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Don't Let Five Bucks Cost You a Dream

“If you don’t have paint, use food coloring,” my art professor said. I’d never heard of it, but it was a relief. I was seventeen years old and taking my first college-level class. In high school, art supplies were provided, but this course required students to bring their own. And I was broke. “Paint’s expensive,” she told us, “and food coloring will work just as well.” So I squeezed a few drops of liquid color into Dixie cups, added water, and dipped in my brush. Although I willed that weird medium to blend into sunset-y washes, it didn’t work. My colors moved in unpredictable patterns and dried blotchy and faded. Growing up with four brothers and two sisters, I learned early to be frugal. If a rubber band broke, my dad knotted it and used it again. My mom used margarine tubs instead of Tupperware, vinegar instead of window cleaner, and cotton cloths instead of paper towels. All of us cut our napkins in half before dinner and re-used our plastic bags. For the most part, this philosophy served me well. Frugality – added to hours of babysitting, bussing tables, teaching swimming lessons, and cleaning houses – meant that when it was time for college, I had enough savings to pay for most of it. But in the process, my mind got trapped. During that art class, I took my professor’s word that the supplies I needed were unaffordable, so I didn’t even explore my options. When the class ended, I saw a “C” on my report card, my first ever – at least in an art class. If I can’t get an “A” in an introductory class at a crappy college, I thought, I’ll never make it as an artist. The talent I thought I had obviously isn’t there. So I took a different path. A few years later, when I was shopping at Walmart, I saw a perfectly acceptable set of water colors for five bucks, a price even I could have paid. That’s when the enormity of my error struck me. I hadn’t explored my options, and in a way, I let someone else derail my future. Those cheap paints taught me, with stinging force, that small decisions can have a massive impact on the trajectory of life. But they also taught me a new way to think. With a shopping cart of carefully selected bargains at my side, I slid my fingers along those water colors and decided I’d never again be fooled into limiting my options. It’s a mentality that helps me succeed now as an entrepreneur, and it saved my life during cancer treatment. When my husband and I discovered a lump in my breast, I saw a doctor the next morning. “Don’t worry about it,” she said. “It doesn’t meet the characteristics of cancer.” That didn’t sound right, and even though she's a doctor, I wasn't going to take her word for it. From the parking lot, I examined my options and scheduled a mammogram anyway. A short time later I learned I had Triple Negative Breast Cancer, spread to my lymph nodes and sternum. Then I saw an oncologist., “You can’t afford chemo,” he said, “and without it, you’ll be dead within three months.” My diagnosis coincided with the onset of Obamacare, and the new law rendered my family’s health insurance invalid. That oncologist said I’d run out of time before I could resolve the red tape, but we forged ahead anyway – and explored other options. My next appointment was with a surgeon. She pressured hard for scheduling a mastectomy the following morning, but I needed more time and I took it. Ultimately, I managed to get the life-saving chemotherapy I needed and then had a nipple-saving lumpectomy that delivered the same statistical outcome as a mastectomy. All those high-powered health care experts I saw dedicate their lives to healing people, and their level of expertise is amazing. But I have expertise too, and I’ve learned to trust and respect it. I may have missed my chance for an “A” in an entry-level art class, but the lesson I learned from that experience helped me save my life.

If I can offer advice to newly diagnosed breast cancer patients – or first time entrepreneurs – it’s to explore your options. Ask questions. Investigate alternatives. To get the best health care, find out what other cancer patients are doing. Research with passion and curiosity. Do you want to save your hair? avoid a mastectomy? protect your nipple? These possibilities might be available for you, but you have to ask. Five dollars stood between me and a possible career as an artist, but ultimately, that’s a small price tag for a better way to think. And that new way of thinking is how I carved out an amazing career as an entrepreneur and and grabbed the options I needed to save my life.

This piece was published first at

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