When Aly Teich, founder of the website The Sweat Life, found out her mom, Vivian, had ovarian cancer, her entire world was turned upside down. Helping her mom through the experience didn’t only change life as she knew it; it gave Aly, 33, the motivation to launch her healthy-living site. Here, she explains what it was like to watch her mom deal with cancer and how she continues her legacy today.
Getting the Diagnosis
In May 2010, my dad called me and said to get to my mom’s gynecologist’s office as soon as possible. It made no sense—she’d been going to the doctor for a follow-up on a lesion they’d seen in a chest scan. I was planning to go on a run, and you know how parents can get hysterical over little things. I told my dad I wasn’t going to go all the way across town until he told me what was happening. He finally yelled into the phone, “It’s cancer. They found cancer. It’s bad. Just get here.”
It turns out that when they scanned my mom’s full body, they found cancer everywhere from her lower chest all the way down to her pelvis. When I arrived at the doctor’s office, my parents and my mom’s gynecologist all looked like they were in tears or had been. I sent my parents out of the room and asked the doctor to tell me everything. The first words out of his mouth were, “It’s not good.” My mom had stage IV cancer and only a 10 to 20 percent chance of living to see the next five years.
After chemotherapy and surgery, my mom officially went into remission in March 2011. It was only six months before the cancer came back, which was not very promising. The length of the first remission is very telling as to the rest of your prognosis. Anything under two years, and your odds of surviving go down. We resumed treatment, and the next time my mom went into remission, in July 2012, it was only for three months. Everything kind of spiraled from there.
My Post-Cancer World
It’s amazing how quickly your reality can shift. It was like, "Okay, this is happening—now we deal with it." Many moments were tough. My mom was so incredibly strong-willed, so seeing her scared, sad, or in pain was difficult. No matter what your relationship is with your parents, it always feels like they’re stronger than you are. Cancer made us switch those roles.
"My mom had stage IV cancer and only a 10 to 20 percent of living to see the next five years."
My family and I were all aware that this was hardest on my mother, so we just tried to be strong, positive, and keep it together for her. I remember crying a lot on my own or with my siblings but never in front of my mom. This was a rule we kept right until the end.
My mother was amazingly upbeat throughout this experience. One of her defining qualities was a wicked sense of humor. She kept us all positive as much as she could, even though it wasn’t easy.
When I officially launched The Sweat Life in September 2014—with the mission of empowering people to find what works best for them in living a healthy lifestyle—my mom made it clear that she was proud of what I was doing with it. It offered me an opportunity to take this journey I had been on with my mom and give the world the gift of learning how to appreciate your health. She was such a huge part of The Sweat Life in my mind, and we even shared an article she wrote about laughing your way through cancer. The site made everything my family had been through seem like it wasn't totally in vain.
The most challenging time was in the end, when we brought her home on hospice. I mean, it was my mother—she was the person I needed to hug and wanted to cry to, but she was the person I had to be strong for, too. It’s also incredibly hard to broach the subject of saying goodbye to someone you know is going to die soon. She desperately wanted to hold onto hope until the very end.
My Mom’s Passing
In September 2012, my mom developed a bowel blockage. The cancer had grown around her intestines and twisted them up so food could no longer pass through. She had surgery to fix it, but in December 2014, she started getting weaker. Around Christmas, she had another bowel blockage. She couldn’t eat anymore, so we had to put her on IV nutrition. She spent a month in the hospital, and they realized there was nothing they could do. We took her home at the end of January, and she slipped off quite peacefully on Valentine’s Day 2015. That’s my mom, the ultimate romantic. I had five years to try to prepare for losing her, but there’s no real way to do it. When someone’s gone, they’re gone.
"She was the person I needed to hug and wanted to cry to, but she was the person I had to be strong for, too."
I also think there is another layer for women going through this who have not yet married or don't have a family. If you’re close to your mother, as I was, those are stages in life you always imagine her being a part of: your wedding and meeting your children. It’s been challenging having to reframe my reality of how life will go on with her no longer in it.
How I’m Getting Through It
During my mother's illness and her death, I realized there is no one way to cope. The two most therapeutic things for me were running and yoga. They both offered me a place of peace to go and just be. Sometimes I would cry, sometimes I would think, sometimes I would just shut off and enjoy the movement. Feeling physically strong helped me be emotionally and mentally stronger through all of it. I also often felt I was running or practicing for her—doing things with my body I knew she couldn't.
I became very selective about with whom and how I spent my time. While I have the most wonderful friends and family and spent so much time talking with them and crying to them, it can also be hard to be a social person at times. How can you pretend everything is normal when there is this big dark cloud hanging over you all the time? Sometimes, I’d escape to do something fun with my friends—but other times I just wanted to be with my mom. The most important lesson I learned was to listen to myself and do whatever I needed to so I could stay centered and strong for my myself, my mother, and my family.
I try to live every single day to the absolute fullest, as life is just too short to live any other way. But I have also learned that it's okay to be totally broken. I spent so many years trying to be so strong. Sometimes you just can't be, and that's okay. Sometimes you just need to curl up on your couch with junk food and a great movie, then cry it out. Grieving is a long, hard process. There are days when I find myself being a little judgmental toward myself as to why I still feel so sad and broken. However, I've come to learn this is something I am going to carry with me forever. And as one of my friends who lost his dad told me, it never gets easier—but it does become more normal. I like to say it's like someone cut off my arm. There is not one moment of one day that I am not aware my arm is now gone, but I am slowly getting better at living with one arm.