sally starnes gore.

wife. mother. sister. daughter. fighter.

I moved to Fort Myers when I was 11-years old. My mother had just died and my father was anxious to make a fresh start in the coastal community located in southwest Florida. From a small, mid-western town, I was anxious about living in a big city. I was sad about leaving family behind and worried that finding new friends would be nearly impossible. But as it turned out, finding new friends was the easiest part of that life-changing transition.

The girls in Florida were quick to push me out of my comfort zone and show me how to live life along the coast. They taught me to put lemon juice in my hair and baby oil on my skin before hitting the beach. (In retrospect—not such a good idea.) They invited me to parties in every corner of the community, be it in a house, on the beach, in the woods, or on a boat. They taught me how to stand on a skateboard and introduced me to music that was previously denied by my strict Catholic upbringing. They advised me on the bad boys and good teachers. They encouraged me to try out for drama club, cheerleading and eventually softball. But most of all, those young girls made me feel right at home … even though I was terrified of it all.

Allow me to introduce you to one of the girls who taught me that the world was not so scary. With her light-hearted humor, unconventional wardrobe (think Punky Brewster—only cooler) and a smile that lasted all day long, Sally Starnes stood out in a crowd. And 25 years later, she continues to stand out. Only now, it is for her bravery and strength.  Sally Starnes is a survivor. She has survived vein-poking, nausea-inducing cancer treatments that would put any normal human being over the edge. But Sally isn’t normal. She never was. In an effort to educate, Sally decided to create a Facebook group page to offer a glimpse of life with cancer. With every post, she continues to deliver the cold hard truth with brutal honesty and a side of humor. Sally feels that sharing experiences allows for learning, growth, and healing. I am honored she allows me the opportunity to continue to learn from her and thank her for joining the j. jane conversation.

What is your fondest memory of high school?

I don’t really have a fondest memory as far as a particular event. There were a lot of fun times. Looking back I would probably say just having your friends all in one place and nothing to do but kill time hanging out with them.

How lucky is the class of 1993? After all, we had a great deal of fun without the watchful eye of social media.

I can’t imagine having the stuff we did plastered all over social media. I’m pretty sure most of us would be in jail!

How did you choose your career path? And was it a conscious decision? (or did you stumble across it?)

It was a little bit of both! I work in healthcare quality improvement and I do a lot of writing, project management, and problem solving, which I love. I think I was consciously looking for something that allowed me to draw on my skills and use them in a way that I enjoyed and excelled. I originally graduated with a social work degree but it didn’t take me long to realize that it just wasn’t for me. I went back to school and got my MBA and after that the right doors opened at the right time.    

If someone wanted to follow in your professional footsteps, what steps do they need to take to become successful?

I do project management and proposal writing for a healthcare quality improvement and research organization and I contribute to multiple contracts. The best thing you can do to be successful in this type of environment is to develop good critical thinking skills and the ability to adjust to constantly changing priorities.  If you want to grow in your organization, you have to be willing to have an open mind and not fear jumping in and trying something new!

What was your initial reaction to hearing the words, “you have cancer”?

It is interesting because by the time I heard those words, I already knew that I had cancer. There really wasn’t a doubt in my mind. Everyone else was devastated though. My friends and family had never even entertained the idea that this might be for real.

For me, what was way worse than hearing those words was what happened the night before my biopsy. Initially, I found three lumps in my left breast and went to get those checked out. However, for some reason, the night before my biopsy I decided to feel under my arm. And sure enough, I had a large lump. That was the most devastating moment for me because it moved from, “Ok, I have cancer but I’ve caught it early” to “Holy shit, I have cancer and it has spread to the lymph nodes. This is now officially life threatening.” I remember walking around in a daze that night wondering, how could this have happened? Had I neglected my own health to the point that, not only did I have cancer, but it had now spread? Have I jeopardized my ability to see my son grow up? It was all very surreal. Cancer was just never on my radar. It is still a very painful moment to think about.

You underwent a series of life-saving chemo treatments and like many others I have followed your progress from the sidelines, cheering you on. Your optimism is truly astounding. How do you do that, Sally? How do you bring courage to such a challenging situation?

Well, it was (and is) no doubt a challenging situation. There is a never-ending list of negatives that come along with chemo. And I won’t say I never got down. It takes hard work to keep upbeat and find the positives where you can! It was (and still is) an emotional roller coaster. You feel scared, sick, overwhelmed, depressed, mad … all the emotions come in uncontrollable, unpredictable waves.

But I made a decision not to let it break me. I actually had to consciously make that decision multiple times during each round of chemo. The first time was after my initial round when I losing my hair. I hated how I looked, hated that I was losing my hair. I had stayed in bed, hiding from the world for two days straight, when I made the decision that I couldn’t let this win. I couldn’t let it isolate me, couldn’t let it take me away from being the wife and mom I was “before.” And with that, I got up out of bed, called my mom, and we shaved my head. What that experience taught me was that, although I couldn’t control that I had cancer, I could control how I reacted to it and how I lived with it.

I also made sure that I was always keeping things in perspective and practicing gratitude. It can be very easy to fall into a pity party and think about how much your situation sucks. But you have to get out of your own world. Yes, having cancer at 39 is terrible. But to the 25 year old girl with cancer, I am lucky to have made it to 39. To the patient that is terminally ill, I am lucky to be responding so well to treatment. To the person going through it alone, I am lucky to have a wonderful supportive husband and family. And to the parent whose child was just diagnosed with cancer, I am lucky that it is me going through it and not my child. Learning to look at things this way really shifted my thinking. I ultimately went from being mad and asking “Why me? Why did I get it?” to feeling concern for others and asking, “Why me? Why am I doing so well with this when others aren’t?”

Were your parents aware of the parties thrown in their beautiful home?

This is probably my favorite question! They weren’t at first. We were pretty slick! And we all would have been in the clear would it not have been for one can of daiquiri mix left in the back of the freezer. But my parents are very cool. I think after that, they started joining in and inviting some of their own friends to the parties!

If you could tell your younger self one thing, what would it be?

I would go eight months back and tell myself…GET IT CHECKED!! Most people’s first reaction when I tell them about my situation is how good it is that I caught it early … and this is true on the surface. I did find the lumps on my own, so I was proactive. But I also did what so many others do … I waited at first. I let a good three months go by. When I first felt them, I thought it was weird but didn’t think I should be concerned. I mean, I had never heard of having three lumps … it must be something else. So I waited till the next month to see what happened (this is called denial). When they were still there the next month, I told my husband. He was adamant that I go in right away and get checked, but I felt I should wait just one more month (this is called fear). And then on the third month, not only did I still have the lumps, but I also had other symptoms pop up, so I finally called right away to get an appointment (this is called panic).

So here is what I would say to my younger self and to anyone else reading this: Don’t fool yourself into thinking that it can’t happen to you and don’t let denial and fear lead to panic. Take care of yourself and be proactive.

What is your greatest lesson learned in life?

That you will always persevere. Even when things seem hopeless, you will eventually come out the other end and everything will be ok. As my mom always said, it’s a great life if you don’t weaken!

j. jane side note:

Feel free to follow Sally’s Story on Facebook. She keeps it real and remind you treasure every healthy cell in your body.

Mother Starnes offers advice that is worth repeating: It’s a great life if you don’t weaken!

  • Jacqui
    Posted at 19:47h, 17 June

    What an inspiration! Thank you for sharing you story!