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Fear And Vulnerability Are Keeping Breast Cancer Patients From Asking Tough Questions

Health

Women who receive a breast cancer diagnosis often shut down. When I was diagnosed with breast cancer, I did just the opposite. I told everybody I knew, and invited them to share the news. This is how I found my way to individuals and organizations that empowered me to make informed decisions, including patient advocates, integrative oncologists, and global communities including BreastCancer.org. I also have an academic background that helped me research the literature, so it was easy to access the wealth of information in books, scientific journals, and online.


More than 40,000 women in the U.S. die every year from breast cancer, and many more suffer with debilitating side effects. I myself live with the aftermath of a breast cancer surgery that my surgeon now agrees I may not have needed. Some of my decisions would have been different if I had known then what I know now. When you have cancer, you are afraid, and it's easy to cave to authority. I unfortunately did. The surgeons were simply following the standard of care at the time. I call this the “one-size-fits-all-approach."

My message to you: we all need to question authority when it comes to cancer treatment. Think about how thoroughly you research any major purchase—a car, a home. Cancer treatment is a big-ticket item involving choices that determine whether you live or die.

Why do we stop asking questions?

When you first receive a breast cancer diagnosis, you may ask “Why?", then “Why me?" And very quickly, many who are diagnosed become compliant, passive, and silent.

We stop talking because of fear. Of course, we fear our own death, and we fear pain and suffering. And, some may be afraid that their illness may be too big a burden for friends, family and work associates to bear.

A history of male authority in medicine contributes to our silence, too. As women with an intimately feminine form of cancer, we may literally feel embarrassed, ashamed or afraid to ask, and definitely afraid to disagree. When we begin to ask and explore, we find out that treatment options are complex.

Much of the most cutting-edge information is not presented by mainstream medicine.

You can find this information yourself, and you can also work with a patient advocate if you need help.

When you're confronted with a breast cancer diagnosis, become informed so that you can interact responsibly with your medical team and ask the right questions:

  • What are all of the treatment options, including alternatives to the standard of care?
  • What is the statistical outcome for survival for each option?
  • What are short-term and long-term risks, and side effects?
  • How can I minimize side effects?
  • What can I do to improve my chances of a good outcome?
  • What would you do if you were in my situation?
  • What stage is my cancer?
  • How large is my tumor?
  • What grade is my tumor?
  • How quickly is my cancer growing?
  • Is my cancer invasive?
  • Has my cancer metastasized?
  • Am I a candidate for other diagnostic tests such as Oncotype Dx?
  • What is my hormone receptor status?
  • What is my HER2 status?

You can find more questions at My Breast Cancer Coach, and if you have a smartphone, download the My Cancer Coach App, which also features a list of questions for your doctor.

Ask the tough financial questions

Be sure that your doctor and your hospital will be covered by your insurance. If any part is not covered, have a financial agreement in writing prepared beforehand. Get help from a patient advocate in doing this if necessary.

Prevention is underrated, and poorly understood.

According to the American Cancer Society, about 85% of those diagnosed with breast cancer have no family history. This means that lifestyle and environment play a greater role than heredity, which is good news because it means that many of the factors that cause cancer are in our control and largely preventable.

I am convinced that our constant exposure to man-made carcinogens in the environment is a big factor in cancer incidence. Because these substances are produced by huge corporations and allied with many governments, getting them out of our environment is a lifelong mission that requires long-term legislation.

On a personal level, my experience is that removing carcinogens from your own individual “terrain" will support your health, whether you want to lower your risk of initial cancer, or lower your risk of remission. An integrative oncologist may be of help to you here. My integrative oncologist gives me regular blood and saliva tests to measure the factors that help cancer grow, and we correct whatever is off through a combination of nutrition, supplements, exercise, stress reduction, and avoidance of environmental carcinogens.

Ask, question, research, and ask again

Remember that your surgeon and other doctors involved with your treatment cannot make the best decisions for you—you must do that for yourself. Question your MD's medical directives, and get second, third and fourth opinions. Own that power, and find the help you need to make your most conscious, deliberate choices.

There are many resources available. You can get medical information from the National Cancer Institute (cancer.gov) and The American Cancer Society (cancer.org). You can get support from other patients at Cancer Support Community (https://www.cancersupportcommunity.org/), and BreastCancer.org, where I found community as well as information. For example, through the remarkable global network of women living with breast cancer, treatment and side effects, I learned how to keep my hair – for which I am forever grateful!

When I was diagnosed with breast cancer, all five of the surgeons I consulted agreed that I needed the procedure.

"The story would be different today, and it can be different for you. And I am grateful that I am now empowered to bring my message as an author and public speaker to everyone whose life is changed by breast cancer."
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Fresh Voices

How I Went From Shy Immigrant to Co-Founder of OPI, the World's #1 Nail Brand

In many ways I am a shining example of the American Dream. I was born in Hungary during the Communist era, and my family fled to Israel before coming to the U.S. in pursuit of freedom and safety. When we arrived, I was just a young, shy girl who couldn't speak English. After my childhood in Hungary, New York City was a marvel; I couldn't believe that such a lively, rich place existed. Even a simple thing like going to the market and seeing all the bright, colorful produce and having so many choices was new to me. I'll never take that for granted. I think it's where my love affair with color truly began.


One thing I had was a strong work ethic. I worked hard in school, to learn English, and at jobs including my first job at Dairy Queen -- which I loved! Ice cream is easily my favorite food. From there, I moved into the garment district where my brother-in-law's family had a business. During this time, I was able to see how a business was run and began to hone in on my eye for aesthetics and willingness to work hard at any task I was given.

Eventually, my brother-in-law bought a dental supply company in Los Angeles and asked me to join him. LA, a place with 365-days of sunshine. How could I say no? The company started as Odontorium Products Inc. During the acrylic movement of the 1980s, we realized that nail technicians were buying our product, and that the same components used for dentures were used for artificial nails. We saw a potential opening in the market, and we seized it. OPI began dropping off the "rubber band special" at every salon on Ventura Blvd. in Los Angeles. A jar of powder, liquid and primer – rubber-banded together – became the OPI Traditional Acrylic System and was a huge hit, giving OPI its start in the professional nail industry. It was 1981 when OPI first opened its doors. I couldn't have predicted our success, but I knew that hard work and faith in myself would be key in transforming a new business into a company with global reach.

When we started OPI, what we were doing was something new. Before OPI came on the scene, the generic, utilitarian nail polish names already on the market – like Red No. 4, Pink No. 2 – were completely forgettable. We rebranded the category with catchy names that we knew women could relate to and would remember. The industry was stale and boring, so we made it more fun and sexy. We started creating color collections. I carefully developed 30 groundbreaking colors for the debut collection -- many of which are still beloved bestsellers today, including Malaga Wine, Alpine Snow and Kyoto Pearl.

There is no other nail color brand in the world that touches the totality of industries the way OPI does.

With deep roots in Tinseltown, we eventually started collaborating with Hollywood. Our decision to collaborate with the entertainment industry also propelled OPI forward in another way, ultimately leading us to finding a way to connect with women beyond the world of beauty, relating our products to the beverages they drink, the cars they drive, the movies they watch, the clothes they wear – even the shade they use to paint their living room walls! There is no other nail color brand in the world that touches the totality of industries the way OPI does. It also propelled my growth as a businessperson forward. I found myself sitting in meetings with executives from some of the top companies in the world. I didn't have a fancy presentation. I didn't have a Harvard business degree. I realized that what I had was passion. I had a passion for what we were doing, and I had my own unique story that no one else could replicate.

Discipline, hard work, and passion gave me the confidence to grow from that shy immigrant girl to become the person that I am today

Bit by bit, I grew up with the business. Discipline, hard work, and passion gave me the confidence to grow from that shy immigrant girl to become the person that I am today -- an author, public speaker, and co-founder of OPI, the world's #1 professional nail brand.

I learned quickly that one can be an expert at many things, but not everything. Running a business is very hard work. Luckily, I had someone I could collaborate with who brought something new to the table and complemented my talents, my brother-in-law George Schaeffer. My business "superpower," or the ability to make decisions quickly and confidently, kept me ahead of trends and competition.

Another key to my success in building this brand and in growing in business was being authentic. Authenticity is so important to brands and maybe even more so now in the time of social media when you can speak directly to your consumers. I realized even then that I could only be me. I was a woman who knew what I wanted. I looked at my mother and daughter and wanted to create products that would excite and empower them.

There's often an expectation placed on women in charge that they need to be cutthroat to be competitive, but that's not true. Rather than focusing on my gender or any implied limitations I might bring to the job as a female and a mother, I always focused instead on my vision. I deliberately fostered an environment at OPI filled with warmth. After all, at the end of the day, your organization is only as good as its people. I've always found that being nice, being humble, and listening to others has served me well. Instead of pushing others down to get to the top, inspire them and bring them along on the journey.

You can read more about my personal and professional journey in my new memoir out now, I'm Not Really a Waitress: How One Woman Took Over the Beauty Industry One Color at a Time.