Our mind is our greatest weapon. As Bershan Shaw explains, whether you’re facing breast cancer or your world at large, fortifying your mental health is paramount.
We strive to share insights based on diverse experiences without stigma or shame. This is a powerful voice.
When I’m hosting the “Inside Mental Health” podcast, I have to be very careful not to overshadow my guests. In real life, wherever I go, I’m the loudest, most charismatic person in the room. But a good host puts the guest first and makes small moves around the edges to ensure the guest shines.
For some guests, this proves more difficult than others, as guests can be audibly quiet, more reserved, and buttoned up. Drawing out their personalities could take time.
But not in this instance.
Right from the start, motivational speaker, business coach, and TV personality Bershan Shaw was different. Her energy level — and voice level — exceeded mine from the first utterance. She left a lasting impression that still makes me smile out of respect, and good nature.
Shaw is a breast cancer survivor, a mental health advocate, and is featured on the 2021 season of “The Real Housewives of New York.” She has an infectious faith and candor while discussing sobering subjects like mental illness and terminal breast cancer with a sense of urgency and optimism that’s difficult to mix.
Recently, I was able to chat with her and discuss her decision to focus on mental health advocacy rather than breast cancer advocacy.
As a man living with bipolar disorder, I know how misunderstood mental health is. I’ve made it my life’s mission to put a human face on living with mental illness because I want people to take mental health and mental illness seriously.
But even I question whether mental health issues are more “important” than physical health issues.
Being a survivor, I would have figured Shaw would have used her platform to promote breast cancer awareness and research, so I asked her, “Why mental health advocacy?”
“Because breast cancer is what happened. Mental health is what you go through,” Shaw says. “You’re dealing with a life-altering issue or life-changing issue. And during that, you have to deal with mental health.”
She goes on to explain that, while doctors and her support system were quick to address her physical needs, no one addressed the great mental health toll of a terminal diagnosis.
She explains that she felt alone, lost, and emotionally devastated during breast cancer treatment.
“I don’t want anyone to ever feel like I felt. So, that became my mission,” she says.
While her tone was still upbeat, I sensed a moment of hesitation in her voice. While I can’t be sure what someone else is thinking, I believe that even someone as strong as Shaw bears the emotional scars of feeling alone.
I asked her if she believes that, upon receiving a terminal diagnosis, whether mental health treatment should be automatic.
A utopia of proactive, synchronized, holistic health treatment
Shaw explained she would like a world where mental health resources and treatment are just the standard.
“It doesn’t matter if you’ve got a cancer diagnosis or you’re just going to work every day… Everybody needs to check in on their mental health,” Shaw says.
This is a sentiment I agree with wholeheartedly. Many people mistakenly believe that mental health will just take care of itself. In fairness, many believe that physical health doesn’t need nurturing either — that it just takes care of itself as well.
Ask any seemingly healthy teenager if they’re invincible, and they’ll likely respond with some indication they think so.
Those who have experienced health issues, however, are quickly dissuaded of that notion.
Advocates like Shaw would like to see people take proactive steps for mental health issues, rather than just reacting to them.
Shaw and I agree that we’d both like to see mental and physical health treated as a whole, with each affecting the other.
We’ll make more progress if we treat the entire person and, instead of separating aspects of health, we just focus on health.
We talk a lot about “fighting for our marriages” and “battles with cancer.”
As Shaw spoke, I thought of her forthcoming mental health app, Urawarrior, and bestselling book, “The Unstoppable Warrior Woman: Inspirational Stories of Women Who Overcame the Odds and Chose to Thrive.”
What takes shape in my mind is this: If our mind is our greatest tool and weapon, what warrior would go into battle without sharpening their sword?
I’ve long been a proponent of self-care, but many people believe that if they’re focusing on themselves, they’re ignoring their responsibilities, or they’re being egotistical.
I asked Shaw how she was able to break out of that mindset.
“We break out by stop telling ourselves the lies,” she says.
Shaw says we tell ourselves that because we don’t want to do the work; we can’t or don’t have time to work on ourselves. Shaw goes on to explain that focusing inward is much more difficult than focusing outward.
Add into the equation our fear of change, and suddenly we believe that, by not improving our lives, we’re actually virtuous.
“Cancer made me grow,” Shaw says. “How do you grow if you don’t ever do the work? You never grow. There’s just the same. Same thing doing it over and over again.”
Cancer pushed Shaw outside of her comfort zone, but she stresses that it shouldn’t take a terminal illness to find a way to grow.
She goes on to say, “You’ve made up your story to keep you stuck. Change the story, change your life.”
I touched briefly on the “easier said than done” notion of her statement. I used examples like “just eat less” to lose weight or “just make more money” to solve a financial issue. It sounds good, but it’s not necessarily practical.
Shaw laughed and agreed, but pointed out that sometimes the simple answers are the correct ones.
“Fear can make you stay stuck. But it’s time to do something, get out of your own way. And I’m telling your listeners to do something about it,” Shaw exhorts. “And today, do it today. Not tomorrow. Today.”
Bershan Shaw is more than a stage 4 breast cancer survivor who had been challenged by mental health issues in the wake of a devastating diagnosis.
She’s a bold reality TV star, a passionate advocate, and an enthusiastic speaker. Shaw makes the scary understandable, and even relatable.
The majority of us have never been diagnosed with a terminal illness, and our default is to pity those who have been.
Shaw led me, and all our listeners, down another path. Some parts of the path were hard to hear, and other parts were funny. But through the entire journey, Shaw was a steady guide helping us understand the importance of letting go of our fears and moving forward — no matter what.
Want to learn more from Bershan Shaw? Click the player below or visit the official “Inside Mental Health” episode page for “Breast Cancer and Mental Health with RHONY Star Bershan Shaw.”
Gabe Howard is an award-winning writer and speaker who lives with bipolar disorder. He is the author of the popular book “Mental Illness Is an Asshole and Other Observations,” available from Amazon; signed copies are also available directly from the author. Gabe is the host of Healthline Media’s weekly podcast, “Inside Mental Health.” You can listen and learn more here. Gabe can be found online at gabehoward.com.