By Liz Benditt, President, The Balm Box
I like to think of myself as a medical miracle. Between 2009 and 2017, I survived four cancers over 8 years.
It started in 2009 at a weekend summer trip to the pool. My daughter was almost four years old and bumping around the baby pool in her little floaties with my husband, while I lounged on a deck chair with my baby boy, napping in a sweet, sweaty mess on my chest. My mother noticed a mole on my upper thigh and nagged me to get it checked. I rolled my eyes at her. She called the following week to see if I had made an appointment with a dermatologist – I had not. I succumbed to her nagging and made an appointment.
The dermatologist immediately wanted to biopsy the spot. A few days later, I got a call from the Doctor personally, with the news that it was melanoma, over 1mm and ergo too large for Mohs surgery. It was made clear to me that this was MELANOMA – a very fast-moving cancer – and it was imperative to remove the affected area and check to see if it spread to the lymph nodes. If it spread – I’d have maybe a year to live. If it had not spread – no big deal. This all happened over the course of 6 days. It was totally surreal. Live or die. The only two options. We got the call – clean margins, no spread to the lymph nodes.
Score 10 points to mothers knowing best and forcing me to make that dermatologist appointment. I stocked up on floppy hats, sunscreen, and SPF 50 swim shirts for my family and tried to go back to ‘normal’ life.
Eleven months later, I had an irregular mammogram requiring a biopsy. While the surgeon was probing all around the boobie-area, her hands started snaking up my neck. She noticed a small lump that was clearly bothering her. She sent me off to radiology to get an MRI. I got a “two-for-one” deal that time around – a breast AND neck biopsy. The same week the breast biopsy came back clear, we got the bad news that I had Thyroid Cancer.
Cancer #2 – less than one year after the first one.
After my experience with Melanoma, I was shocked at the lack of urgency from the medical establishment. I was given a long and complex checklist that had to be completed before I could schedule the surgery, including labs and endocrinology referrals. It took weeks to complete. I was frantic – where was the big rush to GET THE CANCER OUT from the year before?? The surgery was finally scheduled, childcare was in place and I was ready to get ON with it.
I ended up in a teeny-tiny category of patients with a very rare side effect from that surgery – It happens to less than 2% of patients – the surgery rendered me hypoparathyroid. For those of us without endocrinology degrees, the hypoparathyroid glands process calcium in the bloodstream. This bought me a bonus 2 weeks in the hospital, where teams of doctors created a complicated drug cocktail that would regulate my calcium. It was not fun, nor was I very stable when I finally was released to recuperate at home.
It took me years of ER visits, trial and error with various doctors, drug combinations and a drastic change to my diet / nutrition to get me back to feeling ‘healthy’. I started early morning runs with a group of friends and the sport ‘stuck’. Over time, I went from a panting 1-mile run to long-distance 10-mile weekend runs with a close-knit group of girlfriends. I completed a half-marathon in 2013. I was back – I was fine – kids were fine – life went on.
Basal Cell Carcinoma
By 2015 I knew my dermatologist well – after all – she saw me quarterly for five years after Melanoma, vigilantly checking every inch of my naked body during regular “full body” checks. Many an errant freckle was removed during those visits. But in 2015, the spot on the bridge of my nose was problematic. Basal Cell Carcinoma. While not life threatening, the placement on my face meant for a tricky removal and plastic surgery.
This being my THIRD cancer, and not Melanoma-level-scary, I took my time to interview plastic surgeons to determine which one would give me the best odds of keeping my face intact. I chose the doctor known in our community as being “great with faces” and agreed to a two-part surgery that would be terribly painful but give me the best odds of looking like myself. It was both painful and productive – to this day, my scar is barely noticeable, brilliantly placed along the shadow of my nose.
Three strikes, and you’re out Cancer! RIGHT?!
In 2017, I was diagnosed with Breast Cancer. As my FOURTH cancer I was angry - not panicked. I approached the surgery full of questions and skepticism. What could go wrong? What are the potential side effects? Give me the numbers! I asked for more data than any patient ever. I was going to CONTROL this cancer, and take my time determining the treatment plan that worked for me. I chose my medical team based on the doctors willing to discuss (humor?) me with a real conversation about options, medical outcomes, statistics focused on women under 50, and likelihood for recurrence. I agreed to a lumpectomy followed by radiation treatment. After all this experience and research, I was going to be a rock-star patient and fly through treatment and recovery like a BOSS.
Although the melanoma was by far my most potentially lethal cancer, and the facial plastic surgeries for basal cell were incredibly painful, the breast cancer experience and treatment were the absolute worst. Perhaps I was overconfident about my youth and ability to fight it, or it is possible my fair skin was destined to react badly to radiation – it is impossible to know. Regardless, despite thinking I would knock out radiation and be able to continue working full time, leading girl scout troop meetings, and running half-marathons my body failed me and I was flabbergasted by my situation. I am a planner! I was proactive dammit!
There were two concurrent issues:
1. It was incredibly difficult to predict what tools I would need to go through and recover from radiation until I was in the middle of it, scrambling for bra-alternatives, aluminum-free deodorant, and burn salves. A nurse made me a mini-pillow to hold between my seatbelt and breast so that the belt wouldn't chafe. There was no central resource, website, or retailer known for all this 'stuff' and I found myself up late at night researching page 20 searches on google and amazon looking for solutions. Most of the cancer-treatments and gifts online were pink ribboned cute/sassy t-shirts and mugs – I wanted relief not stuff.
2. Friends and neighbors all want to DO something ... and they predominantly bring food/cook. It was incredibly kind and appreciated, but honestly my husband and son are super picky eaters and would have preferred takeout. I was not able to exercise and would have preferred lighter / lower calorie fare. It was honestly frustrating because it was all so WELL MEANING but in reality, not awesome to receive.
The challenge with most cancer treatments is that patients do not know what they are going to need to help them self-soothe until they need it RIGHT AWAY. I wondered – where is the resource for cancer patients to proactively plan for treatment and recovery side effects? It didn’t exist.
The Balm Box
The idea for The Balm Box started in 2017 – but it wasn’t until 2020 that the moons aligned and gave me a quiet few months at my desk at home during the Pandemic to really build out the idea into a legitimate business plan. I started by sending out a survey to friends and family to validate the idea – the survey went viral and collected almost 600 responses.
My market research revealed that I was most definitely NOT alone in my frustrations and there was a huge level of interest from both cancer patients and caregivers who were looking for functional self-care and gifting options. Their feedback was invaluable, and to this day, gives me great confidence in the curated products featured on our website.
A few weeks after finishing radiation treatments my girlfriends threw me a “Finish Line” party. It was a magical night, filled with cocktails and cake and laughter. The evening was made even more special by friends who flew into town from New York and Los Angeles to attend.
The cumulative trauma of the past 8 years had caught up to me, and rather than simply ‘get back to normal’ I am so very grateful that my friends and family gave me a moment to celebrate all I had overcome.
The “Finish Line” party was where the seed for The Balm Box started. Maybe there is some crazy kismet in the universe; the years of cancer treatments leading me to the launch of something great. I certainly hope so.
Sometimes the finish line is actually the starting line.
Thank you for sharing your story, Liz. SBC loves you!
SurvivingBreastCancer.org Resources & Support: