Seeking to be Inspired | Survivor Stories

Penny Free and her husband, dressed in winter gear, holding snowboards
Penny Free with her husband, Mike

It’s not many people who decide to create a tagline for their retirement. Then again, Penny Free is not like many people.

Penny is a licensed clinical social worker, an art therapist, and a believer in mantras. The four statements she lives by are: Just do it all; Seek to be inspired; Be of service; and Keep your eyes on the prize. Each ‘tagline’ was born out of a specific need or arose from something or someone meaningful in her life.

Navigating ovarian cancer

Penny attributes the first mantra – Just Do it All – to her sister. When she was first diagnosed with ovarian cancer at the end of 2014, she found herself struggling about what course of action to take.

“There was so much unknown,” Penny said. “And sometimes the level of fear was almost paralyzing.”

Her head was swirling trying to figure out what her support mechanism should be in terms of integrative medicine. There was acupuncture, massage, meditation, her support network – even gardening. Her sister Nina said “Just do it all. Do the whole thing.”

So she has. And one of those things was finding a support group. Having been in the behavioral health field for 40 years, Penny knew there are better outcomes for women involved in support groups. That background also made her judicious about the kind of group she wanted to join. She learned about OCRA and was thrilled to connect to Tracy Moore, OCRA’s oncology social worker.

“I felt that she modeled good clinical practices,” Penny said. “I get lots of information from the group and I get a wallop of inspiration.”

Seeking inspiration

Penny retired from her work a year after her ovarian cancer diagnosis (she had already gone through treatment for breast cancer three and a half years prior). Because she had been involved with organizations throughout her career where it was important to have a strong vision and goal-oriented strategy, she approached retirement the same way.

“What’s my tagline? I thought, it’s really ‘seek to be inspired.’”

Penny and her husband sitting on side of boat

This notion has been much more than something that might be embroidered on a throw pillow. It became part of Penny’s survival strategy.

“I was so tired from chemo, all these awful symptoms,” she explained. “But if I was excited about something then I could go a few more steps.”

This constant search for inspiration helped give her that push she needed. Whether it was gardening around her yard, or spending time with her children, or working in her kitchen. Even her 98-year-old mother, who doesn’t have much memory but has a sense of humor and climbs stairs every day, is a source of inspiration.

Be of service; Eyes on the Prize

Eight years ago, Penny formed an accountability group with a handful of other women. “We were part of a big personal development track. We made a commitment that we would do a call every week,” she said.

These check-in calls (two of the women are from Canada, two from the U.S.) begin with a dedication to live their lives in service to others. And that is something Penny takes to heart. It’s part of the reason she has trained to become a Woman to Woman mentor.

“I get to witness bravery,” Penny said. “Not just bravery, but the great qualities people exhibit. It’s not that I never thought about it, but I get more pleasure from it now.”

Penny is also a practicing person of faith, and realized she needed a mantra that stems from the Bible. So she turned to Philippians 3:14, “I press toward the goal for the prize of the upward call…” Penny has simplified that to ‘keep your eyes on the prize,’ and acknowledges that the prize may change weekly. The idea is to keep your eyes on the bigger picture, on what’s really important.

Her mantras, or taglines, are not lip service. Penny has chosen to be intentional because of the challenges she faces. She sees it as a spiritual muscle builder.

Not all sunshine and rainbows

Penny is a positive person. She will say that in many ways, her life is better than it was before she was diagnosed. For starters, she ‘met’ her husband while in treatment. (To be accurate, they had been engaged to be married in 1975 and for whatever reasons, they didn’t walk down the aisle together, and each ended up following a different path for the next 40 years. But when Mike heard about Penny’s diagnosis and texted her in 2017, they began a conversation that eventually turned into a seven-hour lunch date the day after she had a blood transfusion, that, well … now they’re married.)

Penny Free with husband at wedding

“Because of our challenges, we have a recognition of just how precious every day is,” Penny said. “And sometimes we hesitate to talk about the future. But sometimes we jump right in and continue to hope.”

Asked what it’s like to reconnect with someone from your past, Penny said, “Knowing us in 1975, and then knowing us in 2020, we are the same people. But we are also really better people.”

A better man is just the partner that Penny needs at this time as she is dealing with a recurrence. “I don’t want to diminish how really challenging this is,” she said. In fact, Penny tallied up all the side effects she has from chemo – between hair loss and digestive problems and skin issues; she counted to 23.

“There really is a lot,” Penny said. “So really trying to get all your power players together, having everything you can to help you, that armament is what you want to have.”

The lessons in it all

Penny has learned a great deal, specifically, how to be quiet more. “It’s not just about being thoughtful, but about being quiet in the face of my own emotions and thoughts.”

Not jumping to conclusions, learning how to wait, stopping more to really take in what is wonderful about life … appreciating life’s pleasures to a vastly greater degree. It’s not easy. Penny acknowledges the fear and the feeling of doom, especially in the wake of a recurrence.

“This thing is so big,” she said. “It’s big, but it doesn’t win, you know? It doesn’t win.”

Penny with her husband, seated on a boat with the sky visible behind them, smiling

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