Peer pressure may have saved Bridget Bocchino Hochstuhl’s life. A young mother of two (“I was 37. My kids were 1 and 3.”), her coworkers encouraged her to visit the mobile mammogram van visiting her office. They ignored her “I’m not old enough” protests and she joined the group for testing that would keep her alive.
“A few weeks later, I’m diagnosed with Stage 4 metastatic breast cancer and they’re fine,” she remembers fondly, if a bit grimly. It was one more piece of awful news in a year jam-packed with awful news. “My mother-in-law was diagnosed with small cell lung cancer in May, my sister-in-law with colon cancer on July 4th. On my son’s first birthday in August, I received my diagnosis.”
She began treatment, but soon faced many complications, including a chemo-induced blood clot on her lung. “I was in the ICU for nearly a month,” she recalls. “They weren’t sure I would make it. My first medical team was ignoring symptoms, side effects and drug interactions. The decision to move to a different oncology team was simple. I was blunt with my new oncologist ‘You’re hired. Please don’t let me die. My kids are too little.’ That started a new relationship of open communication and making sure my doctor knew all of my side effects – and addressed the ones we could.”
Today, after a double mastectomy, 38 rounds of radiation, 12 cycles of chemo, 2 pulmonary embolisms, chronic recurrent cellulitis infections and at least 15 hospital admissions, Bridget’s health is vastly improved. She’s once again exercising. She has scars, but views them as badges of courage, not something to hide. “For each scar, I have a story to tell you. Yes, I survived. And you will too. Your inner strength, faith, hope and love will help you through.”
She’s grateful for the many ways her community came together in support – from the integrative services offered at Carol G. Simon Center (“They offered me such love, support, guidance, direction, a plan…”) to friends she barely knew (“The community at Little Village Daycare collected money and paid for a cleaning service for a year. Each week, a family took a turn cooking two meals for me. These women pulled together and I didn’t even know them. Talk about the power of love and care.”) and her incredible husband Erich (“He is a firefighter, the most amazing man ever. He lost his mother in the middle of all of it, but he stood by my side, helped me mentally, physically, emotionally. He was my solid rock to the right of me. He always did things to make me feel special and outlandish. Never made me feel sick. He faced it right there with me.”).
She’s overjoyed to be watching her kids grow up. “We’re taking time to watch sunrises together,” Bridget smiles. “At one point, the doctor sat across from me and told me that I had three weeks to live. I bought two notebooks and started writing letters to each kid, focusing on every milestone I could think of. I recorded myself reading them stories through one of those Hallmark recording books.”
Bridget lives by her favorite mantra – “Get up. Dress up. Show up and smile. If you look good, you’re going to feel good it’s that simple.” Her energy and zest for life is infectious. “Even though you’re feeling shi**y, look in the mirror, face it and say, I’ve got this. I painted on my eyebrows. I wore big earrings and red lipstick. I was really into hats. Wigs made me claustrophobic so I got hats.” Her mother would also provide comfort and shopping ideas for all kinds of hats.
But she’s never forgotten those days after diagnosis. “I tell people the raw truth. You’ll deal with unknown side effects, the sleepless nights, challenges of acclimating back into society when your treatment is over. No Reason to minimize what happened, just raw truth that yes these things happened to me, but I channeled my energy to focus on the reason why I had to get better. When you have a reason why, you find a way HOW. It’s that simple.”
She recommends every patient gets a notebook, encouraging them to write what they’re thinking, what they’re feeling and, most of all, five things they’re grateful for each day. “Whatever that was, acknowledge it as something that was monumental. It helps validate your feelings and provide perspective.”
When asked about the best advice she ever received, Bridget’s answer is simple, “Don’t worry about anything. It’s going to be all right.”
Going through chemo, she’d gone to an ice cream shop craving peanut butter ice cream. Just before she stepped to the counter, the clerk scraped the last of the peanutty goodness from the bucket. “As I glumly looked at the empty container, the kid next to me, with the confidence of a three year old holding a rainbow bubblegum cone, encouraged me with those words. ‘Don’t worry about anything. It’s going to be all right.’”
“Talk about ‘out of the mouths of babes,” she laughs, recalling the lightning bolt of inspiration. “Here’s this kid who knows nothing about me. But she was right. It did turn out all right.” (And the worker brought out another tub of peanut butter.)
Shortly after treatment, her mother was diagnosed with Ovarian Cancer. Bridget knew all too well the journey and wanted to provide the same comfort and support as she received. Her mom is doing well and now lives with her family.
Bridget’s focus continues to be on hope – “You have to live for now. You cannot worry about tomorrow. It’s promised to no one. When you worry, it’s like walking around with an umbrella waiting for it to rain.” Looking back at the fight she’s fought, she knows proverbial rain may fall, encouraging matches that “The sun is going to shine again. Life sucks right now. But the sun will shine again. Go do everything you want to do. Make your bucket list and check it off.”
“Before the C word, I would have never done that. Since the C word, I’ve gone to the Saratoga Springs, Lake George, Walt Disney World and have watched many sunrises in Siesta Key with good friends.”
“Remember these key profound words that STORMS always lose to the sun. “
“GET UP. DRESS UP. SHOW UP. SMILE. 😊”