The Driven Life: Holly Cain on staying positive and surviving adversity

This is the latest in a series of self-improvement/motivational-themed interviews involving people in the racing world sharing insight into successful habits. Up next: Holly Cain, the longtime motorsports journalist who now writes for the NASCAR Wire Service.

You’ve been through some tremendous person struggles with breast cancer, where it looked really bad, and you have been able to overcome that and do that with a positive attitude at the same time. Hopefully what you’re saying will apply to people in their own personal struggles, even if it’s not a life or death situation like cancer. With your story, could you just give us some background on what were some of the struggles that you’ve gone through with this whole experience?

Here’s a story people might find kind of interesting, and it really speaks to almost making a choice — making a conscious choice to try and find an upside and a positive to something. When I first went to the doctor to find out what the situation was, I’d found some lumps and thought I needed to go. I got all the testing done and the doctor called back and said, “Can you come in tomorrow? We’d like you to come in and we’ll discuss this” — which is never a positive thing. Usually you think if you’re going to get a phone call, they’ll be like, “You’re all clear.” But they needed me to come in.

I had to tell my doctor at the time, “Could we wait two days?” because I was going to Washington D.C. with Jimmie Johnson to meet the President of the United States and write a story about it. And I remember the doctor laughing and she said, “That’s the best excuse I’ve ever heard not to come in and get your cancer results.”

My point in all of this was, even at a time when I was most scared, I had something else that I could kind of focus on and go to that was wonderful and remains a highlight of my life — to have that opportunity, to be inside the White House, and to do something like that. Looking back at that, (something to focus on was) a lot of what helped me through my darkest days of cancer. I was diagnosed with Stage 3 cancer; I am HER2-positive, which is kind of like an extra little thing that you get. Most women are not. Nine out of 10 people are not, but I was one out of 10, and it makes the treatment a little bit different and it’s a little bit worse on the cancer. It means it’s a different situation.

But I learned, and going to the White House is an example of this, you really have to focus on something that’s positive or a good to come out of it. Because if you let your mind wander and you let yourself get completely immersed…

I was scared to death, no doubt — I had two young kids at the time who were in middle school, and it was bad cancer. But I knew immediately that I had a choice, I had a conscious choice that I had to make. And on my roughest days, I really had to work hard at it, but you do have that choice and you have to force yourself to think of good things.

That just seems really tough to do. I can’t even put myself in your shoes of somebody saying there’s a decent chance you could die. How can you focus on something positive? What advice would you give to people to even find something positive?

Well that’s not to say there wasn’t a lot of crying, and that there wasn’t going to bed scared at night. That absolutely existed. I’ve never been more scared in my life.

But where I talk about making that choice is you can either go with that and become very sad and very depressed — and that doesn’t help you heal physically either, and my doctors pointed that out. And it sounds great just to say, “Think of a happy thing,” but I would literally lay there as sick as possible (and do that).

When I was so sick, I lost a ton of weight, I could barely lift my head up, I was literally in between chemo, having to go to the hospital every day of the week to get blood infusions just to give me enough energy that I could exist. I did not eat a morsel of food and I could not have a sip of a drink for nearly six months. All of my food and everything came through an IV. That’s how ill I was.

In telling you this, I would literally lay in bed or sit in the chemo chair or sit there getting a blood infusion and force myself to think of something good that happened that day. All of us have something. It may be waking up and seeing an incredibly blue sky — and I know that sounds corny, but if that’s what you’ve got, then that’s what it is. My kids may have made an A that day. It just really became the smallest of things. And it’s really a choice. You have to force yourself to find the upside because once you go down the slope, you go.

So the downside of that I guess is, if you’re not thinking that way, you’re thinking, “This is it…”

Everyone thinks like that at the beginning, especially when you’re diagnosed with a disease like that, especially at such a late stage. Of course you do. It’s not easy to do. It’s not easy. There’s so many days when I would sit there and be scared to death.

But ultimately it came down to, “Do you want to survive? Do you want to overcome?” And you have to decide to do that, and then you have to figure out how to go about it. But you have to make that conscious decision: “I don’t want to die, I want to overcome.” And like you said, it may not be cancer, it may not be an illness, it could be another challenge in life — but you ultimately at some point have to say, “I’m going to get through this.” And then force yourself.

So even if you’ve lost a partner or whatever it may be, the same concept applies to whatever you’re going through. You may not be sick, but you’re like, “OK, I am going to rally myself. I’m going to collect myself and somehow push through.” And it’s not going to be easy.

No, and it can be the smallest of things. It could be like when I was ill, people would reach out to me from NASCAR and I had people reach out to me who I never in a million years would think cared. And you know what? Just that phone call, that note, would mean so much to me, and I would literally think about it all day long. “Oh my gosh, how cool is this? So and so called.” Or, “Somebody sent me a text message. They care.” That helped me go through it.

And I will tell you, I unfortunately had quite a bit of practice of this. I’ve had several things throughout my life, I’ve had close friends of mine pass away at an early age in high school, I’ve gone through divorce, I’ve lost a parent. I’ve had these things, which we all do, we all have things like that happen. But again, it’s a choice and it’s a conscious choice, or maybe it’s an unconscious choice.

So if we can go off on a little bit of a tangent there, because you’ve touched on something, and I’ve always been curious about this. There’s always that thing, like, “What do I say to someone?” There’s nothing that you can say to this person that’s going through something to make them feel better. Like, “Feel better soon,” if somebody’s going through cancer doesn’t seem right. When you’re going through a hard time, is there something in particular that’s helpful to hear, and something in particular that’s not helpful to hear that you could give some insight on for people when they’re reaching out to somebody? What’s the right thing to say?

I discovered, and I hope this doesn’t sound trite, it really doesn’t matter what the person says — it’s that they’re reaching out to you. I couldn’t even tell you specific messages, really. And obviously, in cancer, the “Get well soon,” I know that it’s awkward for someone to figure out what the heck you say to someone going through cancer. Or when someone has lost someone that they love, it’s hard to tell them it will get better.

It’s not so much the specific message, but it’s the sentiment and the care that you went about doing it. I know from my point and I would think a lot of people it’s the same thing: it’s not the specific message, it’s the point that you cared enough to do that.

Even though you say the sentiment is there, is there anything that’s like really unproductive for someone to hear? You know, like medical advice or something like, “Have you tried this?”

That is a good point. I had a lot of medical advice, but again, I chose to look at it more as, that person may feel awkward, they don’t know what to say. It was the fact that they took the time to reach out to me, it didn’t matter what they said.

You felt like they meant well.

I thought they meant well. And you know, the medical advice, if you’re someone who wanted to think about that, I always kind of felt like my doctors had a little more handle on it, so I deferred. But I thought that was maybe the message that the person sending it felt more comfortable doing. So it wasn’t about me. Oftentimes just, “I’m thinking about you,” will work.

So back to like fighting through it when you’re going through things, like you mentioned a divorce and things like that, how do you sort of make gains each day? Because I imagine there’s not going to be one thing that you do that day where it just makes everything go away. So how do you sort of celebrate those gains and recognize that it’s not going to be a battle that can be won overnight?

Well that’s definitely true, and as you mentioned I went through a divorce the same time as the cancer, so I had a lot of real negative energy going on. That’s why I say I would find something and I would force myself to pay more attention to that one thing than I would all of the others. Again, I spent many a day crying, I was very sad, and the worst part of it was not knowing, you know? “Am I going to beat this or aren’t I?” And doctors can’t tell you that. They don’t know necessarily. And someone that you think may think fabulous at fighting it may not be that person. You really have no idea.

It’s the ultimate of the balls being in the air. Again, and they tell you this and it sounds corny, but the attitude, it does make a difference. It’s not easy to get the right attitude and you don’t have it everyday, you’re not going to say that. You don’t have it every day. You really have to fight to have the right attitude, it’s just as important.

You right now are at the other side of things, so you’re living a relatively normal life. Let’s address people who aren’t necessarily going through the battle but who just want to have a better perspective on daily life. Do you have a routine that helps you keep centered? Like what do you do?

I don’t have a routine and it probably sounds corny, but I’m fortunate that I live here in sunny Florida. Seeing a beautiful sunset, seeing a beautiful sunrise, having my kids tell me one positive thing that happened to them during the day, getting a phone call from someone, an email or a text or something like that and really having myself focus more on that than on the bad stuff. I do, I love life, and I didn’t want to give that up. Again, it’s something that’s a conscious or an unconscious decision.

Another thing I’d like to ask you is, even though you can sort of do that with yourself, it’s such a negative world. How do you still stay positive even though there’s a temptation to get sucked into the negativity? It’d be so easy, do you know what I mean?

I look at that almost like a challenge. Yes, you do get sad and the negativity hurts, but I refuse to let it beat me. I feel like if I can beat cancer, I can beat the negativity of someone in my life, I can handle a bad day if someone wants to start something. You know how it is, it’s just everyday steps. Something bad may happen with one of my children, they might get some bad news, so you know what I do? I spend a whole lot of effort trying to find something to bring them up. And when I bring them up, it brings me up. So it’s really not allowing the negative, almost to the point where I just cut it out in my mind, I ignore it.

So it’s just not an option.

Not an option. No. I know it’s not just people who have survived a major illness or something like that, but when I look at it, I have been through so much that I feel like I’m on extra time and I just want to use it in the best way I can, and if I can cheer someone else up, that’s another thing that I think is really important.

I have the most wonderful group of friends, I have a wonderful mom, I have great kids, and I always make sure if I’m down about something else, I reach out to someone and they bring me up. And it may be a different person every time, but I really am surrounded by great people and great friends, and that helps. And sometimes you have to reach out to someone, they may not know you’re going through a difficult situation, but really make use of the great hearts and the great souls who are surrounding you in life.

That’s really interesting that you say that because I feel like there’s a temptation sometimes when somebody’s going through something, we’re like, “I don’t want to bother that person with my problems.” But you’re saying it’s OK to reach out and try to lean on someone and say, “Hey, this is tough for me. I’m going through a struggle right now.”

And you don’t even have to say all the details. Just, “Hey, what’s going on, I thought I’d give you a call. How was your day?” And listen to them talk about it. Get your mind off wherever you’re going through, maybe you end up in the end cheering them up over something and you think, “Wow, I did something good.” And then that feels good. So you’re actually helping yourself to a certain extent by helping somebody else, and that happens quite a lot. And frankly, you may have called somebody because you were feeling down, they never even knew that, you’re helping them out and in the end you’re the one that’s better off. It almost feels selfish.

It’s sort of like little victories and things to celebrate along the way. Not everyday is going to be great, but it doesn’t mean it has to be a horrible day.

Just keep looking up, that’s what I do. Just keep looking up.

5 Replies to “The Driven Life: Holly Cain on staying positive and surviving adversity”

  1. I still have Holly’s “How I got Here” saved in my Jeff Gluck email folder. Such a inspiringly , beautiful and strong woman.
    🌅 & 🌈 seems like what you need to think of when you think of Holly. 🤗💞

  2. I can relate to this story very well. I was also diagnosed with breast cancer in 2015 and it was also hrt2 positive. I was devastated.. afraid and didn’t know what to do. Fortunately I was one of the lucky ones as I responded to the treatments very well. I wasn’t sick at all no major side effects other than losing my hair. Positivity is definitely a means to recuperating. There were 2 very positive things in my life, my son and my new grandson and they are what got me through the difficult times. All the best to you in the future.

  3. I have Holly on my prayer chain daily. I didn’t even know the whole story, I just knew she’d been through a personal battle. I so admire her positive attitude. It was important during my Daughters treatment as well.,

  4. Been there, done that. Surgery & treatment. Then a determined “for-get-about it” … until I read something like this. Soon to be 20-year survivor.

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