by Laura Shipp
Cancer isn’t about dying, it is about living. I know, I’ve been living with cancer for the past year, and you’ve been watching me. These words, penned by NBC News’ chief environmental affairs correspondent Anne Thompson, began a confession of sorts, a divulgence of a secret that Anne had kept from her television audience, and many of her NBC colleagues, for a year. The response from viewers, she confides in an interview with Coping® magazine, “blew me away.”
Anne was diagnosed with breast cancer in March 2006. She decided early on that work would be her “cancer- free zone.” As a journalist, she wanted to keep her diagnosis private. “My job is to get people to talk about themselves or an issue they’re involved in. And nothing stops a conversation quicker than to say, ‘I have cancer.’ And I didn’t want the focus to be on me,” Anne says. “If my appearance changed dramatically and I didn’t look good, I didn’t want to be on the air because that would detract from my story. I didn’t want to be the story.”
The chemotherapy treatments Anne underwent to shrink her tumor caused her to lose all her hair, including her eyelashes and eyebrows. To keep up appearances on air, she added a few extra steps to her hair and makeup routine. “I wore two wigs that I nicknamed ‘Mata Hari’ after the glamorous World War I spy because I felt anything but glamorous. One looked like I had just gotten my hair cut. The other looked like I needed a haircut,” Anne recalls with a bit of laughter, hinting that she is glad to be done with those wigs.
She adds that she used wax and powder to create new eyebrows to replace the ones she had lost. And she wore false eyelashes to further conceal her hair loss. “Although I have to tell you,” Anne confesses, “I really never got the hang of false eyelashes. It was just impossible.”
Every day is going to have a moment to savor.
When I ask what made her decide to speak publicly about her cancer diagnosis, Anne recalls the media frenzy that arose when two prominent political figures experienced cancer recurrences. “As I was listening to the commentary about Elizabeth Edwards and Tony Snow when they revealed that their cancers had returned,” she says, “it really made me angry because people on TV, on the radio, and in the newspaper were essentially digging graves for them. And I thought, ‘This is crazy. People with cancer want to live. They want to participate. They want to contribute.’
“And cancer brings that into focus as sharply as anything that I can imagine because it so changes your sense of the future, you don’t know what your future is going to be. And so, the present that you have, you so desperately want to participate in it. I thought, ‘Wow, I’ve worked for a year with cancer and none of the viewers knew. I’ve done it. They can do it.’ You can contribute. You can be a valuable member of your community, of your company, of your family even though you have this disease.”
On the urging of her friend and colleague NBC Nightly News anchor Brian Williams, Anne agreed to post the short essay quoted above on his msnbc.com blog. More accustomed to reporting the story than to being the story, Anne has been overwhelmed by the support she has received. “I just never anticipated that people would either be so interested, or so encouraging, when I told them about what I had been going through for the past year,” she says, adding that it also helped explain her very short haircut.
Anne says she is now doing things that she might never have done before cancer, like climbing Australia’s Sydney Harbour Bridge though she is petrified of heights. She also admits that the fear of her cancer returning is something that will probably never completely go away. But she realizes that she can’t spend her life being afraid.
“I decided that instead of living with fear, or living in fear, I was going to live fearlessly,” Anne says, “and that I was going to enjoy every single day that God gives me. I no longer have time to be unhappy. It’s a luxury I can’t afford. Every day is going to have a moment to savor. And if things make me unhappy, and I can’t fix them, I’m moving on.”
Anne Thompson can be seen reporting on environmental issues like global warming and alternative fuels on all NBC News broadcasts, including NBC Nightly News with Brian Williams, Today, and MSNBC.
This article was published in Coping® with Cancer magazine, September/October 2007.