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Five Lessons Learned from a Cancer Diagnosis! It’s Breast Cancer Awareness Month!

Mindset Made Simple Tip #168 – Watch or listen HERE.

About 20 years ago, I knew. You know when you have that feeling in your gut that something’s not right? Well, I knew.

And as much as I love being right, this wasn’t one of those times.

This month is Breast Cancer Awareness Month and although I have the physical scars to remind me that I am a breast cancer survivor, this month brings it all front and center. It gives me a chance to reflect on where I’ve been and what I learned about toughness. It reminds me of how lucky I am and how grateful I am for the support of doctors, family, colleagues and so many others who were so wonderful when I was afraid and uncertain.

It also gives me a chance to remind you of the importance of early detection for you or those you love! Mammograms save lives…I am certain one saved mine!I

This journey I took two decades ago taught me something about how my mindset affected my emotions, behaviors, responses and healing. I remember saying “I always thought I was pretty tough, but now I get to see how tough I am!” I also remember my PT saying, “As an athlete, you are built for this since we always think we have a chance, and we tend to fight if there is an out left in the game.”

So true! I am certain being an athlete helped me cope. I also gained strength from watching my coach manage cancer courageously during my senior year of college. Her example helped me realize how important the following lessons were, not only as we face a health scare, but as we face uncertainty, pressure and growth as performers.

Lesson 1: Vulnerability is Okay!

As competitors, we think vulnerability is seen as a weakness. However, when faced with a life-altering diagnosis, I discovered that embracing vulnerability is a source of strength. I was scared. I told my team I was scared. I told my assistant…and she was scared, too! I knew that some of them would walk this same walk one day, and I wanted them to see the side of struggle we don’t often talk about.

Like when I lost my mom suddenly. I remember thinking “I had no idea people walk around feeling this broken every day!” We so rarely talk about the fear and sadness we feel, and I wanted my team to know I was both…but I was also moving forward with courage!

Author and researcher, Brene Brown describes vulnerability as "uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure." She ties vulnerability to courage and says your willingness to be vulnerable is directly tied to your level of courage! It takes courage to acknowledge your fears, doubts, and uncertainties. Sharing your vulnerabilities doesn't diminish your toughness, leadership or performance; it humanizes it. It’s real. This authenticity becomes a powerful force, creating a connection with those you work with, love, lead and coach.

Lesson 2: Resilience is a Daily (Hard) Practice

Resilience isn't a one-time feat; it's a daily practice. Managing any type of medical diagnosis can be grueling, both physically and emotionally. This situation provided me with the perfect opportunity to show what resilience looks like!

Webster defines resilience as “the capacity to withstand or to recover quickly from difficulties; toughness” and “the ability of a substance or object to spring back into shape; elasticity.” I like both definitions as we think of managing uncertainty and difficult situations. Our ability to withstand things that happen to us, around us or because of us, those things that challenge, us determines whether we can show up to do our jobs…whatever that means at the moment.

And our ability to “bounce back” into shape when we get bent out of shape matters, too! Have your team take the Brief Resilience Scale (click HERE) to get them thinking about how they can better withstand and bounce back from adversity!

It’s funny, in some ways being resilient through this was easier than showing resiliency on the field. I have mentioned before the day Dr. Zeigler, our sports psychologist, asked me if I knew why we lost after a doubleheader and then proceeded to tell me it was because my attitude sucked! That’s not resilience. That’s notwithstanding or bouncing back. But this situation showed me it was possible in times that were much tougher than a few errors…so it was a CHOICE!

As leaders and coaches, we can't expect our teams to be resilient if we aren't actively practicing it ourselves. But much like being vulnerable, it’s hard, too! Resilience is a skill that needs constant honing, and adversity is where we strengthen and practice it…if we aren’t too stubborn (like I was in that game) and CHOOSE to be mindful of our ability to be it 😊!

Lesson 3: Sometimes You Must Give Up a Bit of Control (Oh boy!)

I often define coaches as people who think they have control over 18 – 22-year-olds. HAH!, My cancer experience taught me that sometimes, you have to surrender control. I spent hours reading, trying to plan and thinking ahead. Some of it was good, but trying to figure it all out when I didn’t have all the answers was driving me CRAZY! Laying on the couch, I could see all the things that needed to be cleaned…or fixed…or….. you get the picture!

Treatment plans change, doctors give you options, no one tells you what to do, and you have to slow down. AHHHHGGG! I remember thinking “Just treat me like a 5-year-old and tell me what is best, and I’ll do it.

But that’s not how it works! Unexpected side effects arise (especially if you do a workout 5 days after your surgery because you heard someone else did it…which you later found out was not true!), you don’t know what is coming next, you’re waiting for the next shoe to drop and you can't predict the outcome.

Learning to let go of the illusion of control and focusing on what you can influence is a game-changer. It all goes back to “What’s important now?” and “What can I control?”

Getting tied up in future thinking and trying to control every detail wastes energy and time…time you could be putting to much better use!

Lesson 4: Mindfulness and Mental Performance Tools Matter

Amidst the uncertainty in our lives…in this case, surgeries, appointments and uncertainty, finding moments of mindfulness became crucial. I rarely use the word “mindfulness” with my teams/athletes because I fear it has “that’s not toughness” connotations.

But the ability to be “mindful” is anything but weak. It allows us to be where we need to be when we need to be there. It enhances focus, reduces stress, helps build resilience and puts us in control! Finding a way to be mindful is where our tools come into play and MENTAL REHEARSAL played a HUGE role for me.

Three days a week, I spent time with Dr. Zeigler “boxing” the cancer out of my body. I learned to better manage my breathing and use it to my advantage. I spent time “going to my favorite place”, the beach, and feeling calm and comfortable.

The time spent “in control” during a time when it was easy to feel out of control. The practice was so impactful and now that I know the results of research over the past several decades, I am certain it made a difference in my outcome!

Whether through meditation, deep breathing, or simply being present in the moment, mindfulness helped me navigate the mental whirlwind that blew in out of the blue!

Lesson 5: Mental Toughness Isn’t Always What We Think It Is

We often throw words around like mental toughness, confidence and success in athletics and other highly competitive areas of life. Then we must live up to these words. The problem is, that they are very hard to encapsulate…and are rarely defined.

I recently read, the following definition in Focused For Rugby. “People who are mentally tough have complete self-belief in their ability, an unshakable faith that they are in complete control of their destiny, and a conviction that they will be relatively unaffected by setbacks.”

Who the heck do you know who fits this definition…really?

As I trudged through appointment after appointment and surgery after surgery, I can tell you that I did not have “complete” self-belief and I did not feel in “complete control” of my destiny!!

But I did know this. Whatever came my way, I was going to figure out how to do the very best I could to control what I could, whether that be my attitude, my physical fitness, my ability to ask questions, my preparedness for the appointment, the day or the uncertainty. I was not in control, but I could control my response. Some things set me back, and I had a choice whether to stay there or to do what needed to be done next.

To help those we lead to be more mentally tough, maybe we need to let them in on a secret. The secret is…mental toughness is looking at what is in front of you and figuring out how to manage it!


Not all mentally tough people are out there grunting it with big acts of “toughness”! Some of the toughest people in the world are taking one step forward, no matter how small, because they are looking at what is in front of them…good or bad…and doing what they can, with what they have, where they are! Then they do it again. And again. And all of a sudden, they’re “toughing it out!”

We aren’t born with mental toughness. It can be taught…and learned one small step at a time. But to get there, it takes the willingness to learn lessons 1 through 4 because toughness needs vulnerability, resilience, an understanding of what we can control and the ability to be mindful!

It doesn’t sound so tough, does it?

In the end, whether it is a cancer diagnosis or the uncertainty we face each time we step up to compete, all are profound teachers, offering lessons in mental toughness that transcend professional, personal and performance boundaries.

Every time we step up to a new situation, we have the chance to enhance our performance by embracing vulnerability, practicing daily resilience, surrendering control when necessary, incorporating mindfulness and mental performance tools and celebrating small victories that encompass mental toughness. These are not just survival tactics; they're the building blocks of a battle-tested mindset that can transform the way we perform, lead and coach.

I hope that you never weather the cancer storm, but life's storms don't discriminate. What matters is how we navigate them, emerge stronger, and bring those hard-earned and learned lessons to help us weather what comes next!

After all, the best leaders and performers aren't those who have never been through a storm but those who have weathered the fiercest and emerged stronger than before!

Here is to managing what comes next!


P.S. Hire me to work with your team for one day or all year. Let’s put together a mental training plan that works for your team. Shoot me an email at and let’s get started!

Julie Jones

Mental Performance Coach

SSB Performance • 234-206-0946


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