My Cancer Detour

Beating breast cancer, learning the most important thing. By Adaora Udoji 

It is three years, almost to the day as I write, since I was diagnosed with breast cancer. Friday, the 13th, May 2011 (I could make jokes about the date, but I won’t).

Just two days before, the breast surgeon had given me a list of reasons she thought I had a benign tumor, meaning not cancerous: the round shape, no family history, I was young in my early forties (the American Cancer Society sites the average age as 61), and I had a history of breast cysts.

I have a crystal-clear memory of the surgeon’s office in midtown New York City that Friday morning, with spring light pouring through and bouncing off her peach walls. My dear friend Lybra was on my right. As soon as I sat down with no preamble the surgeon said, “It is cancer.”

I said, “Okay. What do we do?”

I am a get-it-done gal after getting through law school and years of running around the world covering stories as a broadcast journalist; working through impossible situations, from the Iraq War to suicide bombers on Jaffa road in Jerusalem, Hurricane Katrina to U.S. Presidential elections, lots in between and now as an entrprepreneur in the startup world. I am a problem-solver first and foremost.

I was a gal who went a thousand miles per hour through life until the universe spoke and jerked my foot off the pedal.

I immediately got a second opinion. There was no way I could go with the doctor who was so sure I was okay when I wasn’t.

Then I learned there was a lot to learn about a transition the brilliant thinker and author Susan Sontag might describe as traveling from the world of healthy people to the world of sick people.

The diagnosis is just the beginning. It’s followed quickly by tests and more tests to determine if the cancer has spread and to prepare you for treatment; treatment that is if you are lucky enough to be a candidate for one of the life-saving regiments.

My favorite test was the MUGA Scan (Multiple Gated Acquisition Scan), which takes a look at your heart function because chemotherapy can impair it. The name felt comfortable and familiar because I was reminded of my beloved Harry Potter and Muggles, which refers to non-magical people in his world. It was much better than words like like Cyclophosphamide or Doxorubicin, or getting used to the concept of pig tissue in a breast re-construction. Pigs?

My head was spinning. I struggled with the notion that, right now, cancer is growing in my body. I wondered: Has it spread all over? Will the bastard (that’s what I called the intruder) respond to treatment? Will my daughter be okay? Will I make it?

I fully realized a fundamental truth that I was aware of but had not unreservedly embraced in the way I lived: life is uncertain for all of us. No one gets handed a certificate at birth promising a perfect, happy and challenge-free life. We all know for sure we will die and none of us know when, though many of us like to pretend never.

It got real simple. My new normal was about staying alive, and in that every day mission there were and are still many gifts alongside the madness.

They caught the cancer early. My health insurance was fantastic. I chose some of the world’s best surgeons and oncologists in Dr. Elisa Port and then, Dr. George Raptis at Mt.Sinai’s Dubin Breast Center.

My breast cancer had not spread to the rest of my body.

I learned there a different kinds of breast cancer, some far more aggressive and deadlier than others. I stayed away from Googling a lot of it because some things you just don’t need to know. Each person’s case is so specific and it’s too easy to lock yourself in the terror chamber with fears that have absolutely nothing to do with the reality of your diagnosis. I was incredibly fortunate to have the most common and treatable strain (I had triple positive, hormone receptive breast cancer) with something like a 90 percent survival rate past 5 years.

Still, my life changed. Fast. Breast cancer forced me into a laser-focused review of my life and my dreams.

It got real simple. My new normal was about staying alive.

I wrote about gratitude then, having no way to imagine how it would grow exponentially. My subject line in an email to family and friends who jumped in with love and support — just 7 days after the diagnosis — read, “My Cancer Detour:”

SERIOUSLY, stuff happens … I don’t ask myself why me (many have asked me that). Why not me, really?
People, yes we are all sorry this is happening to me, happening to anyone. But guess what, please shake off the guilt of being glad it isn’t you or feeling like you have to say something special. I can hear it in your voices. Stop. I’M REALLY GLAD it’s not you too and you can’t fix this. My only hope is that my little detour gives you a tad perspective on all the tough things going on in your lives: job junk, relationship stress, children craziness, aging parents; all the real life stuff that just happens. Here’s the deal that’s become crystal clear to me … if you’re healthy, you can deal with it.

My husband had my back. God bless my mom, she dropped everything in Ann Arbor, Michigan and within 24hrs she’d moved in to our home in suburban New Jersey outside NYC, my father was with us every step of the way. My younger brother, Amaechi, a 6’4” strong dude, never at a loss for words, was silent when I told him. He turned in to one hell of a cheerleader and even ran a “Firecracker 5K” in my honor. Don’t tell him I said this, but he looked whipped in the picture! But his big sister felt loved.

My mother-in-law was about as gracious and loving as a person can be.

My friends, oh my friends.

My best friend Tiffany came many times from Washington D.C. and laid around with me for hours watching TV in silence when that was all I could handle. I had lots of wig choices curtesy of my very stylish friend Susan. My great friend Patrik showed up not once but twice to 4 hour chemo sessions, keeping the nurses and me in hysterics (that’s Patrik Henry Bass, book editor at Essence magazine follow him @PatriksPicks, a hilarious man); distracting me from the life-saving but brutal medicines they were pumping into my body. Robin surprised me on a visit from London bearing our shared addiction, great books! The list is very long of the thoughtful and generous gestures of my peeps.

I learned that taking care of myself is not a lovely concept, it’s an imperative and a real daily choice.

I was a gal who went a thousand miles per hour through life until the universe spoke and jerked my foot off the pedal.

Being sick simultaneously forced and gave me permission to slow down, to reflect, to chill out, to put down the Economist and pick up a frivolous sci-fi book or something easy on the brain like People magazine.

As my dear friend Raphaella says, I was one of those people who needed a catastrophic push to ask myself, what is the most important thing? Try it. Don’t wait for something catastrophic to derail you. Just ask yourself, what is the most important thing in your life, really, and are you doing it?

I spent more time with my gorgeous and clever daughter, Siobhan, then 2 1/2 years old who was and is my most important thing. I will never forget coming home after getting my head shaved as the side effects of chemo kicked forcing clumps of hair to simply fall out, she glanced up from her Legos and said, “Mommy you got a hair cut,” then added, “Now both of my parents are bald. Can I have a grape popsicle?”

I thought about the extraordinary people I’d met and places on all corners of the globe I’d been. I reflected on why I endured the long dark days of law school, complete with flashbacks of bundling up in the zero degree temperatures of the Los Angeles Federal Courthouse where I externed for one of the few female federal judges Consuela B. Marshall. It was so clear, my great plan of becoming a tax lawyer was about doing something safe because I should.

I thought about my long, chaotic, wonderful and incredibly stressful career in broadcast news. It was a tremendous honor to witness history unfold and exciting burning up tens of thousands of travel miles and many hours on television and radio. Yet, I was madly burnt out.

I still have moments of paralyzing terror when my 6 month mammogram check-up rolls around. But today, I am just better equipped to cope with stress and fear.

Over the past three years I discovered a core burning desire: there are so many more contributions I want to make.

I learned that to get the privilege of doing any of them, taking care of myself is not a lovely concept, it’s an imperative and a real daily choice. No doctor will sign off on this, but I am convinced it was the daily dose of Kale-green apple-pear-spinach-celery juice I drank every day that kept me strong and so, I keep drinking it. I started Qi Gong that led to a yoga practice, expanded my meditation practice that got me through every twist and turn.

I got clear about life, my life, which is my greatest user experience. Turns out, that Cancer Detour was a true gift that keeps on giving.

I have never been more fearless.

I have reacquainted myself with the determination to be of service in making the world a better place. I am closer than ever to my family, my circle of friends has expanded in the most beautiful way and I am excited about my continued quest to never live in a box; to color outside the lines with neon crayons at all times.

I still have moments of paralyzing terror when my 6 month mammogram check-up rolls around or I get a headache or belly ache, and immediately wonder if the cancer has come back. But today, I am just better equipped to cope with stress and fear.

I focus on my aspirations: to be more compassionate, laugh a lot, act with integrity, kindness and most importantly to speak my truth.

I figured out I haven’t changed much since I was a kid: I’ve always been obscenely curious; I love to chat (I’m sure kissing the Blarney Stone in Cork, Ireland amplified my gift of the gab as promised or maybe it’s all that Irish dna); I am obsessed with sharing information, and I love a good story.

Please, please get a mammogram, and make sure the women in your life get theirs too.

I have always relished helping people understand things. Today that means working with the startup which is an impact media-tech company focused on engaging and explaining complex global issues. It means increasingly helping people improve their public speaking, pitching or presenting skills. After interviewing thousands of people and giving dozens of speeches, I know a lot about the monsters that lurk under someone’s bed keeping them from sharing what they know. I have a gift of helping folks speak out loud and I love doing it.

I would not wish cancer on a single person. No one.

Yet, I think my truth is, I owe much of my perfectly imperfect and wondrous life today to the path breast cancer threw me on. I’m not sure I would have noticed the signs, otherwise, whizzing down the road at 1000 miles per hour.

No matter your truth, please get a mammogram and please make sure all the women you know and men you think may be at risk get theirs too. Please, please get a mammogram, and make sure the women in your life get theirs too.

Adaora Udoji is a lawyer and the Interim President of News Deeply, a tech-driven digital media company focused on complex global issues in the public interest, flagship vertical Previously, she was an award-winning broadcast journalist, serving as co-host of The Takeaway with John Hockenberry, as a foreign correspondent based in London for ABC News and a correspondent at CNN.