Get to Know Alison Mann: A Creator Living with Breast Cancer
Breast Cancer Awareness Month isn’t just about wearing pink – it’s about education and support. So all month, we’ll be sharing information to help increase awareness of the disease, and stories that will encourage those who are facing breast cancer, or their loved ones, starting with this story about Alison Mann.
In her words, Alison is “a wife, a mother, an entrepreneur, an animation executive, and a cancer aficionado.” Her journey with breast cancer is inspiring, so she’s sharing her story, along with a few tips on how to support those living with the disease, and how she was inspired by her own experience to create a platform for people to share their stories.
Tell us how you got started in your career and what led you to where you are today?
I was born and raised in California, and as an artist myself, I felt influenced by the entertainment industry and knew I wanted to be part of it – specifically in animation. I began my career at Nickelodeon Animation Studio as a finance department intern while attending Columbia College Chicago. After graduating, I was offered an amazing opportunity to continue working with Nickelodeon/MTV, and through my 16 years in the industry, I gained experience in TV, film, and gaming, and am now at Sony Animation as their VP of Creative Strategy in Development.
When and how did you find out you had breast cancer?
A week or so prior to Jan 3, 2014, I asked my doctor again if she could fill out the form so I could get the mammogram done – about two years after the first time I asked. When she asked why, I reminded her that my mother had breast cancer at the age of 42, and now that I was 34, I thought it would be a good idea to get tested – more or less as a precaution.
On January 3, 2014 I went in for my mammogram. I knew it was going to be awkward – as a matter of fact, my co-workers and I joked about me going in for my “boob smash” appointment. The “boob smash,” unfortunately, led to a breast biopsy due to dense breast tissue, so they said.
Thursday, January 30, 2014, my doctor called while I was at work to give me the results of my biopsy. I missed the first call, and after leaving a message, the doctor immediately called me back, which I felt was a bad sign – she never calls back that quickly. I don’t recall the particulars of the conversation, but what I do remember is the doctor telling me that I have cancer, but the kind of cancer I have is non-invasive and isn’t life threatening. She tells me that I will live a long, healthy life, and will have lots of kids (I haven’t decided if I even want kids, but cool, good to know). I’m in shock. This just doesn’t seem real.
Next, the conversation took an amusing turn for me: my doctor explained that she “hasn’t had any cancer patients for like, 9 years, and now, 2 this week!” In my mind, I could only think, “…congratulations? Happy to hear I was able to help you meet quota.” I know that’s not what she meant, and I’m sure it wasn’t said with malicious intent, but the statement bothered me.
I had been IMing my husband during the call, giving him a play-by-play of what the doctor said. I had to leave him with the line “I have cancer” while I finished my conversation with the doctor – maybe not the best move. At the end of our conversation, my doctor told me that she’d put me in touch with a breast specialist/surgeon. I started feeling overwhelmed after the phone call and started to cry, so I called my husband right away and told him what had happened. He wanted to come get me, but I thought I should try and stay at work since it would be a good distraction for me. This was big news to receive, especially at work!
I called my parents after Dylan and made sure they were together so I could deliver the message to them at the same time. Before I said anything, my dad asked me if Dylan and I were getting a divorce. My mother went another route thinking I might be pregnant. I am sure either of those to them would have been better than the reality of me telling them I have cancer. It was a hard conversation to have.
I did decide to stay at work, and luckily, my co-workers are amazing and they rallied around me. They were super supportive and talked me through my news. Around 4:30, I ran into my boss for the first time that day. He didn’t know what had happened, and when he jokingly asked if I had showered yet, I replied “I have cancer.” Mic drop.
The second time I was diagnosed it was right after I went on a lovely bachelorette weekend for one of my friends in Joshua tree where we drank wine, ate great food, and hiked. Mind you, since having kiddos I haven’t moved my body much. The evening I got home, I was lying in bed with my husband rubbing my left armpit area because if felt really sore, and figured it was just from working out. As I was doing so, I felt a lump, which was strange since I had a double mastectomy, and as far as I knew there wasn’t a chance of getting cancer again. The next morning, I went to see my breast surgeon who felt it was fatty tissue, which led to getting a biopsy a few days later, which led to finding out that I had cancer again the Monday following Mother’s Day. Did I mentioned there was only a 5% chance of it ever coming back? Yeah, it was news to me too.
I was 39 and had twins. At first, I couldn’t make sense of it… “WHAT?!?!” “HOW?!??” Quickly followed by “F*&@!” and “NOOOOO this can’t be happening.” I started hysterically crying and hyperventilating. All I was thinking was I am not going to make it to 40, and worst of all, I am not going to see my babies grow up.
What treatment plan did you opt for, if any?
The first time I was diagnosed it was stage 0 and I opted for a double mastectomy. This last diagnosis was stage 2 and it required me to have another operation, chemo, and radiation. Radiation for me was the worst.
What was the most encouraging piece of advice you received during this experience?
That I should smoke a bunch of weed… sadly I am a horrible pot smoker, so I couldn’t partake. My oncologist always reminded me that although the treatment feels intense and overwhelming now, in the grand scheme of my life, it is just a small blip.
What’s something you wish you knew about breast cancer before being diagnosed?
There is a lot of information out there about cancer, and personal testimonies, but that is what they are, personal. Your cancer experience is uniquely yours. Also, stay off the internet and talk to your doctor.
How has your life, or your outlook on life, changed since being diagnosed?
It has 100% changed. I no longer have fear of failure. As cliché as it may sound, having cancer has taught me to live like today is my last; to seize opportunities even if they are uncomfortable or scary, and with experience and time, we are granted the tools to achieve what we were truly set on this planet to do. The unpredictability of life reminds me of the importance of prioritization and patience, and to try to approach every day with wonder and discovery.
We are so inspired that you decided to start Cawzii and B Side Stories, can you share a bit about what made you want to create such a motivational platform and what the platform aims to do?
In trying to do my part to impact our world for the better, I want to create space for creators to make creative content to raise funds for charity. I love the idea of marrying artistry and philanthropy, so Cawzii, a crowdfunding platform and publisher, was born. The site is in progress, but in the meantime, we’re focusing on our first project, B-Side Stories.
Our mission is to bring awareness and humanity and show that cancer does not discriminate. Proceeds of this book will go to the Breast Cancer Research Foundation, Metavivor Research, and Support Inc. and cover the production costs associated with the making of this project. Our goal is for this book to be completed by Oct 2020 for Breast Cancer Awareness month.
No matter what hat I am wearing, or what organization or project I am supporting, it is about trying to find ways to impact and change the ecosystem around me. There is a lot of noise and negativity, so I’m creating a space that allows people to feel empowered, and feel that they have the ability to make change and use their voice.
What advice do you have for those who know someone with cancer?
Someone may not look or act sick, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t. Having cancer feels like a garbage truck has run you over mentally and physically. Don’t ask how you can help, just do. Figure out ways to bring food, get them out of the house, or just hang out even if they are out of it.
When it comes to cancer, words like “battle,” “fight,” “brave,” and “strong” can feel inadequate. While people have the best of intentions, words like those can imply that a cancer patient is in control of something that they simply are not. The best support can come in the form of unconditional love without labels. There isn’t a right or wrong way for someone to process the fact that they have cancer. Some may mask their fear with humor (this girl), double down on their health regiments, try different diets, or become angry or depressed. Your job as a loved one is to support and never judge. Lastly, while well-intentioned, don’t give advice on what a cancer patient should being doing to cure themselves. One of my personal fan favorites was when I was told that a coffee enema would cure me… news flash, it doesn’t. To quote Ron Burgundy, “and that is a scientific fact!” It’s about being there for the person, not the disease.