How One Interior Designer Changed Her Approach After a Cancer Diagnosis

published Oct 18, 2019
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When Lorena Gaxiola, a Sydney, Australia-based interior designer, was diagnosed with breast cancer at the start of 2019, she wasn’t sure if she should share the news with industry colleagues.

“I remember thinking, ‘I’d better keep my cancer a secret so I can bounce back to life without affecting the future of my business,’” she tells Apartment Therapy. 

However, Gaxiola, who has always been fascinated with spiritual health and the role that design plays in promoting balance and well-being, quickly realized that downplaying or hiding her cancer diagnosis wasn’t the right path for her. Instead, she made a deliberate decision to share her diagnosis only with those colleagues she felt she could trust the most.

“I didn’t want to be anyone’s liability and so I only worked for a handful of people I knew I could trust with my vulnerable self,” she says. “I also became more aware of who I should share my time with and so I focused on working for people who respected my art yet were willing to work with me under the circumstances I was going through.”

One of Gaxiola's recent projects is Bowral by Waterbrook, a luxury retirement community. It was designed with the goal of merging beautiful, contemporary design with functional elements that cater to elderly residents’ specific health concerns.

And Gaxiola endured quite a challenging period of time: Diagnosed with HER2 Positive breast cancer, her treatment included multiple rounds of chemotherapy and radiation, as well as a complete mastectomy. Through it all, she made it a goal to channel her energy into work that would ultimately impact others as positively as possible.

In fact, Gaxiola, who has long employed traditional feng shui principles in her work, whether she’s designing home goods with spiritually charged motifs and symbols, partnering with architects or developers around the globe or consulting as a creative director in the areas of interior design and interior architecture, says that some of her most creative work came to fruition during this period.

“I was overwhelmed with love for those around me and my work was and continues to be a reflection of my passion for life,” she says. “I see each project as my last so it better be my very best!”

Now that she has a moment to reflect back on her diagnosis, the treatment that followed and how her life has changed now that she’s in remission, Gaxiola says that experiencing cancer tested her in every way possible and also served to “magnify her senses.”

The chapel at Bowral by Waterbrook.

Among other things, Gaxiola says that the diagnosis also pushed her to reorganize her time. “I’ve reorganized my company, too, and I’ve connected with my clients and my staff in a whole new way,” she says. “I value my time a lot more and have finally learned how to say no.”

She’s also even more determined than ever to continue promoting those products and materials that can serve to improve our health and well-being.

“I want to champion emerging brands that invest time and money in innovation by developing building products like no-VOC paint and whole-building water filtration systems that help lower toxicity in our living environments while elevating the design aesthetic,” Gaxiola says. “I think the world is shifting toward conscious design and my latest professional mission is to show all the ways that designers can take the initiative to provide products that are in the service of good health.”

The world is shifting toward conscious design and my latest professional mission is to show all the ways that designers can take the initiative to provide products that are in the service of good health.

In her personal life, Gaxiola says that having cancer strengthened the love and friendship she feels for her husband.

“His compassion for me was like no one else’s,” she says. “I find that I say ‘I love you’ a lot more and I appreciate everyday as it if were the last. Most importantly, I’ve reconnected with myself. My health forced me to slow down, listen to my body and take time off to think and appreciate life.”

In the end, Gaxiola says that while her cancer diagnosis was ‘the scariest thing to live through,’ it served another vital purpose. She says it saved her, too.

“Cancer gave me a new perspective on life and it magnified the love that I feel in my heart,” she says. “Through this eye-opening exercise, my creativity has intensified, my work is my art and I wake up ready to share my life’s gift—design.”