Julie Aigner-Clark is the author of You Are The Best Medicine, a picture book which teaches children the importance of giving a lot of love to mom when she is going through cancer treatment and what to expect in the future. Her children gave her their love and the reason to fight harder to overcome this disease. 100% of the proceeds of her book goes to breast cancer research.
You Are The Best Medicine reminds us how children “are the best medicine” as they nurture people they care about at a time when love is most needed.
Julie is best known for launching The Baby Einstein Company, a library of DVDs, CDs, books and toys designed to introduce babies and toddlers to classical music, poetry, art, and nature. The multi-million dollar company sold to Disney after five years of success.
Soon after, Julie faced a great deal of stress when Baby Einstein was falsely accused of making ineffective products and she was unable to respond to the allegations. She successfully sued The University of Washington for their false claims, but not after the stress had taken its toll on her health. She certainly believes that the link between stress and cancer played a role in the development of the breast cancer she was diagnosed with.
Today, Julie continues to grow her line of MOMMY MADE™ products and will soon launch a new company dedicated to babies, toddlers and their parents called JoyBox.
Julie, as a two-time breast cancer survivor, can you tell us about your two experiences starting in 2004 and again in 2008, and how the emotional aspect of the diagnoses affected you?
In 2004, at the age of 37, I found a tiny lump in the area of my left breast. A mammogram that had not seen this tumor was performed a second time, and confirmed that it was indeed breast cancer. Though the tumor was very small (under a cm) and had not spread elsewhere, I was terrified at the thought of not being here for my two young daughters. I opted for a double mastectomy, and a sentinel node biopsy at that time determined that the tumor had not spread outside of the margins.
For four years I lived with the understanding that I’d taken the best action possible, and two follow-up PET scans indicated that the cancer had not returned. I was feeling great! Until the fall of 2008, when I felt yet another tiny lump in the same area where the original tumor had been.
It wasn’t good. Though the primary breast cancer tumor was tiny, the disease had spread to ten lymph nodes and to my liver. One oncologist actually said, “You have so many tumors on your liver, they’ll NEVER all go away.” How do you SAY that to someone??!! I was lost and terrified, but I decided to do everything in my power to prove that doctor wrong. The cancer was HER-2 positive, meaning it was very aggressive but also that Herceptin, combined with chemo, might be a successful option for me. I started a regimen of TCH chemo immediately.
Six rounds of chemo later, I had a PET scan that showed NO EVIDENCE OF DISEASE!!!! ALL of the liver mets had cleared up and left only scars in their wake. The lymph nodes had been removed with the primary tumor, and because of the HER-2 diagnosis, I opted to stay on the Herceptin every three weeks. Chemo was over!!!
Because the cancer was ER positive, I also had my ovaries removed and started to take an aromatase inhibitor (Femara). That was no walk in the park; I was 42 and thrown into menopause, causing hot flashes, joint pain, and weak bones. I’ve actually broken both my leg and collarbone since starting the Femara. But – I’m ALIVE. So I’m just extra careful these days.
Until you go through it, no one can imagine the fear and agony that this diagnosis brings. Because I’m a mom, the only thing I could think about was my kids. I wasn’t ready to die.
How did prayer and support play important roles in your cancer recovery?
I thank God for the many, many people who prayed for me every day. I had conversations with God every day, as well. And my amazing husband never faltered in his belief that I could beat this disease. I have the most wonderful oncologist – Dr. Virginia Borges at the University of Colorado Hospital – who not only sees patients but who does research of her own on young women and breast cancer. It’s SO important to have a doctor who’s on top of all of the research and clinical trials.
You have said that cancer “taught you a lot” and that is one reason why you published your book entitled “You are the Best Medicine”. What is the message that you wanted children to gain from this?
That you can’t ‘catch’ cancer from someone, but you can make them feel a whole lot better by loving them and praying for them and supporting them. That without my own children, I never would have fought as hard as I did.
As a former teacher and given what you now know about cancer, if someone asked you to create a toolkit to help educators support children of parents going through cancer, what would you include in it?
That’s a hard one. Ears for listening? I would really encourage teachers to look for examples of people beating the disease, and share those with the student. I would ask the student if it would be okay to share his/her issue with the class so that everyone could be in support of the child. I would include a letter from someone like myself, explaining to teachers how to best understand what a child with parents with cancer is going through.
What would you say to other parents about having discussions with your children about death?
Well, I may not be a good one to ask about that. My daughters are now 20 & 18, and we never had a conversation about what would happen if I died (realizing we all die, what I mean is died while they were still young). We talk about life. We talk about how lucky and grateful we are that I beat stage 4 cancer. We send positive vibes out into the universe. Though no doctor will say to me, “You are cured,” I say it every day. I am cured. I am well. I don’t even use the ‘c’ word.
Are you currently working with any cancer organizations to raise awareness of breast cancer? Have you put together any videos about your journey with breast cancer that can be shared with others?
To be honest, I’m so sick of hearing the word ‘awareness’. Who ISN’T aware of breast cancer? I’m so tired of money going into awareness instead of a cure that I’ve given up on a lot of these organizations. Instead I donate directly to research at Dr. Borges’ lab.
As an entrepreneur, what do you think about making videos with music and art for children with cancer, replicating the same idea you had for Baby Einstein? Music and art play an important role in children’s cancer recovery.
Well, I think that children with cancer can experience the Baby Einstein videos exactly the way that other kids do – music and art are what they’re all about. But I’m happy that those avenues are available to children. Art and writing have been very therapeutic for me.
To learn more about Julie Aigner-Clark and her book, You Are The Best Medicine, visit her website. The book can be purchased from Julie directly by emailing her at Julie@mommymade.com.
Here is an article just published in Colorado Health and Wellness magazine on Julie.
Julie Aigner-Clark talks about “beating the odds”.