Fashion Designer Liz Lange
My Cancer Secret
by Laura Shipp
Fashion designer Liz Lange is the mother of maternity chic. In the late 1990s, Liz single-handedly revolutionized maternity fashion – transforming cutesy ruffles, big bows, and frumpy frocks into stylish and flattering, form-fitting ensembles that aimed to accentuate the curves of pregnancy, rather than hide them.
In 2001, Liz’s high-end maternity line had become a huge hit among pregnant celebrities, and she was on the verge of becoming a household name, as she was in talks to design an exclusive maternity line for Target. To top it off, she had just given birth to her second child and was preparing her first runway show for New York’s Fashion Week. It would be the very first maternity line to be showcased at Bryant Park.
“I was building my business, I had two young children [two-year-old Gus and eight-month-old Alice], I was married, I was doing a million things,” Liz recalls. “I was in the midst of the best time in my career. It was beyond my wildest dreams.”
Then she got a call that threatened to tear down all that she had been building. After a routine Pap smear yielded abnormal results, Liz’s doctor had ordered a biopsy of her cervix. It was Columbus Day, and Liz had been out of town attending a cousin’s wedding. She returned home to numerous voice-mail messages from her doctor. “Even before I called back, I knew it was cancer,” Liz remembers. “Otherwise, why would my doctor have been trying urgently to reach me on a holiday?”
“I am by nature a very optimistic person. I don’t think you can be an entrepreneur and not be optimistic. That helped me a lot when I got this diagnosis.”
Liz’s intuition was right. She had cervical cancer. The next morning, she was sitting in the office of a gynecological oncologist discussing what needed to be done. She underwent a hysterectomy to eradicate the cancer in her cervix, followed by chemotherapy and radiation to further shore up her odds of beating the disease.
Throughout the ordeal, Liz managed to keep her diagnosis a secret while also moving forward with her business, eventually landing that exclusive deal with Target. “I told very few people,” Liz says. “It was just too painful to talk about.
“From a professional point of view,” she adds, “I didn’t want anyone to think I was not well. I didn’t want having cancer to impede the growth of my business.”
Though chemo and radiation left her exhausted, she was able to hide her cancer easily, partly because the chemo she was taking did not cause her to lose her hair. To everyone on the outside, she looked normal. And she did everything she could to carry on with her life (and business) as usual.
Liz spent what little energy she had on her work, and she admits that compartmentalizing the cancer made it easier for her to deal with. However, Liz is the first to admit the irony of her situation. “Of course that was very ironic,” she says. “There I was, being heralded as the queen of maternity chic, and I was having a hysterectomy.
“That was painful, emotionally painful,” she continues. “I had two children already, but at the age of 35, I didn’t want the option of having more children to be taken from me. But more than anything, as a mother, I was terrified that I wouldn’t be there for my children. They were so young and so vulnerable, and the thought that they might have to grow up without a mother was terrifying.”
Fortunately for Liz, her cancer was found early, and her treatment was successful. She’s been cancer free for nine years. And now that she has a national platform, thanks to her entrepreneurial perseverance, she’s not keeping quiet any longer. “I know that there are women out there who aren’t going to their doctors regularly for screening,” Liz says, “and by speaking out about this, I can maybe save some lives.”
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To learn more about Liz Lange, and find out where to buy her maternity fashions, visit LizLange.com.
This article was originally published in Coping® with Cancer magazine, March/April 2010.