What's It Really Like to Live Through Breast Cancer?
I told almost no one outside my family that I was sick, but with breast cancer I couldn't hide. Even if I could cover any body disfigurement I had, I couldn't cover up the fact that I'd lost my hair. Chemotherapy makes what could be a private condition into a public one. You might as well walk around wearing a sign. I bought a wig—I called it the million-dollar wig, it was so expensive. I was willing to pay anything to approximate my normal appearance. I didn't want to be viewed as sick.
Which is funny, since now a big part of my job is to tell people about my breast cancer. I'm the CEO of the greater New York City affiliate of Susan G. Komen for the Cure, an organization that raises money for groups that provide support to breast cancer patients in and around the city and for breast cancer research. I have a whole team of doctors and researchers, my medical advisory committee, who offer input and guidance on medical issues. I feel like this job was created just for me. I've experienced breast cancer as a daughter, a physician, and a patient, and all of that experience, everything I've been through, has led me to exactly this position. I've talked about my breast cancer on television, in countless public speeches, and one-on-one with other patients and survivors. At first it was hard to go from never talking about it to sharing my story with the world. But I remember thinking, You gotta be ready to come out with it. I had a choice: I could be selfish, or I could share my experience to, hopefully, benefit others.
Breast cancer created a sense of urgency for me. Tomorrow is not promised, as they say. I don't take things for granted the way I used to. I was living in this beautiful, rosy world, with a supportive family and friends and husband. I wanted to be a doctor, so I became one; I was having this great life in New York City. It's not like I was arrogant, but breast cancer gave me a dose of reality. It brought my loafers down to the ground.
Whenever I introduce Ruth, whether to friends or a colleague or up onstage during a Komen event, I always say, "This is Dr. Oratz, chair of my medical advisory committee and the physician who saved my life." Because I think of my experience as a brush with death. That's what it felt like for me. When I think of my cancer, I remember the quote, "Mountaintops inspire leaders, but valleys mature them." Cancer made me a better leader, a better friend, a better wife. I wouldn't wish it on anyone, but it made me who I am.
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