A Life-Changing Day
August 16, 2010 is the date that will be seared into my memory forever. That was the last day that I stopped being me, and began my journey to become who I was truly meant to be.
You see, I was “that girl.” I was the quintessential overachieving Type-A single girl. I was feisty and scrappy and driven to succeed at everything I put my mind to. I worked hard and climbed the corporate ladder to a high-ranking position in the U.S. federal government. I competed in off-road triathlons and mountain bike races. I traveled around the world. Life. Was. Perfect.
The next day began a whole new chapter in my life. It was my 39th birthday, I received a breast cancer diagnosis, and my boyfriend proposed. Talk about a life-changing day!
I spent our engagement year going through surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation. On our wedding day, I was still sick and bald. But I had my best friend by my side, and became a stepmother to an eight-year-old boy.
One year after breast cancer treatment ended, my health was worse than it was during treatment. Yet, routine blood tests came back “normal.” My doctors encouraged me that all of the changes — cancer treatment, menopause, and so on — would take a toll on my body. I pushed for more tests and finally received a diagnosis of Hashimoto’s thyroiditis, an autoimmune thyroid disorder where your body attacks itself.
Even though I started a regimen of thyroid medicine, my health didn’t improve. In fact, it got worse! I was still sick. I woke up so tired, I felt like I hadn’t slept in several days. The fatigue was painful and debilitating. It literally hurt to stay awake. The migraines would be so bad, I could barely see. At times, my brain fog made me feel like I lived on another planet. My stomach was in a constant state of nausea. There were even days that it was normal to take four or five trips to the bathroom to launch a space shuttle.
Going through cancer treatment brings in lots of sympathy and support. Being diagnosed with an autoimmune disorder and the subsequent chronic fatigue was a different story. I felt isolated — like no one cared, understood, or believed me. The perception was that I was always tired, faking it, lazy, depressed, and making excuses.
The reality is that I was sick. And alone. And frustrated. And scared. My health hit such a crisis level that I had to resign from my job. Overnight we lost half of our family’s income.
In just a few years’ time, I went from being that girl who achieved success in everything that she did to feeling like a total failure. I didn’t have enough energy to take care of my family. I couldn’t work and provide for my family. I could barely get out of bed.
How Did I Get Here?
At some point, this is a question we all ask after years of being chronically ill: How did I get here?
How could I go from being healthy and happy to barely being able to get out of bed? I was falling asleep at work, which forced me to resign. Each morning, I just prayed that I had enough energy to make it through the day. How did I get this way? What went wrong?
Looking back at my life, I realized that I didn’t always take such great care of myself. From the time I was a kid, I had a sugar addiction, to the point where I would drink 5-10 cans of soda a day. I grew up surrounded by farmland (and pesticides). Not to mention things like having silver fillings in my teeth in my youth and Epstein-Barr virus (EBV) in college. Maybe those bouts of diarrhea in my 20’s and 30’s weren’t just happenstance, but instead Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) and my body showing signs of toxicity.
Or could genetics have contributed? When my mother was pregnant with me, she received a diagnosis of Addison’s disease, a rare autoimmune condition where her adrenal glands didn’t work. To this day, it still puzzles doctors, but back then, it was a complete mystery. They told my mom that she would never deliver me to term. They said she wouldn’t live past 30. She proved them wrong… and then some.
"It Builds Fortitude"
Throughout my mother's life, her health continued to worsen but she never let that get the best of her. “It builds fortitude,” she always said. The Addison’s had caused her health to progressively decline over the years. She was in and out of the hospital more times than we could count.
It never mattered to her how bad she felt. She was always full of gratitude, happiness, and love. She lived every single day to the fullest because she didn’t know when it was going to be her last. (After being in respiratory failure from respiratory syncytial virus, Mamma Fortitude passed in August 2019 at the age of 73.)
Throughout my own health challenges, I began to learn the true meaning of fortitude. It’s not just about soldiering on in times of trouble. It’s being full of gratitude, happiness, and love. It’s being thankful for everything you have, even in the middle of the storm. It’s about losing the victim mentality and becoming your own health champion.
And it's about sharing that gratitude, happiness, and love with others.
My Road to Recovery
After years of unsuccessfully trying to reclaim my life, I realized that “healthy” wasn’t good enough. I wanted to be my old self again, and be present for my family. I needed more. I needed to make some drastic changes. I needed to be completely clean, with both my diet and environment. I got started and never looked back.
I digested knowledge on root cause healing and became my own health hacker and my best advocate. I removed dairy, gluten, processed food, and sugar from my diet. I started eating more fruits, vegetables, and whole foods. I also switched from toxic beauty and cleaning products to more all-natural brands. I even started making my own!
Those steps may move the needle from illness to wellness for most people. But not me. I needed more. I refused to give up and kept trying until I got dialed into a health protocol that finally worked.
After years of trial and error, I learned about foundational medicine — restoring fundamental aspects of health. After all, your body is designed to heal itself. Your body is designed to detoxify itself. Your body protects what goes in, and expels as much of the bad as it can. Your skin provides a barrier to the environment. Your airways provide consistent detoxification from the air you breathe. Your liver and kidneys screen and flush the toxins while allowing nutrients to be absorbed. Sometimes, you just need to reset your system for your body to work how it’s designed.
With that mindset, I began a health protocol. When my health hit rock bottom not once, but twice, I was ready to grab the bull by the horns and do this detox thing right. I jumped in and trusted the process.
A major part of this was detoxing parasites. You may have heard if you have a pulse, you have parasites. This was especially true for me. Detoxing these unwelcome guests was a big piece of the puzzle.
True detox and going through a parasite cleanse are not easy and it’s not for the faint of heart. The stuff coming out of my body was disgusting! And it never let up. I would joke that there was a parasite palooza going on in my toilet. But I was grateful that the process was starting to work.
It didn't happen overnight. Over the course of three years, my body was finally draining properly. I was able to eliminate the heavy metals, parasites, toxins, and viruses that made me sick and fatigued. Now, I am a new and improved version of my old self, and I’m able to be present with my family. I am thankful for this journey to become who I was truly meant to be — someone who is full of gratitude and fortitude — and I love sharing my journey with others.
I learned that reclaiming your health isn’t always cut and dry. For some people, the basic protocols work well. For others, like me, it was more complicated and can take several years. I created my blog to help other women who were in the same situation.
If you are one of those people who have tried everything, I’m here to let you know that you are not alone and there is hope. Do your research, talk to your healthcare practitioners, and work through a protocol. Embrace the spirit of gratitude, find your inner fortitude, and most importantly… don’t give up!
About Holly: Holly Bertone, PMP, CNHP is the #1 Amazon best-selling author of the book Thriving in the Workplace with Autoimmune Disease: Know Your Rights, Resolve Conflict, and Reduce Stress. She is also the founder of the health and wellness website pinkfortitude.com. As a breast cancer and Hashimoto’s survivor, Holly turned these two significant health challenges into a passion to help transform lives for women with chronic illness.
In her free time, Holly loves to garden, and hit flea markets and yard sales. She is married to a retired Green Beret, is a stepmother and pug mamma, and lives in Alexandria, VA.