In April 2001, I was diagnosed with stage II breast cancer. I was a news anchor for WESH-TV, and there was no way I’d be able to hide the soon-to-be bald head, freakishly pale skin, and weight loss of chemotherapy…. or the repeated multiple days I’d miss from work. I also didn’t want to push my autobiography on the 6 pm news. So to share may story and try to dispel rumors and fear, I wrote this diary. These days it would be called a blog. I was ahead of my time. 🙂 I am republishing them, mostly unedited, in hopes of inspiring and informing a new decade of cancer patients and their families. Here’s May, 2002.
Life as a Cancer Survivor will be Different. Forever. That’s Not a Bad Thing.
May 3, 2002
It’s been a really stressful week, although it didn’t start out that way. I visited a friend who was injured in a freak football accident over the weekend. His eye was injured, so I went to visit his family, to cheer them up and to make sure for myself that everything was going to be OK, which of course it is. (**This was ESPN anchor Stuart Scott, who is now, in 2013, fighting cancer for the third time. He is a warrior slaying the dragon again.**) I came back on Monday, the day before my annual mammogram and sonogram. You remember what happened last time that happened. Well, I wasn’t too worried about the tests, especially since I had just had blood tests that turned up fine. But when I came back to Orlando, I found out that a friend of mine, who had beaten breast cancer about three years ago, had her cancer return. She has to go through everything again: the surgery, the chemotherapy, losing her hair, losing the weight. The thought of it all gives me that sick, sick feeling in the pit of my stomach. Just recently, I had more than just passing thoughts about how I would handle having to go through it all again, if I had to. It was enough to put me into a panic on the eve of my annual checkup. So, I was more than a little anxious going to the doctor with this new development, and with Nona dying last week, and the fact that no one could find my mammogram-sonogram films from last year. I was really early for my appointment, like that would somehow make things go a little more smoothly. Luckily, things went smoothly all by themselves. The staff at my doctor’s office was especially thoughtful. I had the same techs that I had a year ago, when the news wasn’t so good. Things turned out much better this time around. I got an all-clear and don’t have to go back until next year. The next milestone is another blood test in about three months. When I was talking with my friend whose eye was hurt, it was interesting to note the similarities between what he’s going through and what I went through in my cancer treatment. He’s trying to do as many “normal” things as possible in his life: going to movies, seeing friends — he wants to go back to work. I did that too. The other issue he’s grappling with right now is having to make adjustments to how he lives his life. I know exactly how he’s feeling. I have to take precautions before I fly; I have to check with Dr. Dave before getting different shots or taking different medications. I’m going out of the country at the end of the month and need all kinds of innoculations. I can’t just do things like get the shots anymore. I need doctor’s approval. It’s still very strange. I sometimes forget that I have to do that. When I filled out a form at a different doctor’s office, it asked the usual questions: Do you have diabetes, ulcers, blah, blah, blah, cancer, etc. I almost forget that I have to answer yes now. I guess I’ll get used to that eventually. This weekend is the American Cancer Society’s Cattle Baron’s Ball at the Central Florida Fairgrounds. I’m helping with the live auction. I’ve never been to this event, but I hear it’s very fun and very big. I’ll have a report next week.
Drawing Parallels to Cancer Survivorship. A Lesson in Empathy
May 10, 2002
It’s been a gloriously normal week this week, no small feat after what’s happened for the last few weeks. None of my friends died. None were diagnosed with cancer. No doctor’s appointments. No mammograms. No sonograms — just the normal stress of working through a ratings book and the normal training for triathlons. It’s like every May I’ve had for the last 18 years (except, of course, for last year). There’s something comforting about normalcy, you know? I had the opportunity to talk with boys and girls in the Orange County Juvenile Detention Center last week. These are kids who’ve been arrested for all kinds of crimes –misdemeanors and felonies. I wasn’t sure what I was going to talk to them about, so I just started talking. I told them about working in the media and going through cancer. They wanted to talk about Sept. 11 and rumors about what’s going on in the war on terrorism … and cancer. Several of the girls described how women in their lives had gone through chemotherapy and surgery. And they asked a lot of questions. After talking to a couple of groups, I was able to realize the parallels in their lives and in mine. I told them that I saw cancer as a challenge and an obstacle — one that you have to be willing to work hard to overcome. A good, full life is the reward, if you win. These kids have just had to face different kinds of obstacles and challenges. The work and the reward are similar. Finally this week, I want to talk hair. I have never had so many people comment on my hair. You like to think that people watch and appreciate you for your journalistic abilities, but really, it’s the hair everybody want to discuss. It’s very funny, actually. I thought I would grow it out as soon as the chemo curl left, but I’ve changed my mind. I like the extra 20 or 30 minutes I get every morning by not having to blow dry my hair (I probably wouldn’t remember how anyway; it’s been over a year). And these days, I’m 20 to 30 minutes less sleep deprived. That is always a good thing.
My Friend Donna Deegan
May 17, 2002
I just got off the phone with my friend, Donna, who was diagnosed with breast cancer for the second time. She’s the one I looked to for inspiration and the promise of better days when I was diagnosed last year. We laugh that we live parallel lives — we’ve known each other from “the news biz” for more than a decade, we’re about the same age, I think (I might be older!), and we were both diagnosed right after we ran the Boston Marathon.
She’s already started her new rounds of chemo, and I know she’ll do great. Life is funny (not always “ha ha” funny). This time around, it’s me who’s able to give her answers about longer-term (six months) chemo and menopause and other stuff. Donna said she was hesitant to tell me about her recurrence because it’s just so terrifying for cancer survivors to hear about recurrences. I told her I understand. In fact, I panicked when I first heard about it. If it happened to her … You know the rest. But tonight, we talked a lot about it, and we have the same philosophy that you just can’t worry about it. We agreed that you can obsess about cancer recurrences, and then be killed by something else anyway. And you’ll have wasted all that time. She said someone told her that if chemo for six months is the way she would get to live for three more years before having to do it again, then that’s the way it will be. (Cancer humor is not always pretty or particularly funny to other people). Anyway, after talking with her, I feel so much better about how she is and will be. (She founded the Breast Cancer Marathon )
I got the coolest letter from two young women in Orlando today. They just got back from the Revlon Run-Walk for Women in New York. Like many fund-raisers for cancer, the girls wore small placards on their backs, with the names of people they are remembering with their participation. Shannon and Karen put my name on one of the placards as they raced with thousands of people raising money to fight women’s cancers. They even sent me a picture of them at the event. Not to discount the wonderful things people have written to me or said to me or done for me in support, but this gesture really moved me.
I’ve never met Shannon and Karen before, but I’ll never forget them. Thanks girls!
Friday night, I got to meet the family and the boy who’s been paired up with Tyrone, the Canine Companions for Independence. You may remember Tyrone. He’s the service dog that went to the Boston Marathon with me, when I ran to raise money for Canine Companions for Independence. Charlie has cerebral palsy and was paired up with Tyrone, who’ll be his working partner. Tyrone successfully completed advanced training and will do all kinds of things for Charlie — not the least of which is being his best friend. It was wonderful to meet Charlie’s family and to see how much Charlie and Tyrone have already bonded. It was a perfect feel-good, glad-to-be-able-to-help way to end the week.
Life is (Mostly) Back to Normal. Except for My Reaction to Cafeteria Food
May 24, 2002
I was the commencement speaker this week at the Celebration High School graduation. It was supposed to be a motivational speech, and I briefly considered talking about overcoming cancer and moving on with life. But in the end, I decided not to. I decided that for a group of 17 and 18 year olds, talking about cancer, even though it’s a story with a happy ending (so far), would be too foreign and difficult for them to relate to (or to pull positive vibes from). Instead, I gave them a list of “life lessons,” illustrated by mostly funny anecdotes from my career. For instance, number five was “Laugh at Yourself/Don’t take yourself so seriously.” And I told the story of how I was the live lead story at 11 p.m. when I first got to Orlando 14 years ago. I wanted to make a big splash with the big story about a Seminole County neighborhood fighting to keep a condo/apartment complex from coming. At the end of my live shot, I meant to say “Residents don’t want a neighborhood with higher density” or “Residents don’t want any more neighbors than they already have.”
What I said was “Residents don’t want any more dense neighbors.” Then, Steve Rondinaro (anchor at that time) said, “Who wants to live next to stupid people?” I’m sure the kids got lots more out of a story like that. (lots more laughs, anyway … and a decent lesson.)
We have just ended the May ratings period, and I’m happy about that. There’s always more pressure during ratings, even though we just need to do the same solid job reporting the news that we always do. May is a really big month for us, because the ratings we get in May hold us through the summer to the November ratings book. We did really well, and the bosses are very happy. All of us are, actually. If you remember, I missed almost the whole May ratings book last year. That was during the surgery and chemo. It seems like a lifetime ago. People ask me for a chronology of treatment events from last year, and I can’t even remember them. Even the chemo doesn’t seem like it was so bad (although I won’t tell that to my friend, Donna. I’m sure she’d disagree, having to go through it all for a second time). But, this week, I went to a luncheon, and the institutional smell of the food brought that sick chemo feeling back in record time. I couldn’t believe it. I wasn’t even thinking about it at the time, but my brain was reacting and revolting almost before the smell reached my nose. Yuck. Of course, this time around, I still ate lunch. And it was good. One of the big lessons I took away from the cancer experience last year, was to stop putting off things I really want to do, whether it’s spending time with friends instead of doing something I need to do or telling my friends how much they mean to me instead of assuming they know it or going on big vacations that I’ve put off for years. You just never know if you’ll get the chance to do those things, so do them now. On that note, I’m about to take that big vacation that I’ve put off for years. I’ll check back in in two weeks, and I’ll have pictures. Ciao.
(****2013 note: I went on photo safari to Zimbabwe, Botswana, and South Africa on what is to this day the best vacation I’ve ever had)