At just 19 years old, Hilary Amburgey was diagnosed with stage 3 cancer. Fast forward to today, and Hilary has three children (and a fourth on the way) and is co-owner of Houston-based, MilkLoveYoga, a yoga studio for postpartum care for women and their children, and co-founder of Jollie, a brand that sells mindful movement supplies including eco-friendly yoga mats, and donates mats and other products to children’s hospitals and yoga therapy programs nationwide.
“I think the word ‘cancer’ can be very intimidating and frightening to most people,” Hilary tells me. “While it’s hard to recognize while you are actively going through treatment, post-treatment, I now appreciate the life lessons cancer forced me to learn at such a young age.”
Sunday Edit: Can you share a bit about your cancer diagnosis?
Hilary Amburgy: I was diagnosed with stage 3 Hodgkin’s lymphoma three days shy of my 20th birthday. At the time, I had just transferred colleges and was starting off my first semester at the University of Georgia. When I first noticed the large lump on the side of my neck, I ignored it — cancer is not something you think of at 19 years old.
After what was supposed to be a short weekend trip to Baltimore, MD to see a doctor there regarding the lump, I soon realized it was much more serious than I imagined. We found out that the cancer was not only in my neck, but it had spread and was considered late stage. A diagnosis of cancer really hit me when I realized I would soon move home with my parents, take a semester off from my brand new school, receive six months of chemotherapy, and worst of all, lose my hair, all while your friends are traveling abroad and having the time of their life. It was definitely difficult. Towards the end of my treatment, I got excited to think about the idea of getting back to my previous life as a college student but knew that transition would also be a challenge.
SE: When did you feel like you had beaten cancer? What was that day like for you?
HA: As a cancer survivor, I think you never feel that you 100% “beat cancer”. There are monumental days in my cancer journey that I definitely cherish and celebrate, such as yearly cancer anniversaries, and getting a clean scan, but as a cancer patient, you always have that thought in the back of your mind that cancer could come back. I will say two days that stick out in my memory: July 27th, 2007 — my last day of chemotherapy, and second, my five-year cancer anniversary — a date when some oncologists start to use the word “cured”.
SE: Has your diagnosis changed your life in any unexpected ways?
HA: Cancer forced me to take a 180 in my life. After facing a life-threatening diagnosis, it is almost impossible to not look at life from a different lens. Upon returning to college, I was so inspired by the amazing oncology nurses that took care of me for those six months, that I changed my major to psychology with the intent to get a master’s degree in nursing.
Working as an oncology nurse was extremely rewarding and being able to know what my patients were going through personally, made my job of taking care of them much easier.
After having my first baby, I “retired” to be a stay-at-home mom. After having my third (something I never imagined I would be able to do after cancer and chemotherapy), I started to have an itch to give back and make an impact in people’s lives outside of my home.
After my diagnosis of cancer, I became very passionate about healthy living and mindful movement and decided to become a registered yoga instructor. I began teaching yoga and trauma-informed mindfulness to children in my community, and quickly saw the impact I was making in their lives. After meeting my now business partner, Elizabeth Thompson, at a children’s yoga teacher training, we decided to launch MilkLoveYoga, a local services business where we taught yoga to children in Houston, TX. The feedback we received from our students and their parents was so amazing, and we started to think about how we could expand our reach. The idea of Jollie, the mindful movement brand with heart, began.
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Elizabeth and I knew that whatever we created had to make a social impact and for me, personally it was always giving back to the cancer community, one that was so close to my heart. I also knew from my professional experience that yoga therapy could have a positive impact on cancer patient’s quality of life, and when I dove deeper into that research, I saw those same positive effects in the pediatric cancer community. Since launching Jollie two months ago, we will have donated almost 200 yoga mats, 300 ‘A to Z’ yoga posters, almost 100 mindful crafts, and taught numerous virtual yoga classes to pediatric cancer patients across the US.
SE: Do you have any advice for individuals or families who are going through cancer treatment?
HA: A diagnosis of cancer can be very frightening and at times isolating. I think young adult cancer patients experience this the hardest and connecting with someone who has been through a similar experience or diagnosis can be helpful. Both my mom and I contacted the Leukemia and Lymphoma society who connected us with other people who knew first-hand what we were each going through. Being able to ask another person my age for tips and tricks on what to expect during treatment was helpful and encouraging.
A diagnosis of cancer also affects the whole family and recognizing that early on can be helpful for everyone involved. Finding and accepting help and support during a cancer diagnosis is not always easy but is definitely necessary for not only the patient but their loved ones as well.