A year ago, on my birthday, I was sitting in my favorite chair on my screen porch with my boy-cats next to me watching the birds bunch up at my neighbor's feeder. I had my computer on my lap desk as I took deep breaths and thought about the mostly charmed life I'd enjoyed to date.
The next morning, on Oct. 10, 2018, I was headed to Baptist Hospital where they would put me to sleep, then remove both my breasts. I'd kept my breast-cancer diagnosis mostly secret—I had needed time to process it and to control the narrative about my body and my life—but I'd decided I needed to reveal my tough journey to you that night, before they put me to sleep.
I also really wanted people to understand how my soulmate Todd Stauffer—this paper's publisher—and his No. 1 running the business, Kimberly Griffin, would be pulled a million directions. They would need compassion and understanding, too.
So I wrote about what I faced and set ground rules—no horror stories, for one—and then so many of you sprang up to help me get through it, which still warms my heart. I'll never forget lying at Baptist the next morning getting drowsy while reading all your messages and posts on my phone. Just wow.
The second I woke up, the next stage of my life started. I'm a positive person overall, and all our Zen reading sure paid off in this last year as I maneuvered myriad doctors, physical therapy, fatigue, pain meds and a whole lot of actual pain. Oh, and figuring out how to pay the morass of inflated and confusing medical bills beyond your insurance coverage from doctors you never see—even as I own a small business hurt by any lack of attention and in a struggling industry.
I managed to stay mostly positive through the plethora of challenges that started while I was still home in tubes and continued as I returned to the office slowly around Thanksgiving six weeks later, while working and editing daily from home within a week of my double-mastectomy. We were hit with massive office theft of checks and credit cards by someone I trusted, which broke my heart in two, and a dishonest local smear campaign. (I'm kind of used to those, though, in what I do). I caught someone (not still here) plagiarizing (before print; whew), and my cat Deuce died. Our damn air conditioning at home had to be replaced. Plus, my cancer drug can make my hips feel like they're being stabbed with screwdrivers.
Donna Ladd's post that revealed her breast cancer and set ground rules for what happened next.
But here's the thing: I've never been happier, more grateful, or as focused and mindful as I am now. For one thing, I'm alive. I was lucky a routine exam caught the cancer early so that I didn't need chemo or radiation, even if I did have my body cut up. Considering how much I love life, my work, Todd and my wonderful network of friends, family and readers, I immediately quit drinking alcohol, and gave up sugar (not fruit), in a quest to keep the cancer from returning. I went on walks while leaning on a stick for months, and I'm a smaller weight than in decades. I even prefer my new boob size.
That is, I want to live, and I've always believed in living out loud—speaking, writing, challenging, teaching, encouraging, critiquing, even tough love as needed (which helped me so many times over the decades). On my worst days, I've reached deep inside and followed what my best women mentors advised over the years: "Fake it till you make it." During this recovery, that meant forcing myself to smile, making a grateful list, coloring in my pink "Be Positive" journal with my multi-color Flair pens, and thinking and writing about issues beyond my own pain and recovery. Think it, fake the positive grit, and it will usually follow. And it did.
So I decided to recover out loud. I talk openly and honestly about this journey, I post my smoothies I pack with ingredients that doctors say can help prevent cancer (#dlsmoothies on Instagram); I devise mocktails in chilled martini glasses with turmeric and blueberries, and spicy virgin marys for football games; I post pictures of my skinnier self to encourage others to take control of their own health, too.
I also try to pay forward what so many of you did for me—the favors, notes, gifts, gestures, even opportunities. I whined to my wonderful Guardian editor about my med bills, and she let me write an essay about my mother's illiteracy before the tubes came out. Survivors came to my house, bringing food and understanding, and one even pulled up her top and showed me her new tatas so I knew what lay ahead.
Now, I do what I can to help other women, and men, take their own health reins. I'm not one to bake and deliver casseroles (I'd starve without Todd cooking for me), but I hear constantly that people in Jackson and beyond are inspired to do their own smoothies, some saving up for a Vitamix so they can grind the broccoli and spinach into a fine pulp as I do. I also hear from women and men dealing with cancer right now, and I do what I can to spread positivity, strength and hope to them.
I'm asked often the lessons I've learned from breast cancer. First, I had to both rest when I needed to and give in to the weakness of illness. I had to allow others to help me, and even ask for it. I had to take care of myself first as they talk about on airplanes.
I applied my mantra, "excellent work is the best response," to my recovery. Of course, I couldn't be in the office much, but I could sit in Todd's recliner or my porch chair and think, write and edit as needed. I needed to still engage the world, especially the challenging one we're in now, and fight for democracy from my porch, distracting me from pain and loss.
That mantra also helped me navigate the surprise of resentment and beration I received from some quarters because illness made me less available in person. It's a shock to the system to realize that some only value you for what you can offer them on demand, and you're nothing if you show weakness or when you're physically inaccessible. This was unexpected, and it was a tiny exception to how my family, friends, staff and network responded. It's vital to not fixate on efforts to make your pain worse, especially when you know that stress can create new cancer cells. So I didn't.
Read more about disparities in treatment and prevention on the Susan G. Komen website.
We must breathe through it all—the physical pain, anguish, stress, disappointment. We must just be present in our lives and accept and release whatever happens. Honestly, I can't imagine a better Zen practice than recovering from breast cancer while being a woman newspaper editor in a conservative, misogynistic state. Try it if you dare.
I also learned to accept that as doors close, others open if we allow it. My women's network is stronger than it's ever been, and unexpectedly, I've become an emissary for women facing breast cancer and those who have survived it. (I prefer "thriver" to "survivor.") Just last week, Catherine Young (the great-great-niece of Fannie Lou Hamer and vice president of Susan G. Komen Memphis-Mid South Mississippi) asked me to be the 2020 Survivor of the Year leading up to next year's "Race for the Cure." I will speak candidly about my experiences of recovery and raising awareness about the disparities low-income women, especially women of color, face in receiving breast-cancer treatment and mammograms.
I'm all in. Because, you know, raising hell is in my DNA. Let's roll.
Follow me on Twitter at @donnerkay. Read my blog, which I promise to update more now, at donnaladd.com. Watch for a new breast-cancer tab there soon.