Some people don’t like to call cancer “a journey.” I’ve heard it again and again, “stop calling my battle with cancer a journey, I’m not traveling through Europe!” Well, for me, a journey was exactly what it was. It was long, it was difficult, it was life-changing and I experienced profound personal development. By definition, I had quite a journey.
Before I heard those three words, “you have cancer,” I would say I defined myself as many things, one being a journalist. A gatherer of information, a curious disseminator, a truth-seeker. Over the years I had done many interviews with breast cancer experts and I had reported on the statistics - I had heard that “a woman born today has about a 1 in 8 chance of being diagnosed with breast cancer at some time during her life,” but for me, I didn’t have breast cancer in my family and quite honestly, I think I felt like “it wouldn’t happen to me.”
Then the day came when it DID happen to me. Those three scary words came my way and I was hit like a freight train. Immediately, everything that was once my normal life was instantly washed away. I had cancer. I was still in shock and I had to figure out how I was going to tell my family.
All of a sudden I had a lump in my throat. I am a talker, that’s what I do, and yet I couldn’t find any words. Who would I have to tell? Or course my husband, but what about my kids? my friends?...the world?? At first I toyed with the idea of not telling anyone but my closest family, but I quickly realized that I had shared every chapter of my life with the world, how could this one be any different? I might even have an opportunity to help someone along the way.
One of my biggest fears was that I was losing control and that scared me. It might not surprise you that I’m a “type A” kinda gal. You’ll often hear me saying, “Don’t worry, I got this.” But I knew that I DIDN’T have this and I needed to find a way to change my mindset so that I could move forward into my treatment. I needed to own this, I couldn’t let cancer own me. I needed to take back control.
I began to channel my new identity, G.I. Joan. One of my first calls was to Robin Roberts, who sat in the chair that I had sat in for so many years and who had walked this past before me. Robin didn’t sugar-coat things… She was realistic in describing the journey I was about to endure… and of course that would include losing my hair. Let’s cut to the chase, losing your hair can be traumatizing. Robin suggested that I might want to get ahead of the inevitable and shave my head.
So that’s just what I did. A few days later, I was out running errands around town and on my list of things to do that day was to get a spray tan (hey, my dermatologist always told me it was safer than a real tan!). I entered the salon, walked up to the front desk, and out came the words, “do you think someone could shave my head before I get my spray tan?” The girls looked at me like I was from Mars. Was I joking? Had I gone crazy? While they looked at each other in confusion, a tall dark hairdresser named Juan emerged from the back of the salon and quietly told me to follow him. He found us a spot out of the way in order to give my privacy and with barely any more conversation, he picked up the electric clippers. I was relieved and grateful for his obvious understanding and kindness.
“OK Juan, Go ahead - do this before I change my mind.” I was making this decision for myself. This was not going to be done TO me by my cancer. I was taking control… I was becoming a warrior in my battle.
I heard the buzz of the clippers next to my ear and next thing I knew, I looked in the mirror and there I was, bald. I’m not going to lie… I would say it was more strange than anything, and yet oddly, I felt empowered. I slipped on my new wig that I had brought along and went on my way with my new secret! I felt strong, I felt confident, and I felt powerful...I felt like a WARRIOR!
As my cancer journey became public, I took on a new role as a special correspondent at The Today Show. I was scheduled to appear throughout their #PinkPower series for Breast Cancer Awareness Month. The night before my first appearance, after washing and drying my face, I looked in the mirror and was stunned. I realized I had just washed away my eyebrows and eyelashes. I stood there, looking into the mirror, and for the first time in my journey, I was seeing a real cancer patient staring back at me.
My first thought was, “Really? The night before appearing on the Today Show is when they all had to fall out?!” But the truth is, it was a real punch in the gut and a reminder that while I may have been thinking of myself as a warrior, I was still a cancer patient. Despite being on such a high from all of the work I was doing to educate and inspire other women, at the end of the day, I was still fighting for my life. Looking up in the mirror that night, I was humbled to realize that I was like so many others out there. I had to keep fighting for me and for them.
Throughout my journey I had been hearing from other breast cancer survivors and patients from all around the country. A community seemed to be forming and we were all learning from each other. I did my best to be open and honest, sharing what I was going through in the attempt to make it a little less scary. With every story I heard from someone, I learned about something new - a new challenge, a new treatment, a new tip. But I also learned about how different everyone’s cancer journeys can be. One November day, I read a particular message that struck me instantly. It was from a woman named Susan, she said:
“I’m a huge fan of yours but I would like to bring something up that luckily I know is not something you would ever think about. Each interview you do, you bring up how important it is to have someone go with you to treatment. Not everyone is so lucky and by bringing it up, you are only causing those who are alone to feel sad.“
I must say, for me, my cancer journey had been a family affair. From day one at my initial appointments, to every chemo session, my husband or grown daughters were by my side. At first I resisted their efforts, feeling uncomfortable that everyone was taking the time out of THEIR lives to come “take care” of me, but in the end I was grateful that they did. In those early days after diagnosis, there is so much information coming at you and you are in a state of shock. You can’t possibly absorb it all. Thankfully, I always had someone with me taking notes… Notes that would later be imperative information for me to have as a patient.
It was this experience that always spurred me to recommend to anyone newly diagnosed that they don’t go to these early emotional and important appointments alone. For me it was family members accompanying me, however candidly, I wasn’t taking into account that many other women battling breast cancer are single working moms that don’t necessarily have family close by to rely on. I was inadvertently making those women who were already waging this battle alone, feel even worse. Here I was trying to give advice to help women and I was creating stress and sadness for some. Susan’s message changed me forever.
This was the moment that a new fire was lit inside of me. I had always identified myself as a women’s health & wellness advocate, but at this moment that took on a whole new meaning. I was hit in the face with the fact that there are women out there, women just like me, battling the same disease that I was battling, who were alone and didn’t have a voice. I had to be their voice. Thank you Susan, I will never ever forget you or any of the women out there who are navigating their journey alone. My hair may have grown back, but my journey hasn’t ended.
Hear more personal stories from Joan and other cancer survivors in the new video series, At Home With Joan.