We spoke with three breast cancer survivors about their experiences: Tig Notaro, whose surprising cancer diagnosis came amidst a slew of devastating life events; Sonia Kashuk, who was already taking preventative measures when her doctor found her lump; and Nicole Dove, who, despite her long family history of breast cancer, wasn't equipped with the knowledge to take immediate action.
The interviews that follow tell unique stories of struggle, pain, loss, and ultimately, triumph. Each woman's story is completely different in narrative, and yet the message repeats — knowledge has the power to save lives. The more that women know about breast cancer, from prevention to treatment, the safer future generations will be from this disease. And, that's the main reason these women were so willing to share their stories with us. Not for themselves, but for the other women who might be putting themselves at risk simply because of a lack of awareness.
Read on to learn their stories.
Tig Notaro is a comedian. She was 41 when she was diagnosed with breast cancer, which followed a four-month period during which her mother passed away, she battled pneumonia as well as a bacterial infection in her digestive tract, and she went through a breakup. The standup routine she did several days after receiving her breast cancer diagnosis, which famously begins with Notaro saying, "Good evening! Hello. I have cancer! How are you?" went viral.
You spoke very publicly about your diagnosis soon after receiving it. How you were able to access the humor of the situation so quickly?
"I think it was a part of my coping process. Before I was diagnosed with cancer, I had a series of horrible things happen, and during that time I was so cold — just physically and emotionally beaten down. It wasn't until I was diagnosed with cancer that I found a sense of humor about everything. The cancer was just the straw that broke the camel's back."
When you found the lump, did you know what it was?
"No, I didn't. I didn't have breast cancer on either side of the family. I didn't smoke, I was a healthy eater, I was young. I had several friends who had had lumps that were nothing. I just really didn't think I had anything to be concerned about. It was a shock to find out it was cancer."
Who was your support system at that time?
"My friends, my stepfather, my brother, my aunt. Family and friends. Certainly my story went viral, so I had tremendous support from strangers and friends as well. The support from strangers made me so excited about humanity. People seemed to really want to latch onto something good or positive. It was nice to see and be a part of."
Did you ever feel defeated?
"I wanted to survive the whole time — though it sometimes felt like once I would get up again, I was going to be knocked down. But, I always wanted to survive. There was never a part of me that wanted to really give up. I certainly felt defeated at times, though."
How did your mother’s passing affect your thoughts about your own mortality?
"Oddly, the brushes with death that I was coming upon, repeatedly, made me feel close to my mother — I was comforted by the thought that if I were to go, she had just passed away, too. I kept thinking that she wouldn't have ever believed that not only did she die, but that right after, I would be going as well. But, I never wanted to die."
What would you say to someone else who was just diagnosed with breast cancer?
"Whether it's breast cancer or anything else, I think just the smallest thing is the biggest thing, which is to take a step. Whether it's to get out of bed, or go to the doctor, or to inform yourself, just take one step and another step. And, just breathe in and out. I know it sounds so basic, but that's all I could do, and even then, I didn't want to take small steps very often. I just didn't want to do anything. But, if you just take one step, it's gigantic."
What do you want women in general to know about breast cancer?
"I was so, so naive. I was the least likely candidate, but I still could have had cancer and did have cancer. So, I want women to know that they should research and not fall prey to thinking that there's no chance you could have it. Because that's just denial and it's so much better to live in reality."
How are you doing now?
"I'm personally doing very well. I feel like a very lucky person. The most important thing is to keep taking small steps, one after the other. Those tiny but small gigantic steps forward. It's so important. It's so crucial."
Does breast cancer run in your family?
"Yes, it does, but I never, ever thought I would have it. My dad’s mother was 33 or 34 when she was diagnosed, but nobody really knew about it because she didn’t talk about it. My first cousin was diagnosed before 40, but she didn’t have mastectomies. Five or six years later, it spread to her lungs and her brain, and then she passed away. That’s when I found my own lump, but I didn’t tell anyone. I waited three or four months before I went to a doctor."
Why didn’t you tell anyone?
"I thought it was going to go away. I didn’t know it meant something was wrong. I felt for it every day, many times a day, thinking it would go away and it just didn’t. When I finally saw a doctor, they wouldn’t let me leave until they got me into a diagnostic center to get an ultrasound. The next day, I got the call at work that I needed to see a surgeon — but at that time I still didn’t think it was cancer. I just thought they were going to go in and remove the lump."
"They removed the lump on Tuesday, and on Friday the surgeon called me and told me that it was cancer. I screamed, and cried, and hollered, and he stayed on the phone until I was done, and then he said, 'I’ll see you Monday.' And, on Monday, they said I had to have my breast removed. I told them I’d need time to process it, but my mom was there and she said, 'No, you can’t wait. You have to get it done.' I had the entire right breast removed, and then I found out that it had spread to the lymph nodes and underneath the arms.
"After the surgery, I had chemo therapy and it made me so ill that I didn’t even want to live anymore. It was just too hard. Then I tested positive for the BRCA gene, and they told me I had to get my other breast removed and that I had to have a complete hysterectomy. I felt like I was losing everything that made me a woman, and I didn’t have a choice. I didn’t have a chance to process anything — everything just moved so fast. During my second round of chemo, my husband decided he couldn’t deal with it, so he left. My mom was my caretaker; she was always so positive while I was so angry. But, she would comfort me every day, and say, 'You’re gonna make it, you’re gonna make it.' I don’t know why, but I had a turning point that I wanted to live. Once I started talking to myself and saying, 'I can do this,' I actually started getting better. I started getting up."
How did you get involved with the Sisters Network?
"I needed a support system. I was going to support groups, but I was the only African American. I wanted to be around women who looked like me, so I found the Sisters Network and started going to meetings. Then I started volunteering with them and speaking to women, and I started doing the social media. Sisters Network made me feel better because there were other women who looked like me in the room together. I felt like they understood what I was talking about, especially since I was so young, and there were other young women with the same type of cancer that I had. I had been so quiet about it, and they were quiet about it, too — I realized I wasn’t alone in that experience. I hadn’t told anyone because I didn’t understand what I was going through, and if I didn’t understand, how could I tell anyone?"
What advice would you give to someone who was recently diagnosed with breast cancer?
"From the very first day that you’re diagnosed, you should consider yourself a survivor."
Based on your mother and grandmother’s history with breast cancer, you’ve said before that you felt it was not a matter of if, but when you would be diagnosed. How did that impact how you felt when you actually were diagnosed?
"I think no matter what, you can never prepare yourself for a cancer diagnosis. No matter how strong you are, no matter what you anticipate something to be, I think once you hear that word it throws you into a tailspin. Every time I went to the doctor for an MRI or a mammogram, it always felt a little bit like Russian roulette. But when I received the call, and heard the word cancer, it was incredibly shocking and a very hard thing to digest."
Was it at all empowering to know that it was a risk?
"You know what? I guess it was. I had actually scheduled an appointment with a plastic surgeon to go talk about doing something prophylactically. I had come to peace with myself that I was going to see the plastic surgeon and explore what my breasts would look like after a mastectomy, and take a stance and do something, and then it all happened.
"I can still clearly see myself waiting in the waiting room, waiting to get the results back from my mammogram. I can still hear my doctor saying, 'Oh, there’s a little something there.' It was an emotional rollercoaster. I knew at that point that I couldn’t emotionally keep riding that rollercoaster. My boobs didn’t define me — I had to think of the bigger thing. I don’t think about it much anymore today. I haven’t even reconstructed one of my nipples."
What does it take, emotionally, to survive breast cancer?
"I think you have to find something else to focus on. My focus wasn’t really on me, it was about my kids. At the time they were 8 and 11, so it was really about how to get them through this, not me. It was about what I had to do to get them through it."
How did you help them get through it?
"I never told them I had cancer. Even when they came to see me in the hospital, I met them all in the waiting room. They never saw me laying in the bed with IVs. I never used the word cancer with them — though my daughter recently said to me, ‘Mom, of course I knew, you didn’t have to say it.’ I believe that even today she is scared. They said she’ll have to start screening in her twenties because of our family history. She’s 15 now. I tell her that I pray that, God willing, there will be a cure by then. That’s why everyone is working so diligently and so hard on this disease. It’s not just that I’m a breast cancer survivor that I feel the need to fight and get involved; it’s for my daughter."
What advice would you give to someone who was recently diagnosed?
"I would say stay strong and find the positives within it all. Know that it’s a process and that every day it will get better, and that time does help to heal. I have to say I’m definitely pro double mastectomy. Someone said to me, 'Isn’t that aggressive if they tell you you can do a lumpectomy?' My response was, 'Can you really be too aggressive with cancer?'"
What’s the most important thing for women with breast cancer to know?
"There’s an incredible amount of information and support out there. Don’t ever feel alone."
Illustrated by Austin Watts