What I’ve Learned: My Journey with Breast Cancer

Angela LaGreca apple picking in East Hampton, October 2014
Angela LaGreca apple picking in East Hampton, October 2014

Seven years ago in October I was happily (and competitively) picking apples in East Hampton with my good friend Robert Zimmerman at the Patricof’s house (Yes, the Patricofs have an apple orchard in their backyard — it was a glorious U-pick experience.)

The next day I went on a “buddy mammogram” shoot with my former boss Meredith Vieira and was diagnosed with an early stage but aggressive breast cancer — how do you like them apples?

Fortunately my breast cancer was treated (chemo, lumpectomy, radiation) and is gone. But if you think for one minute that I relegate “Breast Cancer Awareness” to one month, October — think again.

Don’t get me wrong, any awareness, even for a month, is valuable. But once you are touched by cancer, your awareness is 12 months a year, 24/7. Yes, it’s a relief to have the ordeal “in your rearview mirror” — but then again, it’s in your rearview mirror — so you have to keep checking that mirror the way you do when on the Long Island Expressway, because you never know when some nut job will side-swipe your ride as you are minding your own lane.

Let’s face it, talking about breast cancer (or any cancer) is like trying to talk about divorce with a room full of newlyweds —  no one wants to hear it — it’s too scary. We know the statistics: One in eight women will be diagnosed with breast cancer in one’s lifetime. The treatments have improved, but the stats are the same. Ouch. Denial is so much safer. Or is it? I can say that talking about cancer (or divorce, for that matter) doesn’t mean you will “catch” it. Knowledge, awareness and action can help save your life.

My father, a retired, respected radiologist who has read at least 500,000 mammograms in his career, gave me the best advice when I was struggling, post-treatment, to try and live “normally.” He said: “You will only feel better in time. Mark my words. You must learn to: Manage. Your. Thoughts.”

Oh, and you MUST get checked. Regularly. I have dense breasts, and apparently I was a little dense in the head — deciding (for five years?) that I could just skip my yearly exam because I was just too busy with my all-important job as a television producer at the Today show. I used every excuse, including that I didn’t want to be bothered putting in the paperwork for my insurance. Then, when Meredith got her own daytime talk show where I was a supervising producer, we decided to resurrect our buddy mammo as a segment. The October Surprise.

I never expected those results as my camera crew guys were filming. No family history. No BRCA gene. Just bad luck. A week later, Meredith and I were back at our old stomping grounds, the Today show, being interviewed by Hoda Kotb — who I had produced so many times, including a taped piece where we went on a fly fishing retreat on Long Island for women recovering from breast cancer. Now it was my turn — surreal.

A student at heart, I’m always grateful to be learning. Here, for what it’s worth, is my takeaway:

1. Cancer is a gift. Sounds trite but it’s true. I didn’t think I needed to be humbled, but getting that diagnosis is like being given a macro lens where everything becomes crystal clear — and I appreciate the heightened sense of clarity and focus — you cut through the clutter and know exactly what you must do.

2. People will surprise you. Some people you expect to be there for you aren’t, and people you never dreamed would reach out do. No judgment, because everyone has their own full/fearful life to deal with. But embrace and treasure those who do make the effort, and realize your own shortcomings/resistance in that area.

3. Work is good. I am proud to say I worked through most of this ordeal — chemo, surgery, radiation. I love working and in this instance, my job saved my life (so I had to love it). Keeping busy, being creative, having a purpose — all good.

4. Act “as if.” I didn’t feel great a lot of the time, but I just plowed ahead, acting as if I did. I didn’t look so hot, but I just acted as if I looked OK, (even when the mirror knew better). I worked, I showed up for “events,” I took trips — I lived, as best I could.

5. It’s all about the little things. I couldn’t believe my taste for coffee went away during treatment … so imagine my excitement when it came back. Coming home to my daughter, laughing/crying with friends, walking the beach in East Hampton, taking an outdoor shower, riding my bicycle and dancing to Donna Summer — all helped get me through it.

For me, the operative word is “grateful” — for family, friends, doctors, co-workers, and those who have shared their stories and given encouragement. I’m watchful — because you have to stay on top of your health, and do everything you can to help yourself. I’m hopeful — and excited to be feeling strong. My to-do list is long and I aim/hope to get to it all. Humor gets me through.

Happy to be here. An apple a day …

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