Both her mother and her father wrestled with breast cancer. She was sick of radiologists and mammograms, tired of watching, waiting, fearing the worst. So former anchorwoman René Syler made one of the most difficult—and strangely exhilarating—decisions of her life.December 15, 2006
Most women may forget about their breasts until they put on a bra or have sex. But I think about mine all the time. I look at them, study them, wonder if something heinous is growing inside them—the deformed one, a constant reminder of the trouble they've been to me over the past several years.
Then I think, "In less than a month, after my mastectomy, they won't be with me anymore. What will I look like? What will I feel like?"
Time: dark. Place: Kiawah Island, South Carolina. We ran out of New York City yesterday, and man, did I need to get out of there. The past month has been hell, because in the midst of preparing for life-changing surgery, I lost my job as an anchor on The Early Show. Oh, and did I mention, we're also renovating the house? So, huge surgery looming, getting fired, house torn up—the only thing missing is divorce, and I probably should check with Buff on his intentions!
When I got fired, all the energy I'd been spending on myself had to be transferred to wrapping things up at CBS. I haven't really had much time to absorb all the nuances of what's about to happen to my body. All I know is that I feel very tired, not just physically but emotionally, too, and the number of gray hairs has quadrupled overnight.
I'm on my way, this afternoon, to pick up Mom. She'll spend Christmas with us in Kiawah. You know what that means? Many more gray hairs.
My kids, Casey, 10, and Cole, 8, are trying to make up for 364 days of bickering. I need to tell them that Santa has a really long memory.
Fortunately, Mom is not making me crazy yet. It's actually very nice to see her because she does know what it's like to deal with breast issues. She was diagnosed with breast cancer at age 64, when I was pregnant with Cole. I remember her calling and asking me if I was sitting down. I said yes, and that's when she dropped the bomb. It stole the wind from my lungs, because if there were ever an unlikely candidate for breast cancer, it would be Anne Syler. She ate well and exercised long before it was fashionable to do so, didn't drink excessively. At the time, she was the picture of health.
Later she confided how much she feared the "legacy" she was leaving my sister and me. I tried to make her understand that she hadn't done anything to get BC; it was just an unlucky draw. But I wonder if she feels responsible for my health problems. I hope she doesn't.
Not only was my mother a breast cancer patient (nine years later, she is doing well, praise God); my father had it too. Male breast cancer is rare, only about 1,700 cases are diagnosed each year in the United States. So when you tell a doctor your father had breast cancer, it's a big red-flag moment.
I had my first mammogram in 1992. I was 29. It turns out that I don't have the breast cancer gene, and things were all right until my late 30s. Then little white flecks started showing up on the film, like buckshot on my breast—microcalcifications, which can indicate cancer. I used to always schedule my mammograms near my birthday, a gift of health and life to myself. In 2003, my present was a long-faced radiologist who said, "You need a biopsy." I had a fibroid adenoma removed from the right breast. No cancer. The buckshot-looking stuff in my left breast was taken out, too. No cancer. Whew. But I was diagnosed with a condition called atypical ductal hyperplasia, which substantially raises your odds of BC.
A year later, another biopsy. Left breast, same diagnosis: No cancer.
And the next year, you guessed it. Cut open again, same breast, same diagnosis: No cancer.
Then in August 2006, I went in for my mammo. More of those microcalcifications—a lot this time, and in a suspicious constellation. Another biopsy. Three long days of calling the doctor every few hours. Ultimately, same diagnosis: No cancer.
Not that I wished for cancer; that's plain stupid. But not having it meant going back to square one. Only I didn't want to go back there. I was tired. Tired of the anxiety each year leading up to the mammogram, tired of long-faced radiologists, tired of being cut on...tired, tired, tired.
After the last biopsy, I had to go in once a week to have fluid drained from my left breast. Three weeks later, when the swelling subsided, I stood in the mirror, horrified by what remained: The breast was about a half-cup size smaller than the other with a huge scar running under it. The nipple was misshapen and the area where they had cored out the breast tissue had basically shriveled up and collapsed in on itself. I sat on a stool in the closet and cried.
When I asked my doctor, Virgilio Sacchini, what we could do to fix the breast, he said we would have to use an implant, but then I could never have the less invasive biopsy again; I would be limited to the surgical kind, like the one I just had.
In that moment, the futility of it all hit me: At 43, I had to get off the merry-go-round. Instead of asking, "Is this the year I get breast cancer?" I had to say, "I will not get breast cancer this year. Or ever." That's when I decided to have the bilateral prophylactic mastectomy. It wasn't an easy decision. December 27
Mom went home today. I love her, but now I can really relax. Been thinking a lot about my breasts and what they mean to me. Will I feel differently when I don't have them? Will the new ones move like real breasts? I hear women talk about having these phantom pains postsurgery, or an itch way down deep that they can't scratch. Ugh, not looking forward to that.
Seven days until surgery. My 10-year-old daughter asked me for a bra, even though our dining room table has more bumps than she does. How ironic that she's starting to think about breasts and I'm about to lose mine.
It's down to the short strokes now—that's what Buff likes to say: a golf term for the swing you use when the ball is close to the hole.
I went to see Dr. Sacchini. He took a final look at my breasts, and we had one more detailed conversation about the operation. The next time I see him, we'll both be in surgical gowns and one of us will be getting ready for a four-hour nap.
Dr. Sacchini again promised to take good care of me. And just to make sure I wasn't going to change my mind, he ran over my nonsurgical options, including tamoxifen and watchful waiting. Again we came to the conclusion that surgery is the way to go for me.
I then went on to Dr. Joseph Disa, the plastic surgeon. He's a young guy, and terribly good-looking. He went into more depth about what he'll actually do: Dr. S. will remove the breast tissue first. Then Dr. D. will take over, using a temporary implant partially filled with saline. Every couple of weeks after the surgery, I'll come in for a filling (like pumping a tire with air) until I get to the size I want to be. I think I'm going to stay roughly the way I am, even a bit smaller.
The interesting thing about today was how sure I feel about this decision now.
Nighttime. Just got home. All the positive glow gone because Casey threw a frozen blueberry at Cole. He dodged it, fell, and hit his mouth on a metal table, chipping two teeth. Didn't look serious to me, but the dentist says, "Guess what? It is." He'll need the teeth filed down and bonded.
That's why I'm doing the surgery, so I can be around to break up fights and pick up the pieces for a long, long time.
I'm baffled. I have not felt this good in years. The other day I was riding on the train, listening to "Optimistic," by Sounds of Blackness, and I just started crying like a big ol' fool, praying no one could see through my sunglasses as the tears streamed down my face. But here's the kicker: I wasn't crying because I was sad. I was crying because I'm so damn happy! How does that work? Here I am, fired from CBS and a job I love, facing major surgery, and yet I awake every morning with a smile and a song?
I have a couple of theories. Maybe I didn't love the job as much as I thought, and looking back on it now, the push may have been just what I needed—because I really wasn't allowed to be true to who I am. The box they had me in was getting smaller by the day. But that's a hard thing to admit to yourself. I think so many of us sleepwalk through life, afraid of the risks it takes to achieve success. Like rats in a science lab, we keep pressing the same lever, satisfied with the one pellet that comes out. Well, not me anymore. I feel the fresh air and am suddenly filled with excitement of where the next day might take me.
The other reason for my good mood, I think, is the way I'm taking control of my health. I see now that the specter of breast cancer has been permeating my life. I couldn't really live because I was always playing defense—watching and waiting, wondering if this would be the year I'd be diagnosed.
Went to dinner with one of my best friends. As is our custom, we shared a bottle of wine and salad, and I had a slice of pizza. (Just an aside here: My diet has completely gone to hell—dessert after every meal, bread, pasta. It takes energy to maintain good eating habits and my energy now is directed into other parts of my life. So I'm cutting myself some slack for a while. And it feels GOOOOOOD!)
I had a chance to talk with both kids about the surgery. When I asked Casey if she knew what I was doing, she said, "Yeah, you're getting plastic boobs." There you go. She wanted to know if she would have to have plastic boobs someday, too, and I said, "No, not necessarily, but you will need to be screened sooner than your friends." Poor Casey will probably start having mammograms in her late 20s. That sucks. I thought about how my mother felt when she told me about her diagnosis.
Cole wanted to know if I could die. I said, "Yeah, some people do if they don't catch their breast cancer early." He was very somber, but then he asked, "No, can you die from having plastic boobs?" I tried not to laugh.
Today I'm going to type up some last-minute instructions for Buff, the babysitter, and the kids to help them get by while I'm gone.
Well, there's no turning back now, although I must admit the thought crossed my mind today (only half-joking). My plan was to have a stress-free night, a nice dinner, and a little wine, without much whining.
None of the above.
Very busy from sunup to sundown. When Buff got home, we all gobbled prepared food off paper plates. Then the whining began. My daughter was angry because I said she had to read a book instead of watching TV. I explained why I made this decision and Buff started yelling, "This is not a negotiation!" I swear, can't we just have one night chaos-free? How about the night before I get my breasts cut off? Is that too much to ask?
I grabbed Cole's face today and asked him to be a good boy while I am gone. With his big brown eyes staring up at me, he promised he would be. What if tonight is the last time I see him?
Leaving for the hospital. In the shower, I ran my hands over my breasts for what will be one of the last times ever. I looked at them, these sad, pitiful little things, pitted and scarred from years of being poked and cut open. I'm going to miss them. I prayed a lot. God, please take good care of me.
Hospital room. I had a moment of panic before surgery. Lying on the table, I started to cry—it was all hitting me, I guess. But then I was out.
When I woke up, I felt like a truck had run over me, backed up, then put itself in drive and run over me again. Later I got up, had a shower (from the waist down), and got a first look at my new girls! They are incredible. They feel like two 500-pound boulders on my chest—completely disconnected from my body—but the plastic surgeon was able to repair the damage from past biopsies, something he wasn't sure was possible. I am thrilled. Both doctors have made me whole again.
The man I really need to thank, though, is my husband. Even though I called him Nurse Ratched, because trust me, he did have his moments, he came through like a champ. I almost forgive him for lying in my bed when they hauled me up from recovery and listening to FOX News Channel and eating potato chips from a crinkly bag when all I wanted was soft music and even softer-sounding food. I do love that man.
First the good news: My doctor called me yesterday and said that there was no cancer in the tissue they removed. What a relief. Now the sobering news: They did find several areas of atypical ductal hyperplasia—and the frightening thing about that bit of information is that the hyperplasia was in the right breast, not the left one, which had been subjected to all the biopsies.
Clearly, this was the time to take action.
René Syler is the author of Good-Enough Mother (Simon Spotlight Entertainment).