By Jane O. Smith at Stage Your Comeback
Every year there is a celebration for cancer survivors on the first Sunday in June. National Cancer Survivors Day events are held across the country, to take note of their extraordinary milestones and successes.
There are a number of guideposts to reach in order to be deemed “cancer free.” For those facing the first few years after treatment, harnessing what matters most can be a challenge. Here are some reflections by a respected journalist -Jill Dougherty – and me, a catalyst and coach, as food for thought.
Nineteen years ago, Jill Dougherty, a CNN foreign affairs correspondent added an additional “to do” to her burgeoning list of demands – a personal crisis with breast cancer at age 50.
Back then, diagnosis, treatment and recovery issues were quite different than they are in today’s world. If you Google Jill’s experience, you will note that she was very forthcoming about her situation – on and off camera. She was one of the first in her profession to speak openly and honestly about her situation.
I recently spoke with Jill. She was a speaker at my TEDx Bethesda Women’s event in 2013 and I wanted to learn more about this vibrant and fascinating woman. The following are excerpts from our conversation.
“My mother had breast cancer twice in her life. Each time she moved on with strength and grace. She was my inspiration when I was diagnosed and had a lumpectomy with chemotherapy.
“After watching her cope, I didn’t let cancer define me in any way. I didn’t believe that I was sick. I joined a support group during chemo where I was able to learn and to share with women just like me. It made a huge difference, along with knowing that I had good doctors behind me at Sloan-Kettering Medical Center.
“Powering through cancer wasn’t super easy but I remember how we laughed together, nonetheless. I worried about getting lymphedema. I had undergone lymph node surgery and a favorite nurse told me to listen to my body. She told me to tell my body what to do. I took her advice and treated myself with compassion and it helped.
“I was based in Russia at the time and I was very busy. A therapist made a relaxation tape for me and it calmed me down when I was anxious about recovery or overwhelmed with work. I still practice meditation all these years later – each and every morning!
“Because I was a runner I was anxious to get back into my routine. Eventually I was able to return as hoped and I even ran in a Race for the Cure. It was really great to feel my body getting healthier and stronger.”
“Along with daily meditation I drink decaffeinated tea at night. I stay off of my phone and I turn off the news and I read books instead.
“Even though the world is filled with sad news, I try to focus on how lucky I am to be alive. To be on this earth is a blessing. I also remind myself about the good people I have met along my journey.
“I am an intense person. I am more forgiving these days, maybe due in part to my journey with cancer. I lead a more mellow life now and I don’t feel the need to be in charge all of the time.
“I really try to focus and to listen well. Most people are doing the best that they can do and it is important to validate them wherever they are.
“I try to concentrate on others rather than getting lost in my own thoughts. This is true in my work life and especially true with my dearest relationships. When I do this well, it increases the love inside of me.
“Exercising, eating really well with plenty of veggies, fruits and nuts (my favorite) and stepping back knowing that whatever obstacle I am facing will pass in time are strategies I use to stay on top of my game.
“I let gratitude and happiness inside of me. I fill my body with good feelings. I have to do this on purpose sometimes – it doesn’t just always happen. But because I am mindful of this way of being in the world it is almost second nature for me.”
“Because of my career in the limelight I have had to look good for the camera. I like my grey hair. It went prematurely grey and once it grew back after cancer I decided to keep it natural.
“When I was going through cancer treatment I wore comfortable clothes, nothing too tight. I wanted to move easily then and even today, I shop for pieces that feel free on me.”
“My mother’s humor, her zest for living and her commitment to helping others made a huge impact on me and others as well. She was very involved with Reach to Recovery, an international network to improve the quality of life for women with breast cancer. She reminded us six kids to pay attention to our joys.
“If we are spared after something scary like cancer, we should do something of value in the world. We need to contribute. There is a reason why we are still here.”
More About Jill
Jill Dougherty is an expert on Russia and the former Soviet Union. In her three-decade career with CNN she served as Foreign Affairs Correspondent, based in Washington, D.C., where she covered the State Department and provided analysis on international issues.
Dougherty previously served as U.S. Affairs Editor for CNN International; Managing Editor of CNN International Asia/Pacific, based in Hong Kong; and CNN’s Moscow Bureau Chief and Correspondent.
From 1991 to 1996 she was CNN White House Correspondent, covering the presidencies of George H. W. Bush and Bill Clinton.
In 2013-14 she was a Fellow at the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, where she pursued research on Russia’s mass media.
Dougherty received her B.A. degree in Slavic Languages and Literature from the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor and her M.A. from Georgetown University, where she researched Russia’s soft power diplomacy.
After listening to Jill’s comments, my take-aways are somewhat different. As a ten-year survivor who was diagnosed and treated in 2008, my thoughts about cancer, lifestyle and fashion add new dimensions to the discussion.
As a marketing and communications specialist for more than 25 years, I focused on branding and relationship development on behalf of my clients. I worked with transformational products and services and enjoyed creating messages, alliances and media attention to build credibility and to expand visibility. My work took me from Alaska to Minnesota, to Washington, California, Arizona and Maryland. Combining strategy with creativity was an exciting endeavor.
When I was diagnosed and treated for breast cancer ten years ago, my attention shifted. I found myself reading a great deal about self-compassion and well-being, instead. Along with the grief, anxiety and fear that are part and parcel of the disease I had to reconnect with a new normal me that felt like a full-time job at the time.
Today, ten years after a mastectomy, I have moved forward, indeed. These are reflections as I celebrate an important milestone in my life.
I found a lump on my breast that was mammogram silent. Although I could feel it, it was almost impossible to see it on an x-ray. Ultimately an ultrasound detected it – and a biopsy confirmed my worst fears. I was lucky that I did not suffer through the trials of chemotherapy. Thankfully the Oncotype test indicated a 19% risk of recurrence and my oncologist recommended hormonal therapy, exercise and more frequent mammograms as my go-to plan.
With a daughter starting high school and a husband facing new demands at work and at home, I tried to be positive. There were scary times ahead, however, as other shoes dropped during my recovery process. I believe that reaching out to school counselors and admitting that I did not have all of the answers helped us to connect. Many tears were shed along with sleepless nights, quiet anger and a sense of tentativeness about my place in the world.
I did not want to join the Pink Ribbon sisterhood and I was very private about my condition. What really helped me, as I look back, aside from the tremendous support of family and a very dear friend, was seeking out non-cancer resources to help me move forward. I did not want to consider myself as a survivor or to label myself as damaged goods.
The National Museum of Women in the Arts sponsored a workshop about storytelling and life coaching, a few months after my surgery. Women from all walks of life descended on the stage and in a circle we shared the reasons why we were there – the answers we were seeking and our visions of next steps were rich, varied and enlightening. Part of the day involved a tour of the museum. Afterwards each of us had to identify a piece of art that resonated with us and then we had to write and share a new story about ourselves that related in some way, to our selection. It was intriguing and the interpersonal exchange was life-changing for me.
Support comes in many forms. For me, the window opened by crafting a new way of thinking about my next steps with a group of committed women who were seeking their next paths. Admitting that I had breast cancer for the first time in public, as part of the circle of women, was very hard to do – but it set the stage for my comeback, which took months and years to fully manifest itself.
I created a Delight Directive to help me plow through the muck. It is timeless and it helps me to center myself when I’m feeling rocky and vulnerable. Each letter in the word “Delight” stands for something bold and healthy (I challenge you to create your own mantra, as well)!
When I woke up after my mastectomy, it was really hard to look at myself. I had drains and a huge incision where my breast used to be. I felt a deep sense of personal loss and I wanted to wrap myself in loveliness and beauty right way – to no avail. I was given plain white camisoles with pockets to hold my drains that I wore for days – they were ugly, flimsy and uncomfortable. Nothing fit right, nothing looked right and I felt liked damaged goods.
I was warned about lymphedema and weight gain – the nurses told me that these were common side effects. I decided that I wouldn’t let this happen by trying to get back into my old clothes as soon as possible. It didn’t work out very well because the swelling, bruises, dressings and access to them all by my medical team really limited my choices. It would have been fabulous to have some pretty new pieces to help me ease into my new body while allowing me to move freely in private and at the doctor’s office.
Losing my breast threw me into a whirlwind of body ambivalence. I opted against reconstruction and when I was fitted for my first prosthesis I felt really awkward. My breastbone was measured like a factory item (the shop also fitted people after amputations). I’ve never gone back to that place for new bras and prosthesis – I exclusively shop at stores that only serve women’s personal health needs.
I remember wearing big earrings, sparkly bracelets and funky socks to help me ignore my chest area. They helped me to notice a few better body parts, with intention and whimsy.
After much reflection, experimentation and research, I discovered that body image problems are common among those of us with disfiguring cancers. Over time I wrote blogs for Cancer.net, Adios Barbie, RGARE to raise awareness about this perplexing dimension of self-acceptance. Now, ten years later, doctors and social workers are much more comfortable and better prepared to help with this part of the recovery process.
Putting my Humpty Dumpty body, mind and spirit back together again eventually shaped my new career – writing and speaking about designing one’s “next act.”
There is no one way or one right way to do most things in this world. This is true for one’s journey with cancer. From an optimist’s viewpoint, new gifts can be revealed, new friends can be made, new perspectives can be gained and newfound strengths can be unveiled.
What cancer gave me was a series of questions I thought I had moved beyond, in a more profound and personal way. It offered me a new set of eyes for seeing and for deciding what matters most to me, each day. The world keeps on spinning – even after cancer – and joys still abound for the taking!