I was a personal shopper at Saks Fifth Avenue in Chicago 15 years ago with many high-profile clients, including Oprah Winfrey. I was also a divorced mother of three young girls and seriously involved with a wonderful man. A man whose wife had died of breast cancer.
Life was good. The worst thing I remember at that time is that Princess Diana died in a car accident in Paris.
I was a news junkie and had gone back to journalism school when my children were young. But my divorce forced me back into work the retail world in which I worked for many years. My desire to become a reporter would have to wait.
Fifteen years ago this week, I underwent a lumpectomy. Unlike today, the doctors would remove many of the lymph nodes in my right arm, leaving me with a life-time risk of lymphedema.
October is Breast Cancer Awareness month. A time when we are reminded to get our mammograms, do self-exams and think pink. For me it is a sober reminder of how my life changed in October 1997 when a routine mammogram catapulted me into the world of those with cancer. Cancer also afforded me the opportunity to pursue my dream career.
The day of my surgery I was asked to and participated in a sentinel-node biopsy study. As a result of that study, women today who undergo the same surgery as I only have the sentinel node removed to determine if there is cancer, sparing the removal of many.
The good news was I had no lymph node involvement but because of my age, my oncologist recommended chemotherapy
My doctor explained that the chances of no recurrence, with my size tumor and my age were about 91% without chemo and 94% with. I remember exactly what I said: "Three percent is really small but it's huge if I'm in that 3%." And so chemo it was.
I began a six month regimen of chemo. And as the weeks went by, I became restless. It wasn't enough to read a lot of books and watch Oprah. But to my delight, on January 17, 1998, Michael Isikoff of Newsweek broke an incredible scandal. Monica and Bill. Now this was a scandal that took a front seat to my chemo complaints. I was in news heaven.
But really I was bored. I missed going to work. And the more I was home and had time to stop and think about it, I realized I wanted to be in the news business. I knew it would be tough, because although my professor at Medill, George Harmon, said I was a good writer with a "nose for news," I had only one published clip to my name.
But several months into chemo, I answered an ad at the Chicago Tribune. They needed a freelancer to cover the North Shore. I had one published clip that I sent with my resume. I will never forget Andy Gottesman, an editor at the paper, when he called and said, "I want to give you a chance."
In the next year, I had about 35 pieces published in the Tribune, many while I was undergoing chemotherapy. I went on to work full-time for five years at Pioneer Press and returned in 2003 to a freelance career primarily with the Chicago Tribune but also writing for the magazines and the New York Times.
It has been an awesome 15 years. I have been a steady contributor to the Chicago Tribune. I have covered two trials -- Conrad Black and Rod Blagojevich and authored blogs about each (www.blacksjustice.com and www.blagojustice.com). I have had hundreds of stories published, including several page one pieces in the Chicago Tribune, including one about the dog rescue efforts during Hurricane Katrina. I was nominated for a Peter Lisagor award and won an Illinois Press Association award. I have 1900 followers on Twitter @Msjournalist.
One of my biggest thrills was writing about lymphedema and exercise in a feature that ran in the NY Times in 2006 -- a subject close to my heart when after my breast cancer surgery I was told never to work out with weights. Today, my oncologist hands my article "Balancing painful swelling with a desire to exercise" to breast cancer patients who like me, wanted to work out. And today, I still work out with weights.
I credit breast cancer for allowing me to have the career I always wanted. A diagnosis of cancer is a frightening, life-altering event. It can also be the start of a whole new life.
Follow Susan Berger on Twitter: www.twitter.com/MsJournalist