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PAULA ZAHN NOW
Women Share Stories of Coping with Breast Cancer
Aired February 23, 2005 - 20:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
PAULA ZAHN, CNN ANCHOR: Tonight, we focus on a leading killer of American women.
Breast cancer will claim more than 40,000 lives this year alone. Nearly a quarter of a million new cases will be diagnosed. That's about one every three minutes, scary numbers. But this next hour is meant to give you hope through stories you will remember.
P. ZAHN (voice-over): It used to be the disease we only whispered about, not anymore. A Grammy moment grabs headlines. A survivor shouts, bald, strong and proud, taking her battle public.
Tonight, the rising voices and faces of breast cancer survivors and their families.
The songbird, Carly Simon.
CARLY SIMON, MUSICIAN: And I put my head down on the table, saying, this can't be. This just can't be true.
P. ZAHN: The politician, Tommy Thompson.
TOMMY THOMPSON, FORMER HEALTH AND HUMAN SERVICES SECRETARY: Now I'm secretary of Health and Human Services, the head of all of the doctors and medical care, and I can't do anything about it.
P. ZAHN: The acclaimed actress Lynn Redgrave.
LYNN REDGRAVE, ACTRESS: I thought I was living very fully before this happened. But, in comparison, no, I really wasn't.
P. ZAHN: And my mother, Betty Zahn.
A PAULA ZAHN NOW special: "Breast Cancer: Survivor Stories."
P. ZAHN: And there is some important news about breast cancer tonight. The prestigious "Journal of the American Medical Association" now reports a link between two defective genes and a form of breast cancer.
It's a critical finding, raising hope that early screening can save even more lives. My great hope is that the stories you're about to see will inspire you to overcome your doubts and fears and take the first step towards early detection.
That's exactly what happened to the great singer and songwriter Carly Simon.
P. ZAHN (voice-over): Carly Simon always tells it like it is, for more than three decades, deeply touching every emotion. Provocative words and transcendent melodies are Carly's signature ways of dealing with the highs and lows that life throws at us all.
SIMON: Music has definitely been my way through the dark periods. It's been my way through the darkest of my dark nights and the dark night of my soul.
P. ZAHN: Carly has had her share of dark periods, periods reflected in song after song after song.
SIMON: There are days that I'm so depressed and something can get to me. And that will bring me down so far. And I still don't understand how I can let myself sink so deep. But, invariably, what helps me come out of it is music.
P. ZAHN: Carly faced perhaps one of her toughest challenges in the mid-'90s, when she found a small lump in her breast. But with no history of breast cancer in her family, she waited to get it tested.
But that all changed October 17, 1997.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP, "THE ROSIE O'DONNELL SHOW")
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALES (singing): It's "The Rosie O'Donnell Show."
(END VIDEO CLIP)
P. ZAHN: Carly appeared on "The Rosie O'Donnell Show," which focused on breast cancer awareness. And that motivated her to finally go for a mammogram. Malignant was the last thing Carly expected to hear.
SIMON: When I was first diagnosed, it was -- I heard about it over the phone and I went into swift denial. And I put my head down on the table, still with the phone in my hand, saying, this can't be. This just can't be true. It's impossible.
P. ZAHN (on camera): What got you through that?
SIMON: I would say what got me through that period was my own little chaps, my own little chaps who mobilized inside my body and brain and came together in conjunction with my wonderful oncologist and surgeon and my sisters and my family.
And, together, we were like little marching soldiers saying, you know, we are going to find a way through this.
P. ZAHN (voice-over): She had an operation to remove the lump and eight months of chemotherapy to kill any stray cancer cells.
(on camera): Were you afraid of dying?
SIMON: Yes, but no more so than I usually am.
SIMON: I mean, I'm really of the kind of person who's just as filled with fears as I am with joys.
P. ZAHN: When you talk to survivors of cancer, they often tell you that, during those dark days, they could never imagine anything positive coming out of the diagnosis, but, at the end of the road, if they survive, there's a sense of eternal strength they have, and almost a sense of a fierce fighter in them that they didn't know they had. Did that happen to you?
SIMON: The good got gooder and the bad got badder.
And when I say the bad, I mean some of my fears, not the ones that I thought would get badder, but some of my, like, darkest moments got darker, but some of my brightest moments and my brightest positive thoughts got higher, so that the graph just changed. And there's a wider curve now.
And my oncologist told me that he sees two different kinds of patients. And there's one kind of patients that he knows he can help better than another kind. And that patient knows that they have that mobilized force behind them, because it shows up in your face. It shows up in your eyes.
P. ZAHN: Sure.
SIMON: It shows up in your determination.
You say to the doctor, heal me, instead of, am I going to be healed? It's like a difference in attitude. It's like, heal me. I am going to get well, because I am going to do much more in this life.
P. ZAHN (voice-over): Not surprisingly, a compelling and emotional album was born out of Carly's battle with breast cancer. In fact, the cancer, she says, stirred her creative juices, helping her overcome writer's block.
SIMON (singing): It's after the knives and the sutures and needles, I'm left with an arrow that points at my heart.
P. ZAHN: "The Bedroom Tapes" is extremely personal and intimate. Carly recorded it at home in Martha's Vineyard and played almost all the instruments you hear.
SIMON (singing): And the night is cold as the coldest nights are.
P. ZAHN: She says making the album was incredibly therapeutic, helping her to heal physical and emotional scars, scars she now looks on as badges of honor.
SIMON (singing): And follow, follow your scar.
(on camera): How's your health now?
SIMON: I think it's good.
P. ZAHN: Good.
SIMON: I still knock on wood, because I don't have that amount of security. We always need wood around.
P. ZAHN: Sure.
SIMON: But I feel -- I feel wonderful. I'm not -- you know, I'm going regularly to the dentist. I'm not flossing all the time. I'm not -- but the things that I'm most -- I'm most prone to worrying about, I do take care of.
P. ZAHN (voice-over): In the years since her battle with breast cancer began, Carly Simon continues to be one of the greatest singer/songwriters of our time.
SIMON (singing): Dear mother, the struggle is over now and your house is up for sale.
P. ZAHN: Producing several albums, including a compilation of her greatest hits, appropriately called "Reflections."
(on camera): What do you hope your musical legacy will be?
SIMON: That it will move people. I hope that people will be subtly changed by what I've said or written or composed, for the good.
P. ZAHN: You really want to touch people.
SIMON: I really do.
P. ZAHN: That's important to you?
SIMON: I really need to touch people. I don't want to be alone here in this universe.
(singing): But I will wait for you forever, like a river.
P. ZAHN: As you could see, Carly Simon put a big emphasis on her positive attitude. And a growing body of medical evidence backs that up. An optimistic, positive outlook can help with everything from fighting cancer to battling heart disease and even healing wounds.
While breast cancer is largely a woman's disease, women have husbands, fathers and sons. And that makes it a man's problem, too.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) THOMPSON: It's a real gut reaction, you know, of fear and anger.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
P. ZAHN: That from a man who was the country's top health official. Coming up next, Tommy Thompson confronts his own family's battle with breast cancer.
P. ZAHN: Tommy Thompson was secretary of health and human services. Before that, he was a governor. But he's just like so many of you men watching now. He's a husband, a father and, like you, just as vulnerable when the women in his life were diagnosed with breast cancer.
THOMPSON: You immediately start crying because it's a very emotional time when you have your first meeting with your wife and the doctor that she has breast cancer.
P. ZAHN (voice-over): When Tommy Thompson first learned his wife, Sue Ann, had breast cancer, he knew how deadly her diagnosis could be. His mother-in-law died only six months after she was diagnosed in 1982.
THOMPSON: Then, immediately, you think, well, her mother died of cancer. Does this mean I only have six more months and eight months? Or is it -- is she going to survive? It's a real gut reaction, you know, of fear and anger that takes over your emotions at that point in time.
P. ZAHN (on camera): Did you ever let Sue Ann know how scared you were?
THOMPSON: Oh, sure.
P. ZAHN: You did.
THOMPSON: She could tell.
P. ZAHN: It's hard to hold that back. But don't you think to be honest...
THOMPSON: Well, I'm Irish and I'm very emotional, as you can tell. And you talk about these things. They are very personal to me. And I get very teary-eyed.
P. ZAHN (voice-over): Sue Ann Thompson was diagnosed with breast cancer after a routine mammogram in 1994. Tommy Thompson was then governor of Wisconsin.
THOMPSON: And you know so little and you want to do so much. And you feel just like you're paralyzed, that you can't reach out and say, you know, stop this. I'm the governor of the state of Wisconsin. You should not be able to do this. But you can't. You're almost helpless. And that was a very difficult thing for me.
P. ZAHN (on camera): Your reaction was fairly typical to other men I have spoken with who have had wives diagnosed with cancer.
It was a bit of selfish reaction first. Then they go through the stage where they said they get angry and then they do everything in their power to make sure their wife lives. Is that sort of the arc you went through?
THOMPSON: There's no question about it. It is a very difficult and trying time, because your wife needs so much support. And then you, of course, want to support her.
But you are also wondering, what about all these other things that she's been doing and how are you going to be able to fill the void and take care of it? So, it has somewhat of a selfish motive at first, but then it turns into something which brings, I believe, in most cases, the family closer together and a better family unit.
P. ZAHN (voice-over): It was an experience that prompted Sue Ann Thompson to create the Wisconsin Women's Health Foundation in 1997, a place for women who need support and information about their own health.
It became a family mission when the Thompson's youngest daughter, Tommi, started working there in 1999. But little did the Thompsons realize that, just five years later, Tommi would face her own health care crisis. At just 33 years old, she also was diagnosed with breast cancer.
Tommy Thompson, the father and seasoned politician, was rocked to his core.
THOMPSON: You always believe, you know, your children are going to be healthy and are going to be able to carry on.
And why should a child, you know, that's early 30s come down with breast cancer? First, I was governor when my wife came down. And now I'm secretary of health and human services, the head of all of the doctors and medical care, and I can't do anything about it. Why am I failing my daughter in this regard? Why haven't we been able to find a cure?
It was one of not madness or being angry. It was just being upset and frustrated that we haven't been able to come for -- come full circle to find a cure for breast cancer.
P. ZAHN (on camera): Did you ever share your anger with your daughter Tommi?
THOMPSON: Well, not really, because, you know, your wife was there. And you thought, sure, you've won it all. You've been able to defeat this disease, and she's been now cancer-free for 11 years, and then get hit almost in the stomach by the knowledge that your daughter is coming down with breast cancer. It was very difficult.
P. ZAHN: Were you afraid of losing your daughter?
THOMPSON: Oh, yes.
P. ZAHN (voice-over): Perhaps the most difficult thing for Tommy Thompson, the father, was helping his daughter deal with having her breast removed.
THOMPSON: You're the father and you've raised this wonderful child. And now she's going to go through this surgery and she's going to lose her breast.
And it's very traumatic for her, because she was a single girl at the time. Subsequently, she got married. So, she was going through all kinds of pangs of anguish and depression. And all you can do is reassure her that she's going to be just as beautiful as ever.
P. ZAHN (on camera): It was really hard for you, wasn't it?
THOMPSON: Yes, it is, very hard.
P. ZAHN: But there has to be a certain degree of honesty in that conversation, too, right?
P. ZAHN: And an acknowledgement that, physically, you are changed?
P. ZAHN (voice-over): Ultimately, Thompson's daughter decided to have the mastectomy. That was followed by three months of chemotherapy. Today, she is one year cancer-free and works with her mother to educate women about taking responsibility for their own health, a lesson she learned the hard way.
THOMPSON: She asked, when she went through her annual physical, to have a mammogram.
P. ZAHN (on camera): And she was young.
THOMPSON: And she was young. And the doctor says, no, she didn't need it. And she said, well, I have got it in my family and I would like to have it. And they talked her out of it. And when she went in for her physical, said the insurance wouldn't pay for it, and she was too young and she didn't need to worry about it.
And then -- so, about a couple weeks later, I believe, or a month later, she was examining herself and she found a lump in her breast. And she was quite concerned about it, but she said, well, that's impossible. The doctors examined me and said there was nothing there a month ago or two weeks ago. And so, she went in to work and she was thinking to herself that her job is to tell women when they find the lump to go get it examined. And she says, here I am ignoring my own advice to people around Wisconsin. So, she says, she made an appointment. And the doctor examined her again. And they took some tests. And they says, nothing is wrong. You're not -- you don't have cancer. And so, she was relieved. But they said, just to be on the safe side, we'll take a biopsy. But we're absolutely certain you don't have breast cancer.
P. ZAHN: Oh.
THOMPSON: And they -- and so, they took the biopsy. And, you know, Sue Ann and Tommi and I went out and celebrated, you know, after the examination that she was not going to have cancer or didn't have cancer. Then the biopsy came back and said it was positive. So, it was unreal. But...
P. ZAHN: So, if she had not pushed herself...
THOMPSON: If she had not pushed herself...
P. ZAHN: She might not be alive today.
THOMPSON: That is true.
P. ZAHN: Her cancer was that aggressive?
THOMPSON: It was very aggressive.
P. ZAHN (voice-over): But it was caught in time.
Thompson's personal experience motivated the then secretary of health and human services to change the national guidelines for mammogram screening. As a result, women are now encouraged to go for their first mammogram when they turn 40, not 50. And despite having stepped down as the secretary almost three months ago, Thompson is still an outspoken advocate for the cause, especially the role men must play in fighting the disease.
In his own way, he's a survivor, a survivor of horrible experiences that he says have made him a better man, a better husband, a better father.
THOMPSON: You have to focus on the person that has the cancer and reassure them. And by reassuring them, or that person, you strengthen yourself and you strengthen the whole family. So, you just got to put aside all your inner thoughts and concerns, your anger and your fears, and really resolve yourself to doing everything you can for the wife, the daughter, the husband or the son.
P. ZAHN (on camera): Well, I personally want to thank you for raising the awareness, the importance of self-detection and for opening your heart up to us today.
THOMPSON: I'm sorry I got teary-eyed Paula.
P. ZAHN: Well, you made me get there, too.
P. ZAHN: Any of us who have been through it.
THOMPSON: I want to thank you, because this is so important. And if I could just leave one bit of advice, that, until we find a cure, get your mammograms, get your tests, and take care of your body.
P. ZAHN: Tommy Thompson's plea for women to get mammograms and regular tests can't be stressed enough.
One new study says, if women began annual mammogram screenings at the age of 40, instead of waiting until they're 50, breast cancer deaths could be cut by 34 percent.
His other concern, about how important it is for men to support their loved ones. Here's a resource you might consider, a group called Men Against Breast Cancer. In 2003, the Centers for Disease Control and prevention gave that group $1 million to start programs for husbands of newly diagnosed women. It's on the Web, MenAgainstBreastCancer.org.
You'll also find information and a number of useful links about breast cancer at our Web site, CNN.com/Paula.
Coming up next, the question we all want answered: When will there be a cure? Some of the answers will astonish you.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
DR. LARRY NORTON, MEMORIAL SLOAN-KETTERING CANCER CENTER: We now can foresee the day when breast cancer may go away as a serious public health problem.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
P. ZAHN: A special conference on breast cancer opened today in Miami, bringing together experts from all over the world to share their latest findings on detection, diagnosis and treatment.
Elizabeth Cohen introduces us to researchers whose quests are professional and personal.
VICTORIA SEEWALDT, BREAST WELLNESS CLINIC: I always wanted to help people. And so I would run around with my bunny rabbits and put little Band-Aids on them. That's what I was about. And that's what I dreamed about.
ELIZABETH COHEN, CNN MEDICAL CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): As Victoria Seewaldt grew up, the dream of helping others remained. A traumatic loss brought it into focus. SEEWALDT: One of my best friends, his mother developed breast cancer. And back in the '70s, nobody said the word breast and certainly nobody said cancer. And nobody said those words together.
COHEN: This was before the pink ribbons, before the 5K runs. The young medical student was entering fairly new scientific territory.
(on camera): When you decided to specialize in breast cancer, what was the reaction of your colleagues?
SEEWALDT: One of my professors later on said, why do you want to study this? You have a brain. Why don't you use it? But I was like, here is this cancer that is so common that affects so many women, but yet, somehow, scientifically, it wasn't considered to be important.
COHEN (voice-over): That once largely ignored specialty has become breakthrough science. There have been great strides in detection. Three-dimensional MRIs are now used with mammograms to detect cancers at their most microscopic.
New classes of drugs called aromatase inhibitors show promise in fighting recurrent cancers and can even help prevent breast cancer in high-risk patients. Also, genetic profiles can help determine which types of tumors may respond to chemotherapy.
NORTON: This one here isn't something you worry about.
COHEN: Dr. Larry Norton is one of the nation's most renowned breast cancer specialists.
NORTON: Our understanding of the biology of cancer is what is really going to make a difference in the long run, not only in terms of developing better diagnostic tools, but also better means of risk assessment, who is susceptible to cancer, and prevention.
They drew (ph) that up and to get the (UNINTELLIGIBLE). See the calcium?
DR. VICTORIA SEEWALDT, BREAST WELLNESS CLINIC, DUKE UNIV.: Yes.
NORTON: We now can foresee the day when breast cancer may go away as a serious public health problem.
COHEN: These are heart stopping words. For Dr. Norton, it's the memory of those patients who lost their battle that inspires his work today.
NORTON: I think I owe them something. I've got to make sure that people I've taken care of in the past, that I've not been able to cure, that their children and children's children never have to worry about this disease.
SEEWALDT: Let's go see what we've got.
COHEN: Today, 30 years after her journey began, Dr. Victoria Seewaldt also is in the forefront of breast cancer research.
NORTON: They begin by what is an E.R. positive breast cancer and E.R....
COHEN: She's respected by her colleagues and loved by her patients.
SEEWALDT: I know the women. I know their daughters. Many times I know their mothers and sisters, and so it gives my work a lot more meaning. You see that the nucleus is really nice and round.
COHEN: Dr. Seewaldt's involved in a clinical trial to develop a new test to identify genes inside breast tissue, genes that could help predict whether a woman will develop cancer. She uses thin needles to extract the tissue.
(on camera): I see a lot of needles. How uncomfortable is this test?
(voice-over): She needed a human guinea pig and she chose herself.
SEEWALDT: We need a bit of practice.
COHEN: And how did it feel?
SEEWALDT: I really didn't feel very much of anything.
COHEN (on camera): And did you find anything?
SEEWALDT: Well, so, we found out that I didn't have normal cells. And you know, that really -- I always -- I think you never really truly understand somebody until you walk in their shoes.
COHEN (voice-over): Her own tests showed Dr. Seewaldt has a about three times normal than higher chance of getting breast cancer. The Doctor faced the same choice she presents to patients everyday, either to take preventative drugs that may have unpleasant side effects or to carefully keep testing herself to make sure nothing changes. She opted against the drugs for now, but this personal journey has compelled her to working even more quickly.
SEEWALDT: I was motivated before, but I'm really motivated now to look for something we can try.
COHEN: For Dr. Seewaldt, the work has never been more meaningful, for the women she sees today, for their families, her own 8-year-old daughter, Erin (ph). Research is something you do for your daughter. It really allows us to dream and allows us to say, what would I like for my child? What are my hopes. And so, one of the hopes that we have is that our daughters will not grow up in a world of breast cancer.
P. ZAHN: Boy, do I hope that comes true. Genetic testing is, of course, the new front tier in breast cancer research. But the most common test to detect the disease still isn't being used to its full advantage. Some new research out just this week shows, that if every woman between the ages of 50 and 79 got a mammogram every year, it would reduce breast cancer deaths by 37 percent. But until we get even more dramatic improvements, and prevention, and treatment women will continue to face the challenge of fighting for their lives.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
LYNN REDGRAVE, ACTRESS: I got in the shower and my hair really began pouring out. I cried and cried and cried.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
P. ZAHN: Next, an intimate diary. The lows and highs of the great actress Lynn Redgrave's successful battle.
P. ZAHN: Christmas 2002, Lynn Redgrave was on top of the world. She had just finished a movie, a starring role in "Peter Pan," and was about to start a play off Broadway. That's when she found a lump in her breast. What happened next is now part of a book, her diary. Lynn Redgrave reads from it now.
REDGRAVE: Wednesday, 15th of January, 2003, 10:55 p.m. before bed the night before, goodbye to part of me. It's done its job, it's been a good nurturer of my children. It's looking swollen now and a bit of funny shape. Time to say goodbye.
P. ZAHN (voice-over): Lynn Redgrave is saying good-bye to her breast. The 59-year-old actress was diagnosed just weeks earlier with breast cancer. She and her daughter Annabel, an aspiring photographer, came up with an idea for dealing with the physical and emotional roller coaster they would be on. They decided to document everything on film.
REDGRAVE: Thought I would like Annabel to document it, because I thought it would help her look at me.
ANNABEL CLARK, DAUGHTER OF LYNN REDGRAVE: Sort of took the focus away from her being ill, and turned it into this thing that we were sharing and going through together.
P. ZAHN: The pictures are jarringly intimate and at times, disturbing. They reveal every step of Redgrave's journey, from the diagnosis, to treatment, to recovery.
P. ZAHN (on camera): Was there ever a point where you thought, this is just too intimate. This is just push doing far?
CLARK: Every picture I took, there were some that I thought, I'll just take it, and ask her about it later. You know, she said before I started taking pictures, there's nothing off limits, so just I shot as much as I could. And there were a few times, when I thought -- there's one picture of her having -- after the drains have been taken out and she's crying in the hospital. And at that moment, I thought, do I take the picture or do I run over and give her a hug? And in that split second, I did both.
P. ZAHN: What started out as a private project turned into a book called "Journal: A Mother and Daughter's Recovery From Breast Cancer." The book also includes Lynn Redgrave's personal diary, a chronicle of the highs and lows that every breast cancer patient faces. And some days, those lows were very low.
REDGRAVE: Saturday the 8th of March be 2003, I'm 60. After that upbeat entry yesterday, I got in the shower and my hair really began pouring out. I cried, and cried and cried. The feel of it dead in my hands, the bare ridges on my scalp. That was the thing, I said to Annabel, why is this so hard? Why am I so upset about it. It's just hair and it will be back.
She said, "Because you don't feel like yourself." True.
P. ZAHN: But other days were better.
REDGRAVE: Tuesday the 18th of February 2003, woke, 5:15-ish, feeling terrific. That slight heady feeling gone, excited about starting work, having a schedule.
I'm feeling very positive this morning: tea, candles and Nigel Kennedy playing. I feel that my treatment will work. I have faith. I am so lucky to know what all this side of life is.
P. ZAHN (on camera): The other amazing thing about your journey is how hard you pushed yourself. After the surgery, you had committed to doing a play. Even during chemotherapy, you did not miss one performance.
REDGRAVE: No, I didn't. There were days I would wake up from my big nap, you know, take a massive nap in the afternoon and wake up feeling very drugged. And if I hadn't had a show to go to, I would have just got back into bed. It took an alarm to wake me up.
And just -- I loved the theater. I -- all of us who are actors in the theater look on it as doctor theater, you know. You get down there. You're with your colleagues. The energy starts to come back.
And by the time you've got your makeup and your hair, your wig on and your costume, you walk out there. And for a period of time, you no longer have cancer.
P. ZAHN: It doesn't have to be a death sentence. There were so many taboos, as recently as 15, 20 years ago, this was something you never talked about.
REDGRAVE: And I think, too, the thing that I've learned and that I hope other people might feel, is that it isn't anymore to me how long I live but how I live that's the really important thing. And so, if my time should be shorter than I had once envisioned it, if I live every second to the full, full tilt, both the relaxing times and the hard working times, then I haven't wasted my time here.
P. ZAHN: We can all learn powerful lessons from Lynn. She is still cancer-free and still working. She had a part in last year's movie, "Kinsey."
Over and over in this hour we have seen the common bond, the common journey of mothers and daughters. Yes, it gets personal. Coming up, my own family story. Important lessons for all of us from my mother's battle with breast cancer.
P. ZAHN: My family is what you might call a cancer cluster. We know firsthand the ripple effect of cancer on a spouse, children, relatives and friends. We also know about strength and faith, thanks to my mother.
P. ZAHN (voice-over): The thing you must understand about cancer is that it sneaks up on you when you least expect it and knocks the wind out of you. It was 1984, and I had just settled into a new job in a new city.
(on camera) But at least 400 people have been arrested here tonight.
(voice-over) I was not prepared for what I was about to hear. Then again, whoever is?
(on camera) It's so hard to remember the horror of your calling me. If I had to be honest about it, my first reaction was you got to be kidding. How can this be? You know, we had just dealt with Dad being diagnosed about a month earlier, and now we found out you were sick. And I was mad.
BETTY ZAHN, CANCER SURVIVOR: You probably had a more natural reaction, because my thoughts were, I can hardly wait to get my surgery over with, so that I can feel up to going back home with Dad, which would mean a lot to him.
P. ZAHN (voice-over): My father, Norm, was diagnosed with lymphoma just several months before. It was my family's first head-on collision with cancer. And it was devastating.
We're a very tight-knit family. My brothers Mark and Steve, my sister, Leslie. Even in adulthood, our parents were our foundation. So when my mother, Betty, was diagnosed with breast cancer, it was almost too much to bear.
(on camera) What is amazing to me, when I look back on those very dark days, I don't ever remember your telling me that you were afraid of dying.
B. ZAHN: I think I was, in a way, sparing all of you, but I just didn't -- I didn't go there.
P. ZAHN (voice-over): My mother and my family relied, as we always had, on our faith.
B. ZAHN: Things that I used to question all of a sudden didn't seem to be important. My faith -- my faith sustained me.
P. ZAHN: My mom had to face the very personal, very daunting decision that tens of thousands of women with breast cancer make every year.
What was the best way to treat her cancer? Should she have a lumpectomy, where the malignant growth is removed without losing the entire breast? This surgery, followed by chemotherapy or radiation? Or a mastectomy where the entire breast is removed and the patient usually does not require chemotherapy or radiation?
(on camera) And I think that the hardest thing for anybody to understand when they're first diagnosed is this journey you go on. There's nothing black or white about cancer care in America today.
B. ZAHN: That's right. What made me come to my conclusion was that I didn't want to feel that I was concerned about the growth of the lump, because when they get it, they never know if they have it completely.
P. ZAHN (voice-over): Well, today, that's scientifically unfounded. It was a concern that women in the '80s had, since lumpectomies were then relatively new procedures. And there's another emotional issue women have to address.
(on camera) Was the issue of disfigurement something you even thought about much?
B. ZAHN: No. No. No. Because the pain was getting bad. And so I had to -- I had to do something right away.
P. ZAHN: Most of the women I've talked to, who have had mastectomies, their chief issue is making sure they can live, but then after that, they said they began to think about what it really meant to lose a part of your body that defines women.
B. ZAHN: And it's harder, I think, for some of us than others. I didn't grieve for it. I was just happy to be alive and have my family around me.
P. ZAHN (voice-over): But no one was prepared for what would come next. Soon after my father and mother's diagnosis, my sister-in- law, Sherrie, learned that she had breast cancer. Then, unbelievably, my Aunt Ann was diagnosed with cancer in her blood. Four active cases of cancer in one family at one time.
(on camera) I remember feeling numb, absolutely numb. Most of the time.
B. ZAHN: I think most of us, when we're faced with multi- situations, you just -- you just go do what you need to do.
P. ZAHN (voice-over): First, came her mastectomy. Then, recovery. Through it all, my mother and my family watched as my father, my aunt and my sister-in-law tragically lost their battles with cancer.
My mother won hers. And her survival was our only source of strength.
(on camera) I'll never forgot five years after your mastectomy, when we're sitting in the surgeon's office together. By now you're a widow. She took out your medical file, by now, which was about two feet thick and took out a stamp and stamped the five most precious letters I've ever seen, "cured," c-u-r-e-d. You hit that very important marker.
Do you remember what we were feeling that day?
B. ZAHN: It was terrific. And yet I was frightened.
P. ZAHN (voice-over): My mother knew her enemy. In some cases, up to 40 percent of breast cancer patients have a recurrence. My mother knew her body well enough not to trust the tests and exams that said there was no cancer.
(on camera) What was your body telling you was going on?
B. ZAHN: I was just having sensations.
P. ZAHN: Of pain?
B. ZAHN: Of pain. And nothing was showing. At that point.
P. ZAHN: And I think that's the one thing I hear women telling me all the time. You have to trust what your body's telling you.
B. ZAHN: Yes.
P. ZAHN: Did you ever feel like you had to explain that to your doctors?
B. ZAHN: I just simply said, "I have strange sensations through here. Sometimes, it's with pain and sometimes it's just pressure." And that's when he really reacted. And so they did a mammogram sooner than they should have. This one did show. It was -- there were -- it was very clear.
P. ZAHN: In the other breast? Then, what was your reaction?
B. ZAHN: Not much. It was like, I can't believe this.
P. ZAHN: Every day is a gift.
B. ZAHN: That is my motto. Everyday is a gift.
P. ZAHN (voice-over): Again, my mother didn't hesitate. She immediately had surgery to remove her remaining breast. But this time, she developed a terrible infection and really struggled to recover.
Fortunately, she had more support this time around. In the five years since her first diagnosis, it was a whole new world of support for cancer patients.
(on camera) Do you think the stigma of having cancer has changed much since you were diagnosed, even the first time?
B. ZAHN: Absolutely. I never admitted it. It just wasn't talked about. But the second time, which was in '91, I just didn't care. I told everybody.
P. ZAHN (voice-over): And it helped. Today, more than 20 years since her first surgery, she is a survivor.
(on camera) You have four kids, who you're very close to, and you have six grandchildren you chase all over the country. Your life is full.
B. ZAHN: Indeed. I am blessed, very blessed.
P. ZAHN: So many of the women I've spoken to, who have breast cancer say that what gave them hope was seeing people like you out there, survivors, living very full, very busy lives. Was that important to you?
B. ZAHN: Yes. It was very important to me that I just go on living, rather than having a frightening undertone to every move I make. I just plan as if it's all systems go.
P. ZAHN: My mother is convinced that her insistence on getting two mammograms saved her life. And I can't emphasize enough the importance of self-examinations and regular consultations with your doctor.
You can find mammography guidelines and much more information on our web site, CNN.com/Paula. We'll be right back.
P. ZAHN: One in seven women will be diagnosed with breast cancer at some point in their lives. I hope the stories you've seen in this hour will inspire you to get checked regularly. It is your life, and it is truly in your hands.
I'd like to thank you so much for joining us tonight. "LARRY KING LIVE" is next. Good night.
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