The Good Fight

By / Featured / People / October 26, 2018

As her photo diary proves, Chicagoan Yana Nirshberg never backed down from breast cancer

As told to Tara Gardner

It was just five days before her 36th birthday in February of this year. Yana Nirshberg, a Chicago mom and owner of marketing agency ParadigmNext, was diagnosed with triple negative breast cancer after discovering a small lump. Gathering her fighting spirit, she pulled techniques from her entrepreneurial background to face — and get through — it all. Documenting her experience with the help of family, Yana shares snapshots and her story.

Up until my diagnosis, I felt I had everything. I’m proud to say, coming in as an immigrant from the Ukraine in 1997 I built a life and career all on my own. I was enjoying the fruits of my labor when I found a breast tumor that was 1.47 mm in size. The doctors confirmed it was a very aggressive type of cancer that tends to spread quickly into other body organs. If it had been found just a half year later my chance of survival would have been reduced to 50 percent.

Yana and her daughter Mila, age 8

Being 36 and a mom to an 8-year-old daughter it wasn’t just about managing it, I needed to be cured. I couldn’t let my baby girl down. She was my inspiration to get through it. I thought, I am going to win this fight. I needed to be the strong one although I had this terrible thing inside of me. I think this helped keep my family sane and moving forward, despite the fact that it sucks.

My husband was amazing. He engaged several people who are experts in the field to be on the advisory board of our “project.” We knew everything needed to be properly documented and broken into smaller assignments so as not to feel so overwhelmed because you just don’t know where to start. He was able to get me an appointment at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota. It was a 5 ½-hour drive there. Those drives became our “weekly sprints” for chemotherapy.

Yana with husband Anatoly

In mid-February, within just 30 days of my diagnosis, my chemotherapy started and I began taking photographs of myself. Over time, my husband, daughter, and cousin Helen Berkun, a professional photographer and blogger, would take pictures too. From the chemotherapy chair, I’d snap selfies with slogan T-shirts; this set a theme or an intention to my whole family. I’d also journal everything, mapping out patterns in my diet and activities. I would look at it and adjust how I should maintain my lifestyle so my mood and body would feel better. It was part of my process of controlling the situation and helping my family feel included and empowered.

When my hair started to fall out a month into my treatment, every morning I’d wake up dreading brushing it. I told Helen I was coming over to do a photo shoot, and we photographed me buzzing my hair off. I felt at my most empowered because that’s when I really got myself together. It was a pivotal moment in my treatment. I pulled back my power and I became a warrior.

Yana’s “warrior” moment — shaving her head soon after starting chemo.

I knew that would be very scary for my daughter. We built out a wig boudoir and she was the salon manager. It was something to do together so she was helping me turn something visually scary into something fun. It wasn’t until June that I took the wigs off. I felt like I was hiding … like I wasn’t facing it. For the first time, I posted on social media without wearing a wig. I was beyond caring what anyone thought. My stance is if you have a problem, look inward. It’s incredibly important that women feel this way.

I finished my last chemo session mid-July, and had to take four weeks off to recover, then I had my double mastectomy in mid-August. Even my hair had started to grow back a little. I still have a 44 percent chance of developing ovarian cancer due to having the BRCA gene, which predisposes you to both ovarian and breast cancer. This is where your OB-GYN needs to step it up and not just do the checklist; they need to look deeper into each individual.

Yana with her cousin Helen Berkun and her friend Alena with their children.

Going through all of this makes me truly realize how much I love life and how amazing my family is. Sometimes we can’t plan. It’s about controlling the things I can and letting go of the things I can’t and being ok with it.

Photos by Helen Berkun & Yana’s family

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