Breast cancer survivor’s kindness at event changes her life

At last year's Revive Retreat, her gift for participants led to new career path

Breast cancer survivor’s kindness at event changes her life

A thought pops in your head. It’s an unexpected, maybe even extravagant urge to do an act of kindness for someone else — perhaps someone you don’t even know.

We’ve all had that sort of idea. But how many of us actually act on it? After all, it usually comes at a bad time. Or it seems like it would cost too much. Or we fear it wouldn’t be welcomed.

Andrea Theis had a thought. It was a bold thought. It was an expensive thought. But above all, it was a kind thought.

This is a story of how lives — and futures — can change when one person acts on one thought, in the middle of a crowd of breast cancer survivors.

Last-minute decision to attend

Theis had trouble making up her mind whether she wanted to attend last year’s Revive Retreat, which is hosted annually by Sanford Health in several locations.

She didn’t doubt that she would have a good time. She had enjoyed the retreat in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, in 2017, a year after she had finished her treatments for breast cancer. Highlights had included hearing advancements in breast cancer care and other survivors’ stories. She also enjoyed catching up with people who had been on her Sioux Falls care team.

But harvest season in 2018 challenged area farmers. Those included her family living near Hospers, Iowa, and the farmer she worked for across the road. It wasn’t the best time to take an entire weekday off. Still, she waited till almost the last minute and then decided she’d go no matter what.

“Everyone in the room has experienced what you have. So it’s just a good feeling to hear other people’s story and what’s going on in their life and where they’re at with it all now,” she said.

Theis had never heard of the keynote speaker, Nicole J. Phillips, before. She had never read the “Kindness Is Contagious” columns by Phillips that appear in newspapers in North Dakota and Minnesota, or looked for blogs or podcasts on her website. She didn’t know Phillips had published two books compiling stories of kindness, “Kindness Is Contagious” and “Kindness Is Courageous.” And she didn’t know about Phillips’ mission to encourage people to embrace the power of kindness, although she, in fact, shared a similar philosophy.

In short, Theis was pretty much like the other 99 breast cancer survivors settling in to hear Phillips to speak.

‘I gotta do this’

When Phillips took the stage that afternoon, Theis noticed. “She blew me away instantly,” Theis said.

First, Phillips offered her coat to anyone in the audience who might feel chilly in the venue.

“I’m like, ‘Is this woman for real?’ I mean, who gets up on stage and offers a coat?” Theis said.

Theis’ admiration grew. “She’s a beautiful woman, and she had this confidence. And then she stands there and says, ‘I’m a breast cancer survivor, too.’ And you’re looking at her going, I want to be like that. I want to get to that point where I can stand in front of a whole group and just have that confidence.”

Theis could relate when Phillips spoke about using kindness as part of her treatment. Theis had gone through chemotherapy, surgery, radiation and reconstruction during her long breast cancer journey. “There were times when I was laying on the couch from having chemo, and it was just like, get up and go do something nice for somebody. Instead of laying here, feeling miserable, get up and go do it.”

Theis listened as Phillips gave examples of kindness that appear in her books. And then Theis had her thought — or “a nudge from the Holy Spirit,” as she calls it.

She didn’t ignore it. She didn’t hesitate, weighing whether it was practical, nor did she scale it down. Instead, she did something most individuals wouldn’t even consider — for an audience of 100 breast cancer survivors plus 25 or so medical professionals.


Andrea Theis sits at a table, smiling at the camera, holding Nicole. J. Phillips' book and wearing an "NJP" T-shirt.
Andrea Theis holds a copy of Nicole J. Phillips' book ''Kindness is Courageous,'' one of two books she bought for everyone at last year's Revive Retreat in Sioux Falls, S.D.

“All of a sudden, I found myself standing up, and I’m like, I gotta go buy everybody a book,” Theis said. “They just need this book. This is awesome. If everybody would catch on to this excitement and feel this, I gotta do this.”

‘Circle of love’ before speech

Phillips, meanwhile, had taken the stage feeling more emotional that day than she did for most of the three dozen speeches she gave last year.

Phillips, who moved to Aberdeen, South Dakota, this summer, was still living in Ohio last year when she traveled to Sioux Falls, and to the Revive Retreat in Fargo, North Dakota, before that.

Before it was Phillips’ turn to speak, part of the program had involved a thank you to all of the medical staff involved in caring for breast cancer patients.

“There were a lot of references to the health care workers that were there and how giving they were for their patients and what friendships they had with their patients. And I remember that from my own experience,” Phillips said.

“I just felt really touched that — from both the providers’ standpoint and the patients’ standpoint — there was this kind of circle of love. And so that was really on my heart when I started speaking.”

‘She was smiley. Her eyes were shining.’

Phillips’ breast cancer was discovered on the day she turned 40, when she had a mammogram. She had a mastectomy and reconstruction surgery.

But Phillips has turned her experience into something positive for other breast cancer survivors. In speaking engagements where they make up the audience, she tries to help shift their thinking from the bad things that are happening to gratitude and positivity.

“I also talk a lot about thoughts and the power of thoughts and how to retrain our thoughts so that we can live more kind lives and more joyful lives,” she said.

Phillips likes writing newspaper columns, but her true joy lies in speaking. “To be able to look in people’s eyes as I’m trying to communicate a thought or a message and see it click is just the best feeling ever,” she said.

Phillips first noticed that about Theis as she spoke that day.

“There was something about her eyes that were just locked on mine,” Phillips said. “Sometimes, you can look at a crowd of people, and you can find several people that are getting it. You just know when you look at them that they were hungry for this message and that they’re getting it, and Andrea was one of those people. She was smiley. Her eyes were shining. And I remembered her.”

The fact that Theis stood up and walked out during the speech didn’t faze Phillips. People do that for a variety of reasons — to use the bathroom, or if they have to leave early. However, Phillips didn’t realize that this particular “once-in-a-lifetime” reason would be revealed on stage after she had finished her speech.

Unexpected announcement

When Theis walked to the back during Phillips’ speech, she headed over to the event’s master of ceremonies, Jesse Dirksen, who also had been Theis’ breast surgeon. She told him her idea: She wanted to buy everyone there a copy of Phillips’ book “Kindness Is Contagious.”

Theis recalls Dr. Dirksen double-checking several times to be sure she really wanted to do that. “Yeah, I’m positive,” she insisted.

So when Dr. Dirksen took the stage again after Phillips had finished her speech, Theis thought he would just announce that everybody would get a free book that day. Instead, he said Theis had something to share.

“I didn’t want to tell everybody,” she said. “I didn’t even care if people didn’t know who it was, just that they were going to leave with a book. So he takes me up on stage and everything, and it’s like, ‘Oh, crap.’ ”

But she made it through the announcement that she wanted to buy a book for everyone. And then the event became something even the best event planners don’t plan for. Something even the most prepared speakers wouldn’t anticipate.

‘Everybody stood up and cheered’

Nearly a year afterward, remembering how the room felt after the announcement of this act of generosity and kindness still has the power to move two people who help organize the Sanford Health event each year.

Laurie Kruse, nursing manager of the breast imaging department at Edith Sanford Breast Center, handled detail upon detail, including the schedule, of the retreat. Things had gone well up to this point that day. So when Phillips’ speech ended, Kruse thought all that remained of the event were the conclusion and door prizes.

And then came Theis’ announcement.

“Everybody just paused,” Kruse remembered.

Gloria Top, who had developed a bond with Theis as her breast cancer navigator at Sanford Health, helps Kruse with the retreats. “The way I describe it is, ‘God showed up.’ And it was just so moving.”

“And we felt this connection as a group, too,” Kruse said. “Then everybody stood up and cheered, and there were tears in the audience.”

“We feel it yet right now,” she added. “I’m just overcome with emotion when we talk about it.”


Women sit at long tables in an events center as they dine and attend a retreat for breast cancer survivors.
The Sanford Health 2018 Revive Retreat for breast cancer survivors in Sioux Falls featured a variety of events, including lunch and a keynote speech by Nicole J. Phillips.

‘Took my breath absolutely away’

“I think there was shock in the room,” said Theis, “because (Phillips is) standing there and talking about kindness, and then to have that happen. I mean, I didn’t do it for that reason. … But afterwards, I think more people probably talked to me after that than they went and talked to Nicole, and they were hugging me and crying. A lot of people shared.”

Phillips, meanwhile, hadn’t quite realized at first what was going on. In her flurry of activity after a speech, she hadn’t caught everything Dr. Dirksen had said. It also wouldn’t be unheard of for a business to buy copies of her book for speech attendees.

“But to find out that it was actually someone who was in the audience who had been touched by breast cancer who was going to do this great act of kindness, this amazing act of generosity, that just took my breath absolutely away,” Phillips said.

And then things got pretty busy for her and her team member who was along. For one thing, Phillips hadn’t anticipated that every person in the crowd would want a copy of her book. She didn’t have that many with her. And some people had already paid for their copy that day, so she started handing back refunds.

“It became mass chaos for a second,” Phillips said.

Kruse, too, suddenly became busier, and not just for that day. Those leaving the retreat without a copy eventually would be able to pick up theirs at the Edith Sanford Breast Center, so she worked with Phillips and Theis on arranging orders and payment.

Two ‘once-in-a-lifetime’ compliments

Phillips couldn’t picture anything like this happening again in her career as a speaker. “That’s a once-in-a-lifetime compliment. Because how often does someone so believe in the power of your message that they want to make sure everyone can take a piece of it home with them?”

But then she received lifetime compliment No. 2 from Theis.

“She went home and she started reading,” Phillips said, “and she was like, wait a minute, we need everybody to have the other book, too.”

What kind of person commits one extravagant act of kindness — and then later, when others might feel twinges of regret, doubles down instead?

Phillips’ entire career focuses on kindness, yet this surprised her. “I was confused about Andrea, and I remember asking her mom, is she prone to doing large acts of kindness? Has she always been kind, or what is this? And her mom said, she’s always been kind, but since breast cancer, she has definitely changed for the better.”

After crisis, ‘so grateful that you look at life differently’

Top has seen that kind of change in her work as a navigator, as well as in her own life. Top was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2005, while she was working elsewhere. But three years later, she felt compelled to become a breast cancer navigator for Sanford Health instead. “I just really felt this need to help other breast cancer women,” she said.

So Top felt Phillips’ message was ideal for breast cancer survivors.

“When you go through a crisis in your life, and you get to the other side, you just are so grateful that you look at life differently. Your priorities are different. And you just want to pay it forward.”

Top and her co-workers experienced Theis’ gratitude during her treatments, too, through the cards and notes she would give them.

After Theis bought books for the entire audience, it became her turn to receive cards and letters of appreciation. “That was so nice. I felt so special.”

That adds to Phillips’ point that “kindness works as a trifecta.” It benefits not only the recipient, but also the giver and other witnesses.

So, if the story ended here, Theis’ action would certainly stand well on its own as an inspiring and imaginative example of what kindness can look like.

But more was to unfold in the months following the retreat, culminating this past August when Theis and Phillips met in person for the second time. On that day, Phillips would be the one to surprise Theis.

‘On the edge of an alcoholic’

After the retreat, Theis stayed in contact with a member of Phillips’ three-person team to work out payment and book delivery details.

But Theis also sent Phillips a Facebook message about something in her speech that had really stuck with her.

While both women had gone through breast cancer, they had something else in common, too.

Phillips had mentioned in her speech her struggle with alcohol, using a phrase that captured Theis’ attention because she felt it described her, too: “on the edge of an alcoholic.”

“That softens it a little bit, I think,” Phillips said later about herself. “I would say that it’s fair to say that I was definitely an alcoholic; I was a daily drinker. I could not ever imagine life in which I wouldn’t drink.”

She had tried to quit. She had tried to cut back, promising herself she’d drink only wine, or only after 8 p.m. Nothing worked.

Her lowest point came after a night in a bar where she had publicly embarrassed her husband, and he had calmly requested an apology the next day.

“I remember laying in my bed in the fetal position and begging God to take away the feeling — not just of the physical feeling of sickness but also the shame that I was feeling,” Phillips said. “And I remember hearing God say, ‘Nic, I want to use you, but I can’t use you if I can’t trust you, and I can’t trust you when you drink.’ 

“It was absolutely an epiphany. I wasn’t used to hearing from God. … So in that moment, I was like, ‘OK, God, I’m done. I’m done. Help me be done.’ And I have never taken another drink since.”

Both women fought Theis’ battle

When Theis reached out on Facebook, she told Phillips that she felt the need to stop drinking, too. Theis didn’t expect a reply; she just wanted to tell Phillips how that part of the speech had affected her. But Phillips responded back that she would pray for Theis.

Phillips, though, found her life affected far more than if she could have just said a simple prayer and moved on. During the next couple of months, she thought a lot about Theis’ battle with alcohol — more than Theis knew.

“As she stopped drinking, drinking became really acute in my brain,” Phillips said.

“I’d have dreams that I started drinking again, and they were terrible. They were like nightmares, and so I was kind of battling this with her from afar.

“That’s what it felt like, is that I was feeling maybe a little bit of what she was feeling — how difficult it would be to let go of that habit.”

Staying in touch

Meanwhile, every month, Theis chooses three different people to pray for. And for November 2018, Theis told Phillips she would be one of those three.

But after November, the feeling that Theis should pray didn’t leave her. Month after month after month, she let the team know she was praying for them.

Theis’ earnestness touched Phillips. “She was a prayer warrior. She was going to battle for my team in ways that I couldn’t imagine, and that has increased my faith. It’s a gift that she has given me that I don’t know how to say thank you for.”

During this time, Theis also reached out to Phillips if she found herself in a “sticky situation” with alcohol — and she still does — feeling accountable to Phillips, knowing she has Phillips’ full support.

Then a couple of months ago, when Phillips planned to speak at the Okoboji Bible Conference at Arnolds Park, Iowa, Theis offered to help out with the Kindness team’s merchandise table.

‘Would you share your heart with us?’

Before Phillips’ speech at the conference, another member of her team handed Phillips a lanyard for Theis to wear while she helped sell books.

Looking at Theis’ name on the lanyard was pivotal for Phillips. “I just knew without a doubt that I was meant, in this moment, to ask (Theis) to be part of the team,” Phillips said.

She needed to take the stage in about 45 minutes. She quickly called to consult other team members about inviting Theis to take a position on the Kindness team. Backed by unanimous, enthusiastic approval, Phillips asked Theis to join it just before she spoke.

After their journey since last October, it meant a lot to Phillips that the next time she saw Theis face to face, she could say to her, “Hey, you’re just too special to not be on this team. Would you share your heart with us?”

Theis, of course, said yes. “I was blown away. I cried,” Theis said. “It’s just setting in now that this is for real. I’m on the Kindness team. Still blown away by that because 10 months ago, I didn’t know she even existed, and today, I’m on her team.”

Details are being worked out. But Theis’ job title, “Ultimate Communicator,” hints at how she will both talk with people reaching out to Phillips with their stories and questions, and also serve officially as the team’s prayer warrior.

‘You start getting this high’ from being kind

Theis fully believes in this mission of spreading the word about how kindness can make a difference — and she lives it out on a daily basis.

She had acted on urges before last year’s lavish action, although in less significant ways than buying an entire conference of people two books each. But now she and her husband and children constantly, intentionally seek out ways to do something for someone else.

She lists off several ideas for acts of kindness for someone else: opening a door, taking the time to listen, buying a coffee, paying for groceries or for a restaurant meal for the next person.

“When you see the people smiling,” Theis said, “then it makes you start getting this high from doing these things, and it’s like, ‘Who’s my next one? Where can I go?’ ”

Phillips points to Theis’ action at the conference as an example of how to be intentionally kind.

“Andrea just listened,” Phillips said. “Life becomes so fun and so purposeful and so joyful when we listen to that voice inside of us that tells us to do something kind for someone.”

In reality, most of us aren’t like Theis. A lot of the time, we ignore or get too busy to listen to that inner voice.

But if we listen, even just once in a while, imagine what a difference it could make in someone else’s life.

Imagine what a difference it could make in our own.

More stories

What is Revive?

A retreat hosted by Sanford Health for breast cancer survivors at any stage in survivorship.

When and where are the retreats held?

Fargo, North Dakota: In October each year in Bismarck and Fargo, North Dakota, and Sioux Falls, South Dakota.

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