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Episode 2: Surviving Divorce, Cancer, and Other Hard Stuff: My Story

[00:00:02] Parenting is hard enough on a good day — but when you're facing a huge change like divorce, moving, a health crisis, or even a pandemic, it can be downright overwhelming. My name is Sara Olsher and I'm the founder of Mighty + Bright, where I help your family cope with the uncertainty that comes from life's major upheavals. Together we can help your kids take this hard time and turn it into resilience that they'll be able to use for the rest of their lives. Join me for quick and easy 5 to 10 minute episodes that will leave you feeling 100% positive that you got this.
[00:00:40] This is probably going to be one of the longer episodes in this series, and the reason is because this isn't so much a tip as it is a story. And the reason why I want to tell you this story is because I think it gives a lot of background as to why I wanted to start a company like Mighty + Bright, which helps kids with uncertainty. And I think it also helps you connect to me as a human being.


[00:01:09] And, you know, this is my company. This is my baby. And I think it's important that you know where it started.

[00:01:17] So it really began when my daughter was a baby. She was 18 months old when I separated from her dad. And she had always been sort of like a high anxiety baby. She never really slept well. And, you know, she cried a lot.

[00:01:36] And when we separated it had been about six months of her starting to really understand the world around her and viewing it as a scary place. And she was afraid of shadows on the ground and sand and other kids and men and being away from me.

[00:01:57] And I just started to realize that we needed help. And so I found a children's therapist who was absolutely amazing.

[00:02:09] She really helped me to understand just how kids work and how amazing their little brains are, and how they understand so much stuff that we don't even realize. I mean, she was a year and a half old and she already understood so much more than she could talk about.

The therapist really helped me to understand how kids learn and how I could talk to her to relieve some of her anxiety, and that when she was having an anxious episode, how I could help empathize with what she was going through and validate her feelings.

It really lit a fire under me to learn more about child psychology and how kids learn and, you know, what sorts of things affect them. It really unearthed a passion for me in just how amazing these little people are and how much what we do affects them.

That was the beginning of my interest in helping children. But the custody calendar, which was my first product, really came when my daughter was about two. She would ask when she was going to see her dad, and I realized that I could create something for her that would help her understand and see visually when she was going to see him and that that would relieve a lot of her anxiety.

[00:03:46] So, I had been an illustrator for six years. That was what I was doing when she was a baby. I was working at home running an illustration business called Stinkerpants. I did custom illustrations for weddings - so I would draw people in front of their wedding venue or in a field of flowers or on the beach or in their favorite place or wherever they got engaged.

[00:04:11] And then I would print out the cards and they would be used to save the dates or wedding invitations. People who loved them, and I loved doing it. Drawing and being able to do art for a living was super fun. But when I got a divorce, I realized, you know, I need a steady paycheck. And the feast or famine part of running a freelance small business was really adding to my stress.

[00:04:36] So I shut that business down. But before I did, I had illustrated our entire family.

[00:04:43] So what I did was I took the drawings that I had done of our family and I used this a mirror-making machine that I purchased for my business (just to give people like a little extra swag in there with their wedding invitations). And I made these magnets so that my daughter could see - this magnet is for days with mommy, and these are for days with daddy, and these are days where you're just going to see daddy for dinner. And these are days when you'll see your grandparents.

[00:05:18] I had a magnet for all the different people. I made a huge, very janky monthly calendar that I hung on the wall using a metal tray that you put under, like dishwashers or refrigerators that are leaking.

[00:05:40] I hung that on the wall and then I used electrical tape to make lines to make a monthly calendar. I used that to show her how many sleeps it would be until she would see her dad. And it wasn't too long to see how much she loved it, and I realized it could really help a lot of other families.

So that was kind of the beginning of the business. I have gone through probably five or six different designs and years of trying different things before I finally came to a design for the calendar that I really loved. It is magnetic, but it no longer has magnets, because those are not really safe for kids. Like if a kid swallows magnets, you know, they can they can stick to each other in their belly and cause serious problems. So I really didn't want to use magnets.

Now the actual calendar is a magnet and there a little steel buttons that go on the calendar, and they can show all kinds of things from which parent the kid is going to see, to when they are going to have a babysitter, or when they have after school activities. And it blossomed into something that I really loved. And I ran it "on the side" for five years.

[00:07:07] The main reason I didn't want to make it a full-time job was because I had been burned by not making enough money as an illustrator, and just feeling like it was stressful to run my own business and rely on myself to wear every single hat in a business. But I also loved it. I loved getting the messages and emails from people, saying how much it had helped their families, that it had changed their mornings or, you know, that their kid no longer seemed stressed about when they were going to see their other parent.

[00:07:49] And I just lived for it.

[00:07:51] It always stayed my passion, even when I was doing marketing for a big media company or I was working for our local food bank. I just really loved having that as my side gig.

[00:08:06] But everything changed for me in 2017. 

[00:08:18] So it was July 14th of 2017, and I went in for a screening. I'd had a breast MRI done because my family is super messed up when it comes to breast cancer. Every woman in my family had had it, including my mother, and I had been dealing with a weird sensation in my left breast. It felt sort of like a strange tingling sensation that went from like the middle of my left breast to all the way to my nipple. I was just a really weird feeling.

I immediately went to my gynecologist and she was like, "that's not a symptom of breast cancer, don't worry." But I was like, "you know what, though? I may only be 34, but I have a really serious family history of breast cancer and I just really want to have early screenings." I had been asking about this for a long time, but they'd said that there were so many false positives with mammograms and MRIs that they had changed the recommendations for early screenings and I shouldn't be screened until I was 40.

[00:09:30] Now, my dad's sister, Lois, passed away from breast cancer when she was 41. She was initially diagnosed when she was thirty nine. So I felt like, okay, she might not be a first degree relative to me, but I should be screened. So I just kept pushing.

[00:09:49] And eventually after my mom had breast cancer in 2016, they finally agreed that enough women in my family had had it for me to have early screenings.

[00:10:01] When I say "enough women," I mean my mother, my mother's sister, my mother's mother, my dad's sister and my dad's mother. All of the women in my family had it. So that's what it took for me to get early screenings.

[00:10:15] And so I went into a breast surgeon who ran the early screening program, and she felt my breasts and she was like, "yeah, I don't feel anything in there. But I do agree that given your family history, you should be doing early screenings." So I went in for that breast MRI and it came back "funny."

[00:10:33] And she had told me that sometimes that happens, sometimes they see something "funny" and it's not actually anything real. It could be a false positive and they just need to check it out. So on July 14th, I went in for a mammogram. It was a diagnostic mammogram, which is what they do when they think they see something. And then there was an ultrasound after that. So I went in for that. And right there on the radiology table, I was told that "what they were seeing could be nothing other than breast cancer."

[00:11:08] I was 34 and my daughter was seven. And I looked that radiologist right in the face, and I was like, "no." And he said, "I'm so sorry."

[00:11:21] And I said, "no, I don't think you understand. Like, this is not part of my plan. This is not what is happening right now."

[00:11:36] And he said, "I know what you're thinking. You're probably thinking you're going to die." And I was like, actually, no, I wasn't thinking that. But NOW I am. And he's like, "but breast cancer is really one of the best cancers you can get. You know, it's when you get it early and this seems like it's early, you know, it's very curable. You know, you'll probably be fine."

And I was like, that is just freaking fabulous, you know? I was in total shock. I couldn't believe it was happening to me. Over the course of the next weekend, I convinced myself probably five times that I actually had misheard the doctor. And thank God, you know, my parents are both in the medical field. My dad was an OBGYN and my mom was a nurse. Because I was alone at that screening, I actually asked the radiologist if he could talk to my parents. So I called my parents and the radiologist talked to them and explained everything that he was seeing. So over that next weekend, when I convinced myself I didn't actually have cancer, I had to call my parents and say, "so really, he didn't actually say I have cancer, right? He said, like, maybe I might have it?" And then my poor dad —I just really don't envy him— would have to say, "no, I'm so sorry, you have it."

And I'd say, "oh, okay, I'm going to go now." And it happened again. So that was how I was diagnosed. And they really thought that it was early stage. They thought it was stage zero or stage one. They did a biopsy and and it came back as invasive ductal carcinoma in situ, which is basically cancer of the milk duct. And so because they thought it was early, I didn't have to do chemo. They just sent me straight to surgery.

[00:13:39] They did tell me, "I'm sorry, it takes up such a large portion of your breast, you're going to have to remove your entire breast." And I was like, take them both, please. I felt like it was a ticking time bomb and I did not want them both there. So I went straight to a double mastectomy. I say "straight to a double mastectomy," but it still took like a really long time. I had my surgery in September after being diagnosed in July.

[00:14:05] And when I woke up from my surgery, my mom had to tell me they had found it in my lymph node. I had about 18 of my lymph nodes removed. And basically, if you don't know much about cancer, your lymph system is what moves things around your body. So if you have a cancer cell that gets into your lymph nodes, that is the first place that cancer goes before it moves to other parts of your body and you have metastatic breast cancer.

So it's not good. It's where basically the beginning of the end is. And you've gone past that. So I had to get chemo . . . because what chemo does is it kills cancer cells that are in your whole system. So initially, surgery should have been enough to remove it, followed by radiation therapy, because radiation therapy kills cancer in a specific area. But because they didn't know how far the cancer cells had gone, I had to get chemo.

[00:15:11] So I went through chemo and lost all my hair. And I immediately was like, I just cannot handle my life right now. It just was so overwhelming to even do the most normal of things. And for the first time in my life as a single parent, I had to ask for help. That was really one of the hardest things that I have ever had to do. And I had a boyfriend, who I had only been dating for eight months, really stepped up. I mean, he was really just incredible as a partner for me. And my mom ditched my poor dad up in Oregon and basically moved in with us in Northern California during my treatment, and really helped take care of me. I wasn't working because I just couldn't. I mean, even from when I got my diagnosis, I just was unable to focus on work. So I wasn't working, but I was so exhausted I could hardly do anything.

[00:16:20] And my poor child. When you're diagnosed with with cancer, at least for me, the very first thing that I thought of was her. And, you know, as unhealthy as it is, I had this vision of her tearful face at my funeral.

[00:16:40] And that was the biggest fear for me. What happens if I'm like my Aunt Lois and I don't make it and I leave my daughter behind? And on top of that, you know, I'm divorced. And my ex-husband and I did not have a fantastic relationship at that point.

[00:16:59] It was a really scary situation for me. Really, really terrifying. And on top of that, you know, she had anxiety. She'd had separation anxiety the whole year before, and had been worrying that something was going to happen to me. The things that she would worry about were really detailed, but also not based in reality. She would say, "I worry that when I'm falling asleep and at night, I can see you sitting in the chair in the living room and some monster comes in the door and eats you while I watch." I mean, it was really dark and awful. And I knew that if something happened to me . . . I just worried that she wouldn't be okay.

[00:17:50] I know now that she would be okay, but at the time I felt like she probably wouldn't be. And that just really added to my fear. So I had to figure out a way to explain to her what was going on to me with me. And I wanted to do it in a way that didn't terrify her.

So I ordered a bunch of books and hated them all. That's dramatic. I didn't hate all of them. I just felt like they were cute. I really liked a book called Cancer Hates Kisses. And there was another one called No-where Hair. And I liked both of those. And I thought they were cute, but they didn't explain what cancer was. They were more about, "Mommy is so brave" and "Mommy is going to lose her hair." But it wasn't like an actual explanation of what cancer is.

And from all of my research for Mighty + Bright, I knew how much kids could understand. I knew that by making something cutesy and trying to make it kind of like a . . . I don't know, like an "out there" sort of analogy, it can make things more confusing than if you just explain how the body works and what cancer actually is.

So I wasn't working, and the way that I basically kept myself going through treatment was I wrote a children's book. I based it on how I explained cancer to my daughter. I explained to her that our bodies are made up of all these little guys and they're kind of like LEGO in that they're building blocks in your body.

[00:19:34] Each one has a different job and they all make your heart work, and your lungs work, and some of them make your skin. And we just have millions and millions and millions of them. And they're just so small you can't even see them.

[00:19:48] And the one thing that cells do that's really cool is they can just build and build and build and build because they can make another block any time they want to. So it's like building with blocks and never running out of blocks.

But sometimes a broken one gets made and it's really confused and it doesn't remember what its job is. And the only thing that it remembers how to do is build more.

And so I explained to her that one of my one of my little guys in my breast was broken and confused, and he basically didn't know what else to do except making more and more and more guys. He's basically not doing his job and he's crowding out all the other guys. So she understood that.

[00:20:38] And she said, "what does that mean? Are you going to die?" Because cancer is a really big word, and kids hear it in a lot of different contexts. And she knew I was having a serious conversation with her. So she knew it was serious. And I said, "no, I just have one guy. They found it really early. And so we're just going to get rid of him. They're going to give me surgery, which means I'm going to take some medicine that's going to make me sleep and they're going to take my breasts off and sew them back up. So I'll have like a really big owie, but all the cancer will be gone."

So she was okay with that. And then also gave me a basis for talking to her. Later when I had to do chemo, I said, "unfortunately, they found that the guy had made some friends. And so now I have to have chemo and now my hair will probably fall out," you know, all that.

[00:21:39] I was really motivated through my treatment to write this book, but I realized later that, you really need to get a book at exactly the right time in your treatment — right when you're diagnosed. So that whenever you're ready to tell your child what you're going through, you have that explanation. Otherwise, it's sort of useless. If your child already knows what you're going through, you don't really necessarily need to explain it to them. And treatment is so much longer than just the explanation of what cancer is.

[00:22:19] I mean, it just goes on and on and on, especially given kids are like, five minutes is a lifetime. I mean, if you have a kid that's hungry and waiting for dinner, five minutes is a freaking lifetime and treatment is like a year. So it just feels like their whole lives you've been sick and that sucks.

[00:22:41] So the other thing that I thought about throughout my treatment was like, what could I create that would help a kid really understand that progress is being made . . . or something that would make sense of what is going on day to day when different people are dropping them off at school or picking them up, and you can't go to their field trips anymore.

Life becomes crazy, and I wanted to make sense out of it, but I couldn't figure out how. One of the things I created was basically a pie chart. I had six chemo infusions and each one was three weeks apart. I would have chemo and then for three weeks I would feel terrible and I would have another one. And then for three weeks I would feel terrible. And each time I would have one of those chemo infusions, I would mark off a piece of the pie. So even though it felt like it was going on forever, everyone in our family could see that I was actually making progress, which was really awesome for me. But it was also awesome for my daughter, because then she could see that even though it feels like Mom's been sick forever, this actually will be over. But I still felt like the day to day stuff was really what needed to be remedied.

[00:24:00] I had reached out to a therapist again, because I'm a therapy person, I really like therapists. So I reached out to another therapist. Her name is Margot, who worked at a local hospital doing bereavement with young kids, which is just . . . she's incredible. It's such an important work. And she she's been doing it forever. She's retired now, but I digress. Anyway, I reached out to her because I was given her name as a recommendation for a possible therapist for my daughter. She responded to my email and said, "you know, I'm so sorry I don't take on individual clients anymore."

But she had seen my email signature for Mighty + Bright, and she was very interested in what I was doing. And she asked if I wasn't busy, would I mind bringing my my custody calendar in and showing her what I do. And I thought, well, heck, that sounds great. I hadn't been talking to anyone new in a long time. I took what I had created to her and I said, "I've created this custody calendar and I've created this goal chart. But what I really need is something that explains cancer treatment to people and I don't know how to do it."

And she said, "well, I think you might be overthinking it." She pointed at my custody calendar and she's like, "you have a calendar right there." And it was the biggest A-ha moment for me. I was like, "thank you for pointing out something that I was right in front of my face and I didn't even see it."

[00:25:41] And that was the beginning of my cancer treatment calendar. From there, I was able to create a calendar with special buttons for different kinds of treatments, for how a parent might be feeling each day — so that a kid can know what to expect and who's doing drop-off and pick-up for school so that they know they're not going to be forgotten. And to me, one of the biggest parts of that calendar are the activity buttons.

[00:26:12] When you are exhausted and your body is just not working, your brain's not working. But you need to connect emotionally with your kid, and even coming up with the ideas for ways to do that that aren't going to exhaust you is just way beyond what you can do. So each treatment calendar for parents with cancer also comes with activities so that you as a parent don't have to think about what you can do together. You just let the kid choose because, you know you can play cards, you can color, you can tell stories together. That is something you can do. And you can do it for 15 minutes. You set a timer and now you've bonded with your child.

[00:27:02] So that was when I really felt like my work was important. I think with divorce, it was the hardest thing I'd ever gone through. And when I was diagnosed with cancer, my mom —I swear she must have flown from Oregon to California because she was there the very next day — I remember saying to her the very next day, "I just don't want this to be harder than divorce." And when I said it, I burst into tears and I was like, "it's already harder than divorce because it just was so terrible." And I realized . . . the things that people go through, the amount that people suffer in this world is just so much more than I ever knew. And on the same coin, there's so much more resilient than I ever knew. And we can get through such horrible things and come out the other side as better and stronger people, people who are more capable of helping others.

[00:28:12] And that is what cancer taught me. It taught me really to see the strength in other people and to see the strength in my own family. You know, when I was first diagnosed, I thought my daughter wouldn't be able to handle it if I died.

[00:28:27] And while I know that it would be absolutely heartbreaking and she'd be super messed up from it, she would also be okay. Because in reality, we're all facing really hard things in our lives and we all have to learn how to get through them and how to be resilient through them.

And that's why I created Mighty + Bright, and why I continue to grow it and why I want to move it beyond helping kids with that day-to-day uncertainty, and really focus on the resilience that comes from getting through those hard things.

Because it's not just about surviving cancer. If you're a child and you have cancer,  you can survive it. But you can also take that story of surviving cancer and and really internalize it and own it and turn it into something that makes you a better person, a person that is more equipped to help other children who have been through that. You become a person who knows that you can do hard things because you've done them before.

[00:29:34] And I find that my life's absolute purpose, like this is what I am put on this earth for.

[00:29:44] This is not about something that I have created. That is not what mighty and bright is about. Mighty and bright is about you. It is about parents who are helping their kids through some of the hardest things they've ever dealt with. And it does not matter whether you have survived cancer or you're trying to survive this pandemic. You are going through something hard and don't compare it to where other people are going through because it's all relative and everything that our kids are having to deal with, it's legitimately hard and and we can also get through it together. So that is my story and how I started my Lambright.

[00:30:26] And I hope that you found this interesting. It is certainly three times the length that I promise these episodes would be. But part of the reason why is because I think it's important that, you know, where this podcast is coming from and who I am. So thank you. And if you have any questions or there's anything you would like me to talk about in the future, please don't hesitate to reach out!

Sara Olsher

Sara Olsher

Sara Olsher is the Founder + CEO of Mighty + Bright. She's a young cancer survivor, mom, and former single mom.

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