Life After Breast Cancer
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Life After Breast Cancer

Five women who've been there share the unexpected ways that cancer has changed them -- body, mind, and soul.

Cancer taught me to slow down.

-- Nicole Vazquez, 37, diagnosed three years ago

Vazquez was found to have Stage 2, triple-negative cancer when she was 34. She had chemotherapy followed by a mastectomy, radiation, and breast reconstruction. One year later, Vazquez became manager of corporate sponsorship at Susan G. Komen for the Cure. She lives in Dallas.

September 11 is an even more meaningful date for me than it is for most other Americans because that was the day in 2006 when I first felt a lump in my left breast. A week and a half later I was diagnosed with an aggressive form of breast cancer and was told to start chemotherapy immediately. My doctors said I couldn't even wait long enough to harvest and freeze some of my eggs so that I could have kids one day. First I spent 24 weeks on chemo to shrink the tumor, then I had a mastectomy.

I've always been a confident, upbeat person with tons of energy and I wasn't about to let cancer get in my way. So four weeks after my surgery, there I was, back at work full-time, even though I was getting daily radiation treatments. My colleagues would ask, "How are you doing, Nicole?" and I'd flash a big smile and say, "Great, great." I was determined to be Wonder Woman.

And for a year I managed it. Then one day I simply crashed. I went to bed and slept for 10 hours. For a couple of months it was all I could do to drag myself to the office every day. Eventually I realized that my body was telling me that I needed to slow down and reflect on the enormity of what I'd been through.

It was also telling me I needed to set new priorities. For years my first concern was my job; my personal life had to fit into whatever space was left over. And I'd crammed that space full of frantic activity. I'd taken all the ingredients of a successful career -- efficiency, drive, achievement -- and applied them to my nonwork life, never once stopping to figure out what I really wanted.

These days, what I want is at the top of my list. And sometimes that's sleeping for 10 hours straight or just vegging out in front of the TV. If I don't have the energy to do something, I admit it to myself and don't commit. The same goes for work. I'll put in long hours if necessary, but there are times when I have to say, "Not today."

If cancer does nothing else, it teaches you the importance of having a support system. I'd always prided myself on my independence, so it was hard for me to ask for help. But I realized that it's okay to rely on others -- that, in fact, people feel honored when you allow them to lend a hand. And once I started accepting my limitations and truly paying attention to my own needs I became much more sensitive to the needs of others.

Today I counsel other women under 40 about the importance of early detection. One of the first things I tell them is, "You don't have to be Wonder Woman." Happily, I now realize that neither do I.

Cancer gave me the guts to be myself.

-- Jill Dougherty, 60, diagnosed 10 years ago

Dougherty lives in Washington D.C., where she is foreign affairs correspondent for CNN. She had a lumpectomy for invasive ductal carcinoma followed by chemotherapy, radiation, and five years of tamoxifen. She's now on Arimidex.

My hair started to turn gray when I was in my 20s -- by the time I'd reached my 40s it was noticeable. Since I'd seen lots of women with chic silver hair and loved how it looked, I decided to run with it. But my friends, not to mention my perennially blonde mother, were aghast. It was career suicide, they insisted: TV reporters never had gray hair, unless they were men, in which case it was "distinguished." So I caved and the cycle began: coloring, highlights, single process, dual process.... The tedium continued for years and cost me a fortune. Then I got breast cancer.

A month into my chemotherapy, my hair started falling out in clumps. I had the rest shaved off. It was traumatic at the time, but as I struggled through round after brutal round of chemo my looks were the last thing on my mind. Being reduced to my bare essence got me thinking about who I was and what really mattered.

Early on in my treatment I asked a nurse what I should do to stay healthy. "Be kind to yourself," she replied. "Listen to your body." I understood the words but I honestly had no idea what they meant. I'd never been someone who listened to her body; I told my body what to do and got on with it.

Tuning in to my needs was a heady new experience. For once I focused less on what other people thought of me and more on what I thought of myself. Gradually I came to realize that I wanted to be authentic -- yes, even on TV.

The new hair beneath my wig was salt-and-pepper with a dose more salt. I liked it, but an editor friend at CNN sealed the deal when I got up the nerve to show her my short 'do and she said, "Jill, it looks great!" That was all I needed to hear. So long, hair color. And going gray has turned out to be an asset. It gets me noticed and remembered. But most gratifying of all, it has liberated me to be exactly who I am, on camera and off: a woman, a journalist, a cancer survivor. Thanks to a disease that once threatened my life, my outside finally matches my inside.

Breast cancer showed me my purpose.

-- Andrea Ivory, 50, diagnosed five years ago

Ivory had a bilateral mastectomy with reconstruction after doctors found ductal carcinoma in situ in one breast. She and her husband live in Miami, where she is founder and president of the Florida Breast Health Initiative.

When I was diagnosed with breast cancer during a routine mammogram, I shared the news with my husband, my daughter, my stepmom, and eventually my dad. Period. I'm a private person and didn't want the look of pity you get when you tell someone you have cancer. It unleashes all this emotion, and then that's all anyone wants to talk about. Since cancer was the last thing I wanted to talk about, I decided to keep it to myself. But I made an exception for the Wednesday Wonders, my women's Bible-study group. The seven of us are sort of like a book club with Bible study and soul-searching. Every Wednesday we meet to talk about what has been happening in our lives and how those events might help us better understand our purpose

The Wonders are like sisters to me, so how could I keep my cancer a secret from them? And, oddly enough, taking that first baby step opened me up emotionally and made it easier for me to hear other women's breast-cancer stories.

I began to understand that this wasn't about me; millions of other women were in the same boat. I also quickly realized how lucky I am. So many people have lost their fight against cancer because they lacked access to the kind of quality healthcare that saved my life. I still wasn't sure what my purpose was, but I knew it would involve helping other women with breast cancer.

So I began looking for ways to make a difference. That year I participated in a study at the University of Miami and ran in the Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure. I also became a buddy for two other women with cancer. Each time I grew a little more comfortable talking about my own experience. Through it all, something my doctor had told me when I was diagnosed kept coming back to me. "You are a poster child for early detection," he'd said. That stuck with me and paved the way for the Florida Breast Health Initiative, the nonprofit I founded in 2005.

Our organization sends volunteers door-to-door in low-income neighborhoods to distribute fact sheets about mammograms, lists of low-cost cancer-screening services in the area, and information about early detection. After three weeks of outreach, we bring a mobile mammography unit so women we've precertified can be screened on the spot. Every door we knock on is a chance to save a life. I can't take credit for our success because it all fell into place so easily. That's what happens when you find your purpose.

Don't call me a survivor.

-- Shelley Lewis, 56, diagnosed five years ago

Cofounder of the Web site, Lewis is the author of Five Lessons I Didn't Learn from Breast Cancer (and One Big One I Did). She lives in New York City with her husband and daughter. She had a lumpectomy, chemotherapy, and radiation.

Deeply immersed in a huge project at work, I took a few hours off one day in June 2004 to go in for a routine mammogram that turned out to be anything but. I have no immediate family history of breast cancer, but one biopsy later, I was a member of the "Cancer Club," a perverse society that charges dues to get out, not in.

I had a small Stage 1 tumor that nonetheless required the full menu of treatments: lumpectomy, chemo, radiation. I endured them all and so far, so good. I know I'm lucky and I never forget it. But does that make me a survivor? That's today's preferred term for women like me, but "I am a cancer survivor" is a phrase my lips simply won't form.

My definition of a survivor is someone who a) has had a serious brush with death, or b) has escaped it. By those standards, I don't qualify. For starters, I never felt as though I had a brush with death. It was more like death sent me a creepy postcard with "Thinking of you..." scrawled on it.

Then there's part B. Let's say I did have a brush with death. I still can't be certain I've escaped it. If you live through a plane crash, yes, you're a survivor of flight such-and-such, now and forever. But breast cancer isn't a plane crash. You can be clean for years: in essence, walk away from the wreckage: then get the same cancer again or a brand-new one. The only sure way to know you've survived breast cancer is to die of something else.

The National Cancer Institute's Web site states, "a person is considered to be a survivor from the time of diagnosis until the end of life." Really? From diagnosis? Sorry, that just seems wrong. To me that's like declaring victory before you've played the game. I realize that the term "survivor" is meant to help cancer patients stay strong and optimistic, and that's important. It's also preferable to "victim." So go ahead and call yourself a survivor; I'll understand. But I won't be joining you.

My concern about making this the standard term for every woman with breast cancer is that it conveys a false sense that everything's going to be okay.

If only! This year about 40,000 women in the United States will die of the disease. And those women are victims, plain and simple -- not survivors. We can't afford euphemisms that obscure this tragic reality. It will take years of dedication and commitment from scientists, doctors, and politically savvy activists before we can retire the term "breast-cancer victim" and restore "survivor" to its true meaning.

Until then, just call me an advocate.

Cancer is a middle, not an end.

-- Melissa Schultz, 49, diagnosed four years ago

A writer who lives in a Dallas suburb with her husband and their two teenage sons, Shultz had biopsies in both breasts and a lumpectomy in one. After radiation she started on tamoxifen.

The night I found a lump on my breast I was 45 and the mother of two young sons, with my best years ahead of me -- or so I thought. Now I wasn't sure I'd see my boys graduate from high school.

After the biopsies and lumpectomy, my breasts were crisscrossed with scars. How could cancer happen to me, a woman who eats yogurt for breakfast and exercises every day? My doctors said my tumor was slow-growing and treatable -- a "good cancer." As if such a thing exists. As I lay on the radiation table beneath the massive machinery, I kept thinking that if my cancer happened against all odds, then surely the odds would continue to be stacked against me.

But to my surprise radiation provided an unexpected sense of renewal, a literal beam of light coaxing me out of the darkness. As I was zapped, adjusted and zapped again, a process repeated many times over many weeks, I began to notice a subtle shift in my attitude. I realized that I was doing fine. Quite well, in fact. A few weeks after the last radiation treatment, as I swallowed the first of 1,825 doses of the estrogen-blocking drug tamoxifen, it occurred to me I could start planning more than doctors' appointments.

I found myself fixating on the word "process." It implied continuity, a concept that hadn't played much of a role in my precancer life, which I'd naively divided into beginnings and endings. Now I was acutely aware of a continuum, of being in the middle -- of my treatment and of my life -- and that made me oddly hopeful. Perhaps this wasn't the end at all.

This month, October, marks the start of my fifth year on tamoxifen. Now, whenever I reach a seemingly bad ending -- a job loss, a child's illness, a loved one's death -- I tell myself I can choose to view it as a middle instead. My cancer diagnosis was a middle; so were my surgery and radiation. They are behind me, and I am still moving forward.

Originally published in Ladies' Home Journal, October 2009.