Alli Hagerdon and her husband, Pat, welcomed their first child – a beautiful little girl who they named Adeline in September of 2016. Shortly after, Hagerdon noticed a lump while nursing. She believed it was a clogged duct from breastfeeding complications.
In February of 2017, just five months after Adeline was born, 29 year old Alli Hagerdon was diagnosed with Infiltrating Ductal Carcinoma (stage IIB, grade 3) and later tested positive for the BRCA1 gene. Sixteen rounds of IV chemotherapy immediately followed.
Although those grueling months of chemo did have an impact, her tumors were unresponsive.
She endured six additional months of oral chemotherapy and ovary removal surgery. On top of this, Hagerdon had a double mastectomy and tumor removal surgery followed by multiple reconstruction surgeries, as well as six weeks of radiation.
In late 2018, more devastating news: Hagerdon was told that tumors in her liver were still not responding to treatment, and she was told to consider Hospice.
She contacted Inspired Media 360 and Carey Pena in hopes of sharing her story of strength and inspiration with a wider audience. And one day, she wants her daughter, Adeline, to see this interview and know that her mother was a warrior.
*Editor’s Note: Inspired Media 360 is sorry to report that Alli Hagerdon lost her brave battle with cancer in February, 2019. Her story touched and inspired tens of thousands of people.
Carey Pena: Hi, everyone. I’m Carey Pena. And this is a special edition of our podcast Cary Pena Reports. On this show we interview people who have incredibly inspirational stories to share.
Carey Pena: The woman you are about to meet is facing the unthinkable. She’s been told that she may only have weeks to live. She contacted me and asked me to help her share her story. Not a story of sadness, but a story of strength and inspiration. We talked to her at her home in Scottsdale, Arizona. Here’s that interview.
Carey Pena: I’m here with Alli Hagerdon. Alli, thank you so much for sitting down to do this show.
Alli Hagerdon: Thank you so much for having me, Carey.
Carey Pena: The first thing I wanted to ask you, you’ve been on a rollercoaster that is truly unimaginable. And we’re going to take people through your journey. Why did you want to sit down today?
Alli Hagerdon: It’s important for me to show people that no matter you’re faced with in life, how important it is to carry on and to persevere and keep living. Appreciate every day. Find gratitude in every moment. And really just be thankful for things that you do have.
Carey Pena: You have recently been told that you may only have weeks to live.
Alli Hagerdon: Yes.
Carey Pena: And we’re gonna talk about your journey to now and how you’re facing each day with such strength. And you want to inspire other people through your strength.
Carey Pena: Four years ago, you were getting married in Chicago.
Alli Hagerdon: Yes.
Carey Pena: Take me to that moment and your happiness.
Alli Hagerdon: Four years ago, my husband, who I met on New Year’s Eve, who I’m so fortunate to call my husband, and I got married on Michigan Avenue in downtown Chicago. It was the perfect day, the perfect wedding. Everything I could have ever dreamed of and imagined. We had our family, our friends, everyone there celebrating with us. Just surrounded by love and surrounded by happiness. And it was a wonderful way to start our marriage and our life together.
Carey Pena: Life was good
Alli Hagerdon: Life was great.
Carey Pena: Then you had a little baby.
Alli Hagerdon: Yes.
Carey Pena: Two years ago.
Alli Hagerdon: Yes.
Carey Pena: And she just makes your entire face light up.
Alli Hagerdon: Yes.
Carey Pena: Tell us about her.
Alli Hagerdon: So two years ago, we had a little girl named Adeline, we often call Addi. And you never know how much your heart can love until you’re holding your own little baby in your arms. And there’s no words that can describe the love I have for her and my husband has for her, my parents have for her. And she just brings light and joy to every moment of our day.
Carey Pena: What’s she like?
Alli Hagerdon: She is strong willed. Which they say she gets from me. She is bossy. She’s two now and she definitely knows what she wants. She loves to play with her friends. We have play dates every day. We spend as much time outside as we can because it’s so beautiful here now. And you know, she is just so much fun.
Carey Pena: Only a few short months after she was born, you were diagnosed with cancer.
Alli Hagerdon: Yes.
Carey Pena: How old were you at the time?
Alli Hagerdon: At the time I was 29. So when I was breastfeeding, my baby girl was born in September 1st, 2016. And when I was breastfeeding in October, I felt a little, what felt to me like a clogged milk duct. And I just kind of ignored it. You know, everything was different. Everything was changing. I was a new mom with an infant. I was exhausted.
Alli Hagerdon: And slowly, to me what was a clogged milk duct grew by January to be six centimeters. And even when I went into the doctor, no one was concerned. Nobody had any worries. Everybody said, “You’re young, you’re nursing. No big deal. We’re just gonna go through a routine biopsy, but nothing to worry about.”
Alli Hagerdon: And it wasn’t until that moment they called me on February 8th, 2017. I will never forget. I was nursing my daughter. It was a Friday. And my doctor called me and she said, “You have breast cancer.”
Alli Hagerdon: And I remember dropping Adeline to the couch, collapsing on the floor. And I just, to me that was it. My life was over. I was not expecting to hear those words. I am the opposite of a hypochondriac. I’m always like, “I’m fine. I’ll get through it.” And looking at this beautiful four month old little girl and being told you have cancer in the same breath was just petrifying.
Carey Pena: You’re a fighter.
Alli Hagerdon: I am a fighter.
Carey Pena: So thus began the fight.
Alli Hagerdon: It did begin. And so from that moment, after that, I went and I began my fight. I started with doing fertility before I started my treatment because treatment could harm your chance of pregnancy in the future and that was very important to me, to grow my family one day.
Alli Hagerdon: I went into six months of chemotherapy. Chemotherapy is so strong, there were so many days that I couldn’t even get out of bed. I couldn’t turn the TV on. I couldn’t open my eyes. I couldn’t hear noise. Only to be given the news that I had zero response to any of that chemotherapy.
Alli Hagerdon: I then moved on to getting a bilateral mastectomy. I chose from there to do a oophorectomy where they remove my ovaries and fallopian tubes. I did that because during this journey, I learned that I was BRCA1 positive. Something I never knew about myself. Something my family never knew.
Alli Hagerdon: Because everybody asks if your mother had breast cancer, if your grandmother had breast cancer. I inherited my BRCA from my father, so it was big news to me that you could be impacted on your paternal side.
Alli Hagerdon: And so for Adeline, I decided I would take out my ovaries and tubes just so that I could live longer to be with her. I went through 30 rounds of radiation. And by the end of December of 2017, I was told that I made it, I was cancer free. Go on with life. And I had succeeded getting through my one year of treatment. And I was given permission to continue living on.
Carey Pena: What did that feel like? Because previous to the diagnosis and you getting married, you were a superstar teacher. You were even training teachers in Chicago you were so good. I know you’re not bragging here, I’m bragging for you. But you had like the top test scores of any of the teachers of the Chicago area. So you were asked to train what? Hundreds of people there.
Alli Hagerdon: Yes. And so when I was diagnosed with cancer, I left my job in educational consulting. And I really just focused on my treatment and my daughter. But it just felt freeing. It felt freeing. I felt like I could finally live life the way I wanted to.
Alli Hagerdon: That I didn’t have to follow any more rules. That I didn’t have to go in for any more infusions and spend that time away from my daughter. And I just kept asking my doctor, “How can I prevent recurrence?” And the answer kept being, “Exercise.”
Alli Hagerdon: And so I joined Stroller Strides, which is a wonderful community of moms in which I was so loved and supported and embraced. And I worked out with my daughter. Five days a week we went. She loved it. There are play dates after for the kids to play. We’d play on the playground. I felt like I was modeling a healthy lifestyle for her.
Carey Pena: Yeah. You must have felt so much joy.
Alli Hagerdon: I felt so much joy. I felt so much strength physically. I felt so much, I just felt lighter.
Carey Pena: And then Mother’s Day comes.
Alli Hagerdon: Mother’s Day comes. The Friday before Mother’s Day, I went in for my routine checkup with my oncologist.
Carey Pena: Of this year. Mother’s Day of this year.
Alli Hagerdon: Mother’s Day of 2018. Yes.
Alli Hagerdon: Nobody is really looking forward for that routine checkup. But I went in. And my doctor said, “You are doing amazing. You’re working out. You’re so strong. You’re living a healthy lifestyle.” He gave me permission to use the two embryos that my husband and I have and put them in my uterus to grow our family. He was just overjoyed with where I was.
Alli Hagerdon: And I spent the weekend with this smile plastered on my face because I was finally gonna get to be what I considered normal again. I was gonna get to be mom that got to grow their family, that had the opportunity to make those choices.
Alli Hagerdon: And the Monday after Mother’s Day, I received a call from my oncologist telling me that my tumor markers, which they test through my blood, were through the roof. He put, called everything off. The reconstruction surgery I was supposed to have that week, the embryos, everything. And we did scans on Tuesday to learn that I had 15 tumors in my lungs, 15 tumors in my liver, two in my brain and also growing on my bones.
Carey Pena: It seems incomprehensible how you even begin to digest that news.
Alli Hagerdon: It, when you hear something like that, especially after having an appointment like I did where we celebrated how well I was doing, I couldn’t even wrap my head around that this was me.
Alli Hagerdon: Because how could the same body that just taught themselves how to run five miles who has never run before, and the same body who had the strength to work out five days a week, and how could that body be so filled with cancer?
Alli Hagerdon: It was so beyond my ability to comprehend at first. It, recurrence was always a fear of mine. But never did I think that I would only be given months of being cancer free before becoming stage four metastatic. And they told me then that, “You have two years to live.”
Carey Pena: And then that brings us to today.
Alli Hagerdon: So from May until now I have been on every standard form of treatment that there is. I have been on what’s called a PARP inhibitor. I have been through so much radiation. I have done immunotherapy. I have done off study risky trials. I have been willing to fight in any way that I could to be here and alive and on this earth for Adeline.
Alli Hagerdon: Only to reach the point today where, while my lungs have stabilized and my brain is doing better and my bones are not a bother to me, my liver just keeps growing and growing and growing to the point where I have started to lose my liver function. Which excludes me from research studies.
Alli Hagerdon: And two weeks ago, I was given one more dose of a new chemotherapy. And the doctor said to me, “This is it. If this doesn’t work, you have weeks to live.” Not knowing if I could believe that, I went to a different doctor for a second opinion this week. And I was told the same thing. “You will have a couple weeks to live, or possible a couple years. And we will know in a week or two.”
Alli Hagerdon: But I have been forced to plan my memorial. I have been forced to sit down with a lawyer and clearly state everything that I want in my upcoming death. And been forced to do things that I could never have imagined as a 31 year old mother of a two year old, I would have to be faced with.
Carey Pena: Tell everyone what it is that you said to me. I wrote down your quote. That you learned about the difference between pain and suffering.
Alli Hagerdon: So what I’ve learned through this is there takes a certain amount of emotional tolerance to deal with the pain that I face every day, the emotional pain. The knowledge of my cancer, the knowledge of my lifespan. And that pain is pain that I have learned to tolerate. The pain that is intolerable is the pain that’s suffering. And suffering is something that I bring on myself.
Alli Hagerdon: Suffering is when I go to the park and I see my friend who’s pregnant with their second child. And all I want is to be healthy and to be pregnant and to give Adeline a sibling. And I go into the, “Why don’t I get that? Why can’t it be me who’s healthy and pregnant and growing my family? Why is that time being taken away from me?” That is the suffering.
Alli Hagerdon: And so what I have taught myself to do is to stop wanting the things that I cannot have. And to appreciate the things that I do have. And so when I go to the park and I see my friends who are all pregnant with their second children, growing their families, I look at Adeline and I’m so thankful that I have her.
Alli Hagerdon: And so instead of causing myself to suffer and focusing on a child that I will not be able to have, I focus on this just amazing blessing of opportunity I have to be a mother to the most wonderful girl. Because that I am truly thankful for. And that is how I prevent my suffering.
Carey Pena: What do you want her to know about you?
Alli Hagerdon: I want her to know that I will never stop fighting for her. That every day I get out of bed, I do it for her. And that if they tell me in two weeks it’s time to go into hospice, I’m not going. I will go on. I will find a doctor. I will find a treatment. And I will keep fighting because I am a warrior and I will never stop fighting for her.
Carey Pena: You have been blogging a bit on Facebook and you have a caring bridge. And people have been reaching out to you discovering your words. And people write to you. And people who don’t have cancer, who aren’t sick, and telling you that your fight, your journey, has inspired them to live differently. I know that’s important to you. You want to inspire people to truly appreciate what they have.
Alli Hagerdon: So important because I think in life, especially in today’s society where things are so fast paced and moving so quickly and there’s so much pressure for this success, that how often do you take a breath? Do you take a pause? Do you look around you?
Alli Hagerdon: Do you see what you have and do you say, “Wow. I am so thankful that I have this right now. I’m living life with gratitude today. Because I am so appreciative to have this wonderful spouse. To have this wonderful family. To have these wonderful friends that just love on me and support me unconditionally. To have a job that I love to do. To live in an area that I love. To have a hobby that I get joy from doing.”
Alli Hagerdon: I think that before I had cancer, I didn’t take the time that I should have to pause and be thankful and be appreciative and live my life with gratitude. And I wish that I did. Because you’re really missing out on living when you don’t take the time to appreciate what it is in life that you do have.
Carey Pena: Tomorrow or in the coming days, you guys are going to Disneyland.
Alli Hagerdon: Yes, yes.
Carey Pena: How are you making that happen?
Alli Hagerdon: You know, you just, you power through. You make it happen because I have an opportunity to go. I’m still here and I’m still alive. And so I’m gonna live and I am going to make memories. And I’m gonna go with my parents, with my husband, with my brother, with my daughter. And we’re gonna go take her to Disneyland for the first time. And we’re going to, I mean to me, my favorite part of those experiences is watching the joy on her face and how much fun she has.
Alli Hagerdon: And then we’re gonna take her to the ocean. And the ocean to me is so therapeutic. And so calming. And if I’m tired, I’m tired. I’m not gonna stop. Because if I stopped every time I was tired, I would never do anything. And so you figure out how to get through the day. You figure out how to enjoy every moment. And you do it because you can.
Alli Hagerdon: Because I am so thankful to be alive today, to be alive tomorrow. To be alive over the weekend when we’re gonna go on our trip. I am so thankful for that opportunity to live. And I am going to use every moment of that time to live the best that I can with my family.
Carey Pena: You have a great family.
Alli Hagerdon: A wonderful family.
Carey Pena: Who absolutely adore you.
Alli Hagerdon: Yes.
Carey Pena: Great brother. And your husband.
Alli Hagerdon: Yes.
Carey Pena: You said that there are three lessons you really want to make sure that your daughter always knows. To be strong, to be tolerant, and to be kind.
Alli Hagerdon: Yes. I think that is so important. And I want her to know this from this interview when she’s older and she listens to it. That there are days and there are things that we’re faced with. It might not be terminal illness. But things that come up in life, at school, at work. Where you think, “How am I gonna get through this? This is impossible.”
Alli Hagerdon: And really nothing is impossible. You get through it by working as hard as you possibly can. And by persevering. You’ve put on your warrior hat and you lift your head up high and you put a smile on your face no matter how you feel, and you get through it.
Alli Hagerdon: And the second part of being tolerant is, you know, I feel like we live in a world that’s so filled with intolerance. And it, to me, there’s no excuse to be intolerant of others. I want my daughter to know to love and to accept and to welcome people, no matter their differences, no matter if they’re the same, they’re different. No matter how they’re different. Everybody is a human being and a person and deserves to be treated that way.
Alli Hagerdon: Which leads me to the last piece, which I always taught my first graders more than anything. Is that there’s nothing mort important than being kind. My mom always told me that love beholds love. And I learned that all of the love that I’ve given out through all of these years, I see it now coming back to me. I see that lesson coming to life.
Alli Hagerdon: My kindness, my tolerance has now provided me with a support network of people. Not just my wonderful family, my wonderful friends, my Arizona friends, my Chicago friends. Strangers that find me through my blog. And I am just filled with love and kindness.
Alli Hagerdon: And I truly believe it’s because that’s what I put out there. And so it’s so important to put out that tolerant kindness, that love to everybody you meet. Because they can feel it and it touches them. You know? And one day, they’re gonna return that feeling back to you. And even if they don’t, you get to walk away knowing you’ve given that to somebody else.
Carey Pena: What do you want people to learn from your story?
Alli Hagerdon: I want people to learn that nothing can stop me. And if nothing can stop me in this situation, nothing can stop them. There is always a way to carry on. There is always a way to pick your head up and keep fighting. That life is life. And the universe is out of our control. But the only thing we can control is ourselves.
Alli Hagerdon: And we can control ourselves and move forward. We have the choice of laying in bed and not getting out. We have the choice of crying and whining and complaining and moaning. Or we have the choice of lifting up our head, putting a smile on our face, and carrying on. And that if I can do that after being told on Monday that I may only have two more weeks of life, anybody can do that.
Carey Pena: Are you scared?
Alli Hagerdon: I’m scared for my family. I’m scared for the grief they will feel when I am gone. I am, been trying to put everything in place for them to make it as easy for them as possible when I do pass. But I know that I will be in a better place. But they’re the ones who will be stuck here grieving.
Carey Pena: You told me that you feel so grateful for the beautiful life that you have lived and that you continue to live.
Alli Hagerdon: Yes. I mean I’m so grateful to have had so many experiences. So many experiences that have allowed me to make a difference. From teaching in Chicago at a Title One school to teaching teachers to being a mother and teaching my daughter. You know. And to starting a nonprofit where we mentored other young women going through similar journeys as our own.
Alli Hagerdon: I am so grateful to have had the opportunity in life to help others grow and learn. And to me that’s what it’s about. It’s how can you help others? How can you make a difference in other people’s lives? And even through my pain today, it’s okay that I’m feeling this pain as long as I know that it’s making a difference to somebody else.
Alli Hagerdon: Because the pain is worth it if it’s able to help just one person. If there’s just one person who watches this who says, “Wow. You know, I’ve been really down. But tomorrow I’m gonna try to get out of bed, take a shower, get out of the house, face the world.” Then the pain I’m feeling is worth it because it’s helping somebody else.
Carey Pena: I want to thank you so much for your incredible courage in sitting down, sharing your story. And your authenticity and your genuine spirit. And I know, speaking for myself, for everyone who watches and listens to this, we are all just loving on you.
Alli Hagerdon: Thank you.
Carey Pena: Loving on you.
Alli Hagerdon: Thank you, Carey.
Carey Pena: And we’re gonna continue on following Alli’s story and we’ll be posting your blogs and your vlogs. I’m teaching her how to vlog.
Alli Hagerdon: Yes (laughing).
Carey Pena: And we’ll be putting all of that on our website, inspiredmedia360.com. Thanks for listening.