Jane Brody - Author, Columnist and Breast Cancer Survivor
“My immediate reaction was, ‘At least I don’t have a fatal disease.’”
by Cindy Phiffer
For 34 years, Jane Brody has been writing about good health with a focus on preventive care, such as nutrition and exercise. A breast cancer diagnosis in February took her as well as her readers by surprise.
“Everyone thought, You must have been full of anxiety,” says the personal health columnist for The New York Times. “My immediate reaction was, At least I don’t have a fatal disease. My knowledge of breast cancer treatment and cure rates told me that I had a very high chance of coming through this with flying colors.”
Brody’s acute awareness of breast cancer as well as regular physical exams and a cautious mammographer resulted in her early diagnosis. She has had a mammogram annually since reaching her mid-40s.
“We had been watching an area that had been painful from time to time,” Jane recalls. “I’d had several ultrasound exams done, which didn’t show anything before, but this time it did. The mammogram continued to be negative, but the ultrasound showed a change from last year’s ultrasound. That was worrisome to my mammographer, who then did a fine-needle aspiration. In 10 minutes, I had the diagnosis.”
The author of several books, including The New York Times Book of Health, Brody is well-known in the medical community. However, it was not her celebrity status that hastened her diagnosis.
“Women should not have to wait three days for biopsy results,” she insists, “which induces enormous amounts of anxiety when there are tests that can be done in 10 minutes. It just hasn’t been worked into the delivery-of-care pattern.”
Although Brody was armed with information, she still concedes that, “When it comes to your own personal experience, each woman is an individual."
Because her tumor was very small and of low nuclear grade, with little likelihood of spread, she chose to have a lumpectomy followed by radiation therapy. “The surgeon asked me an interesting question when I came into his office: ‘What do you want to do?’” Jane remembers. “When I started writing about these things, radical mastectomies were the treatment of choice if you wanted to live. We didn’t have chemotherapy. We didn’t have drugs that would reduce the risk of recurrence and protect the healthy breast.”
Although Brody was armed with information, she still concedes that, “When it comes to your own personal experience, each woman is an individual. Many factors have to be considered when you make treatment decisions, including lifestyle factors and what each woman can tolerate.”
Long an advocate of healthy living, Brody has written several books on the subject, including Jane Brody’s Good Food Book and Jane Brody’s Nutrition Book. However, she does not claim to have the key to a cancer-free world. “Bad things can happen,” Jane admits, “no matter how carefully you live. Just because I’ve had a good diet, exercise every single day without fail, don’t smoke, don’t drink much alcohol and don’t do any of the things we know to be serious risk factors — still, I’m not invulnerable.”
At the same time, Brody suggests that healthy living can’t hurt. “Maybe the fact that I have lived a healthy life had something to do with the fact that this was not an aggressive tumor,” she says. “It’s possible that my lifestyle has helped me bounce back from therapy and also minimized the aggressiveness of this cancer.
“There are many more horrible things that can happen to people than breast cancer,” Jane says, passion edging into her voice. “The chances of it being horrible are greatly increased by an attitude that says, ‘I’m not going to go for my exam because I may find something out.’ The thing you should be saying is, ‘I am going to go for my exam because if I find something out, the chances are I’ll find something that can be cured. If I don’t go for my exam, by the time something is found, it may not be curable, or it certainly may not be easily curable.’
“I had the surgery on Wednesday morning,” she recalls. “On Thursday morning, I met my friends at 6 a.m. for our usual one-hour walk around the park, and then at 8:30 for an hour of ice skating!”
Brody recognizes that, because of the size and nature of the tumor, her treatment plan did not require chemotherapy. “The six weeks of radiation - it’s not like falling out of bed, but it’s no big deal,” she quips. “The most difficult part of the radiation is factoring it into your life.”
Touched by the overwhelming response from readers, Jane knows that many of these same people have been helped by her candidness. “It prompted many of them to make appointments to get their mammograms,” she says. “Some even made appointments for their mothers. They seemed to think, If it happened to Jane Brody, it can happen to me. I will continue to be open about my experience, no matter what happens.”
♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦
This article was originally published in Coping® with Cancer magazine, July/August 1999.