Britta Aragon, 36, founder of the blog/website Cincovidas.com, natural beauty expert and author of When Cancer Hits shares her experience as a teenager diagnosed with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. And how that diagnosis has impacted the full life she now leads and the business she’s formed to help other cancer survivors.
HBP: Britta, you have an amazing story. Unlike our other Wellness interviewees, you were diagnosed with cancer as a teen, the time when image and social interactions are paramount. Tell us about your experience with cancer at such a young age.
Britta: At 16, I found a tumor near my left collar bone. I went to the doctor and got a biopsy. Afterward, my doctor went into the other room and called my mom and said, “Britta’s got some form of Lymphoma.” My mom said, “What’s that?” You have to understand, this was 20 years ago. The doctor said, “It’s cancer.”
HBP: That must have been devastating. Did cancer run in your family?
Britta: No. I’d had no background of cancer on either side of my family. That was what made it more of a shock.
HBP: So, once you were diagnosed, what was the next step?
Britta: The doctor said I had to have surgery the next day.
HBP: The next day? Seriously?
Britta: I said the same thing. I asked if he was kidding. I was 16, so I thought, This is nothing. We can surely wait. But he said, “No. Let’s get it out.” The next day I was admitted and the tumor was taken out.
HBP: So then there was post treatment?
Britta: I started chemotherapy two weeks later. And I had to go every two weeks. The original prescription was chemo for a year and some radiation. In the end, I only needed chemo for five months and no radiation at all. I wasn’t staged yet, thank goodness. We caught it early.
HBP: So you’re this teenager who’s had this big thing happen to you. What was going on in your mind?
Britta: For me, my cancer experience was different from a lot of people. Ignorance is bliss at 16. All I wanted to do was be able to go to the mall on Saturday, or go to a dance with my friends. I wanted to get better so I could wake up and feel good. I wanted to do teen things. That was my first lesson with the power of attitude and how your body does listen. All I thought about was getting better. I didn’t understand the severity of what was happening. Not once did I think I was going to die.
HBP: So what were the hardest parts of this experience?
Britta: I played on my high school volleyball team. I couldn’t continue playing, so that was the biggest letdown. I didn’t have the energy for sports. I had a port put in so the doctor could administer chemo. I needed one because I had a reaction from one of the drugs in the cocktail. My arm swelled. It was easier for me to get the chemo with the port. Now that I had this metal device to get the drugs into my system, I definitely couldn’t play volleyball with that.
And then the fact that I had to cut my hair short and eventually lose it all was hard. At 16, I was just trying to figure out my identity and where I fit in and I was robbed out of my identity – what I looked like. I was gaining weight, losing hair, I had dry skin. That was difficult.
HBP: How sick did you feel on a daily basis?
Britta: My body responded really well to treatment. I was able to go to school 80% of the time. And I wasn’t that sick. There was someone else in another school in my city going through cancer at the same time and she was so sick. I did have to take summer school for one subject because I was out for my treatments. But that was okay.
HBP: So how did your community, particularly the other teens, respond to you after they knew about the cancer?
Britta: I’ll tell you, I’ve never felt so much love as I did at that time. My whole school was behind me. I would wear my wigs at school. And the kids weren’t mean. They were supportive. The teachers were supportive. The school threw a Christmas party for me. I received so many flowers. Even strangers in the community asked to help. The type of chemo I was taking was very old school and there were certain foods I couldn’t eat because they would clash with the drugs. So my mom’s friends would make me soups. They’d make me popsicles without preservatives. People were really there for me. I became a free spirit from that experience. I learned not to be tied down to anything.
HBP: So you got through high school and recovered from your cancer. You’ve not had any other personal bouts with cancer, correct?
Britta: No. I’ve been in remission for twenty years, thank God.
HBP: I know you have a lot of amazing things going on – from a book on cancer, which was first on the list of Self Magazine’s Cancer Resource Guide this month, to a skincare line that will debut in February, 2012. But let’s talk about what happened between high school and all of that. You’re seriously into health and fitness. You’re a beauty industry professional. And you have insight on caring for a loved one with cancer. I want to hear about the progression of your life.
Britta: When I finished high school, I became interested in fitness and nutrition. I studied nutrition and did wellness consulting. I was obsessed about eating healthy and all of that. I always had an obsession with skin care because my grandmother used to tell me to wear sunscreen and stay out of the sun. She bought me my first eye cream at 15.
At 25 I went to school to be a trained makeup artist. I worked with different brands and I became a trainer for distributors. I worked with skincare lines and a dermatologist. That was beauty, but not safe beauty.
HBP: That’s an interesting differentiation. We try to get that message out, too. There are beauty products and then there are safer beauty products.
Britta: I didn’t realize the difference until cancer hit again 8 years later after my diagnosis. This time my dad was diagnosed. It was colon cancer. And then sadly, the cancer spread to his lungs, liver, brain and then the bones. He went on so many different chemotherapy drugs and underwent radiation. I stepped up to be his caregiver alongside my mom. My attitude was, “He’s going to beat this because I did.”
During his treatment, he was having all sorts of side effects, including red, sensitive skin. I brought him a cream from a reputable brand at the department store and to my surprise, it burned his skin. I’d spent more than $100 on this cream. That’s when I first turned the product around and read what was in there. From that moment, I began doing extensive research on the ingredients found in these mainstream cosmetics.
HBP: What did you find out?
Britta: I soon discovered that some of those ingredients were actually linked to cancer and other health issues. I adamantly refused to give my father anything that was not good. Period- even if the products contained low levels of harsh ingredients.
HBP: Is that how you came to create your own line?
Britta: Absolutely. I could not find safe solution for my father during his cancer journey. This whole journey deeply inspired me to create my own skin care line containing no potentially harmful ingredients. And it’s specifically formulated for any type of compromised skin such as eczema, allergic skin, those suffering from the side effects of chemo, radiation, etc.
HBP: The line’s debuting in February, correct? And what’s it called?
Britta: Yes, that’s correct. February 2012. I’ve been working on the line for three years. It’s called CV Skinlabs- CV stands for Cinco Vidas, like my website, which means “Five Lives” in Spanish in honor of my father, who in 2007, lost his battle to cancer in five different bouts with colon and brain cancer.
HBP: That’s awesome. I can’t wait to try it. We get emails from women who tell us they can’t use this product or that cream because, although it says it’s natural, it burns their skin. They want something milder. I’d love to recommend your line once I’ve tried it. Changing topics here, tell me about this book of yours. It’s getting great buzz. What makes it different from all the other cancer books out there?
Britta: It’s the book I wish I had when I was going through cancer, but mostly when I was caring for my father during his eight year battle. I wanted to include all of the things I could not find. I wanted to know what products I could use and what are the side effects. But I hit a wall. I couldn’t find something that bridged the gap between the doctor’s office and real life. That’s what this book is. And really, you don’t have to read it cover to cover. You can read the chapter that addresses what you’re dealing with.
HBP: So it’s your experience in being a caregiver for your dad?
Britta: Yes, but it’s more than that. It’s real life stories from other cancer patients, survivors and caregivers; As well as health and medical experts in the field. I’m not the only one sharing the solutions. I got other people to share what they know. I talk about how to reduce the toxic load, how to change your routine now that your skin and body are different from before treatment. The things I wanted to know, but couldn’t find.
HBP: You talk about toxic load. So important. Tell me about the products you use and your lifestyle.
Britta: Today I try not to put anything inside or outside my body that contains any ingredients linked to cancer or other health issues. I no longer use conventional household products, paraffin candles (I use soy based now with essential oils only) and even perfumes as they contain highly toxic chemicals- and I was known as the queen of perfumes! I always wore perfume. I no longer get water delivery in the plastic gallon containers. I filter all of my water.
HBP: What is the greatest lesson you’ve learned from all of this – your own cancer, your dad’s cancer, writing your book?
Britta: I learned two valuable lessons: life is about service… and learning lessons. Once I learned these two important things, decision making and navigating life became more of a smoother ride than a roller coaster. It keeps me grounded and humbled.