cases, people miss the signs, so it’s important to have a regular visit and relationship with your doctor or oncologist.

Embrace the Doctor’s Visit — No, this isn’t a first-class ticket to Disney world; however, I am a true believer that knowledge is power. Doctors train to detect any issues and provide you with the best treatment plans and options based on your situation. Also, if possible, get a second opinion. Having more information gives you the power to make an educated decision that allows you to feel comfortable and empowered.

Talk to Other People — It’s okay to speak with people who have had similar experiences or who had a great doctor or can put you on the path to asking your physician about alternative treatments (if available). Outside of the medical component, having a support system of people who love you and can support you in your journey is huge here.

Always Decide What’s Best for You

This is really all of the tips mentioned above combined. Doing what’s best for you is imperative. Being informed, knowledgeable, and supported helps with this.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most good to the greatest number of people, what would that be?

Being kind to others, in my opinion, is the greatest movement we can have. Everyone is going through something in life, and cancer is one of those “things” for me. Through it all, I would say I’ve managed to have a kind disposition about it all and to extend kindness to others despite what’s happening in my world.

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 the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? They might see this if we tag them. :-)

Honestly, I’d love to have dinner with my dad one more time. Considering living, I am inspired by many people. Not to be cliche, I’d love to sit down and have dinner with Oprah Winfrey; what she’s gone through in her life and how she came out the other side is fascinating to me.

Thank you so much for sharing these important insights. We wish you continued success and good health!



Savio P. Clemente
Authority Magazine

Board Certified Wellness Coach (NBC-HWC), Journalist, Best-selling Author, Podcaster, and Stage 3 Cancer Survivor