Breast cancer and careers: How 7 survivors tackled both
It's Breast Cancer Awareness Month and more than 287,000 women will be diagnosed with breast cancer in the U.S. this year, according to the American Cancer Society. But it doesn’t have to be a death sentence: when breast cancer is detected early and before it has the chance to spread, the five-year survival rate is 99%. Here are seven powerful stories of survival from women with breast cancer.
1. Tig Notaro — ‘Hello. I have cancer. How are you?’
This is my life. pic.twitter.com/xPLyP2yYix
— Tig Notaro (@TigNotaro) July 18, 2016
When comedian Tig Notaro was diagnosed with stage II bilateral breast cancer in 2012, she immediately canceled her upcoming show. But then she had a change of heart that ultimately, also changed her career. “Based on not knowing if I was going to live or die, and I loved stand-up so much, I thought if this might be my last time, I would perform,” she told MAKERS. Notaro opened her show that night by saying, “Hello. I have cancer. How are you?” The raw and honest performance sent her career soaring. “Bursting onstage with that was electrifying and scary and the crowd was just cracking up thinking, ‘This one, so silly.’ And then they started to realize, ‘Oh, she really has cancer.’ So the show just kind of went from there.” After her double mastectomy, the courageous comedian performed topless, baring her scarred chest for all the world to see. Now cancer free, married and the mother of twin boys, Notaro returned to the stage this year for her Hello Again comedy tour.
Tig Notaro is joining this year’s MAKERS Conference, which runs from October 24 through October 26.
2. Hoda Kotb — Strength she never knew she had
Co-anchor of NBC’s Today show Hoda Kotb found out she had breast cancer in 2007. But rather than derailing her career, Kotb said the diagnosis gave her a strength she says she never knew she had. “At the time I finished my surgery [for breast cancer], NBC was starting up the fourth hour of Today,” Kotb said in an interview with Coping magazine. “And I did something I never dreamt I would ever do — go to the big boss and ask for the job. I’m one of those people who wait to be noticed. But for the first time in my life, I hit 52 in the elevator bank and went up to see Jeff Zucker [who was CEO of NBC Universal at the time]. Without cancer, I wouldn’t have had the guts or the moxie.” To help further raise awareness among her viewers, Kotb allowed NBC cameras to follow her through her breast cancer treatments.
Black women are more likely to die from breast cancer than any other race or ethnic group.”American Cancer Society
3. Martina Navratilova — ‘I put it off and I was lucky that they caught it.’
Tennis legend Martina Navratilova’s career has always kept her busy. However, in 2010, her world travels and hectic tournament schedules had caused her to miss several annual breast exams. When she finally made the appointment, doctors told Navratilova she had ductal carcinoma in situ (DCIS), an aggressive but very treatable breast cancer. “I had put it off and I was lucky that they caught it, but many women aren't that lucky,” she told MAKERS in 2013. “I wanted to make women more aware of taking the time for themselves. Because, you know, when we get that notice in the mail your dog needs a rabies shot, we take the dog to the vet immediately. You get the notice in the mail you're up for your mammogram it’s, ‘Oh, I'll call next week. Oh, I'll call next week. I'll call next month.’ You can't take anything for granted.”
4. Ananda Lewis — ‘I have refused mammograms, and that was a mistake.’
In 2020, former host of BET’s popular Teen Summit series, Ananda Lewis, revealed on Instagram that she was battling stage III breast cancer. “For a really long time, I have refused mammograms, and that was a mistake,” Lewis told her followers. “If I had done the mammograms from the time they were recommended when I turned 40, they would’ve caught the tumor in my breast years before I caught it through my own self-exam,” she added. “Instead, what I’m dealing with is stage III breast cancer that is in my lymphs. I need you to get your mammograms.” Lewis is tackling her cancer through holistic treatments versus traditional surgery or chemotherapy and is sharing her journey on Instagram. As of her latest IG update, her cancer has moved from stage III to stage II.
5. Yael Cohen Braun — ‘Nobody was speaking to the youth.’
When Yael Cohen Braun’s mom got diagnosed with cancer, the 22-year-old felt lost. “So, I started a Facebook group called F*** Cancer,” she told MAKERS. “It was also my way of letting my friends know what was happening because I wasn't very good about speaking about it.” The Facebook page went viral and Braun decided to turn her idea into a nonprofit and a full-time job. “Nobody was speaking to the youth. Our parents are the ones that are getting cancer. I get that, but we're taking care of them and so we should be included in these conversations. So I wanted to do something that spoke to our generation, that let us feel as valuable as we can be in this fight.” F*** Cancer launched a new website this year and continues to provide programs and resources for patients and their caregivers who are coping with cancer.
6. Chaunté Lowe — A platform to fight for women who will be diagnosed with cancer
Olympic high jumper Chaunté Lowe was just 35 years old when she was diagnosed with triple-negative invasive ductal carcinoma. This aggressive form of breast cancer required Lowe to get a double mastectomy and endure six rounds of chemotherapy, right in the middle of training for her fifth Olympics. “My exact thoughts were, ‘Wow, you took my body, and now you are going to take my dreams too!’” Lowe wrote in her personal essay on Susan G. Komen’s website. But with her doctor’s blessing, Lowe kept training while undergoing treatment and used her platform as a professional athlete to educate other women. “I knew without a shadow of a doubt that the media storm that comes from the Olympics would be a great way to bring attention to early detection, breast cancer awareness, and ways to fund research. I felt a sense of responsibility to use this platform to fight for the 1 in 8 women who will be diagnosed with cancer in their lifetime.” Lowe is now cancer free and continues to be a voice in the fight against breast cancer, especially among the Black community.
7. Kris Hallenga — ‘I even surprised myself, just how strong I could be.’
Doctors repeatedly told Kris Hallenga that the lump in her breast was nothing to worry about. By the time she was properly diagnosed, the 23-year-old’s breast cancer had spread to her spine and was incurable. “You don't really know what you're made of until something like that happens,” she told MAKERS. “I even surprised myself, just how strong I could be.” Hallenga took that strength and founded the breast cancer charity CoppaFeel! to educate young women on the importance of early detection. “I could have been told so many times throughout my youth about boobs and taking care of them, but I never was. That would have dramatically changed my outcome.” Hallenga recently published a memoir of her journey, Glittering a Turd, and continues to live with stage IV breast cancer.