Mindy Ugolini’s darkest day came 11 years ago at the age of 35.
Then a busy young mom of a newborn, a 6-year-old and an 8-year-old, she was diagnosed with DCIS, an early stage breast cancer. With an urgency that every mother can understand, Ugolini became an overnight expert, consulting 6 different doctors and evaluating half as many hospitals.
She opted for a bi-lateral mastectomy that required 12 hours of surgery and a 2-week hospital stay. “Once you hear the word cancer, you never want to hear that word again,” Ugolini says.
Since then, Ugolini has endured more than 10 reconstructive surgeries, facing new scars, less mobility and slow recuperation each time. But the still youthful mom sees the early blow of cancer as an awakening that inspired her to live her life more fully than she had before the diagnosis.
“When you face mortality, you can go to a really dark place, or you can turn your attitude around,” she says. “I look at this as a gift, because I get to see a different perspective of life that most people never see.”
Ugolini offers some inspiring insights about what helped her turn a devastating diagnosis into the launch pad for a better life. But these tips aren’t just great for those who have been diagnosed with a life-threatening disease—they can help us all live fuller, happier lives.
1. Accept help. The outpouring of help from her community was overwhelming. “It’s very hard for me to be a person who needs, but when you can’t lift your arm to wipe a table or hold your newborn baby for 6 weeks, you can get really down, and you have to allow people to do things for you. It’s important to accept help not just because you need it—but also because people want to do something. So I changed my mindset to think that I’m doing them a favor. I’m giving someone an opportunity to do good.”
2. Take action with your kids. Young mothers, like Ugolini, instinctively want to protect their children from the fear of cancer, but Ugolini did more than reassure her kids that she would survive. “It also helped to get my children involved in advocating—doing walks with me like Relay for Life, the Avon Walk and the Susan G. Komen walk. I’m out there raising money, and my children are, too. The benefit of all this is that my kids get to see what a huge support the community can be.”
3. Join an exercise class that fits your needs. After yet another surgery last year, a friend coaxed Ugolini into trying Marnie Wilcox’s workout class at Midtown Athletic Club in Bannockburn. After one session, Ugolini was hooked. Now a regular, Ugolini regards her exercise regimen at Midtown as life-changing. ”I’m not a big cardio person and I’m limited in what I can do, so group fitness classes were intimidating. But I love the camaraderie because it’s motivating to feel everyone else’s energy.”
4. Learn to accept your body. A residual effect of joining an exercise class is that Ugolini has grown to accept and appreciate her body and what it can still do. “It’s hard to accept my body—you have no idea until you look in the mirror after losing your breasts. I’ve had to go through who I am and how this is affecting me. But Marnie’s class makes me feel better about myself. She always says, ‘You just gotta love what you’ve got!’”
5. Give back. It didn’t take long for Ugolini to realize that she could make a difference for other young women diagnosed with cancer. “I started a support group 11 years ago for young survivors, anyone diagnosed under 40. Any time someone is newly diagnosed, I’m one of the first to respond. I’ve talked to a lot of survivors and I help them prepare for what’s ahead. One of my closest friends today is a survivor who called me for help.”
6. Generate gratitude. Ugolini says that a cancer diagnosis compelled her to see the world with more gratitude. “I’ve gotten to a point of gratitude and I don’t sweat the small stuff that really doesn’t matter. I work at it. Instead of going to a negative place, I focus on one positive thing every day.”
7. Seek positive people. Understanding the importance of positive energy, Ugolini is thoughtful about the people she invites into her life. “I’ve re-evaluated who I surround myself with. I’ve weeded out negative influences that don’t work for me by asking, ‘What does this person bring into my life?’”
8. Don’t get stuck in why. “You can’t beat yourself up about ‘Why did this happen to me?’ The people who get stuck are the ones who stay in that moment. They want to know why. The fact is, it happens. I was 35, and it happened. It’s about what I can do with it versus why.”
9. Celebrate and live. Surviving cancer has caused Ugolini to live with more focus and purpose. “I always celebrate the anniversary (of surviving cancer) by going out with my friends. That’s the time each year that I re-evaluate what I’m doing with my life and how I’m living it.”
Photo: Mindy and her friend Chelli, who she met through her diagnosis, at a breast cancer event.