Talking openly with your doctor is one of the best ways to feel good about your breast cancer treatment decisions. But, sometimes, talking with a doctor can be overwhelming, confusing and create more questions than answers. Samantha Harris joins the show today to help us learn how to ask the right questions, ensure that we have the right support, and help us develop a really good relationship with our doctor. Samantha is a seasoned entertainment journalist and Emmy-winning television host for shows such as Dancing With the Stars and Entertainment Tonight. She joins the Real Pink podcast to share her diagnosis story and what was (and wasn’t) helpful when talking to doctors.
A seasoned entertainment journalist and Emmy-winning television host, Samantha Harris may best be known for her eight seasons as the co-host of Dancing With the Stars and from many years on Entertainment Tonight. Harris is also a health and fitness expert, author, mom and breast cancer survivor.
In 2014, at the age of 40, Samantha was diagnosed with Stage II invasive breast cancer. Her cancer story and message are unique. Just days after a clear mammogram, Samantha found a lump in her breast. Although two doctors told her it was “nothing”, she listened to her gut and persevered. When she went to see a surgical oncologist, although tests still did not detect cancer, they removed the lump. The pathology then showed it was indeed invasive ductal carcinoma. After a subsequent double mastectomy, they found it had also spread to one lymph node.
Now, three surgeries later, Samantha is cancer-free and healthier than ever!
Ms. Harris’s diagnosis led her and her husband to create www.GottaMakeLemonade.com to “inspire positivity in the face of adversity”. Whether illness and health issues, an injury, a relationship disappointment, or a career low – the site helps embolden those who have been faced with one of life’s many challenges to turn it into a positive, better outcome via shared personal and exceptionally inspiring stories.
She is the author of the new book, Your Healthiest Healthy: 8 Easy Ways to Take Control, Help Prevent and Fight Cancer, and Live A Longer, Cleaner, Happier Life (Sterling Publishing, Sept 2018).
This non-stop fitness enthusiast is an 11-time covergirl for fitness and health magazines and is also a Certified Personal Trainer. Samantha made her Broadway debut, singing and dancing for sold-out audiences playing the iconic role of “Roxie Hart” in the long-running musical CHICAGO.
Samantha has also served as a host/correspondent for The Insider, Access Hollywood, Extra, and E! News. She also served as a special correspondent for Good Morning America and filled in as guest host on Access Hollywood Live, Hollywood Live Today and Daily Blast Live, along with many others. She has also co-hosted the official live Academy Awards Red Carpet show as well as the live Critics’ Choice Red Carpet.
Samantha shares more on her website: https://samantha-harris.com/
Adam: [00:03] From Susan G. Komen, this is Real Pink, a podcast exploring real stories, struggles and triumphs related to breast cancer. We’re taking the conversation from the doctor’s office to your living room.
[00:16] Talking openly with your doctor is one of the best ways to feel good about your breast cancer treatment decisions. But sometimes talking with a doctor can be overwhelming, confusing, and create more questions than answers. To help us learn how to ask the right questions and ensure that we have the right support and help us develop a really good relationship with our doctor, please help us welcome Samantha Harris to the show.
[00:37] A little bit about Samantha: she’s a seasoned entertainment journalist and Emmy Award winning television host, best known for her eight seasons as the co-host of “Dancing with the Stars” and for many years on “Entertainment Tonight”. Harris is also a health and fitness expert, author, mom, and breast cancer survivor. Samantha, thanks for joining me on the show.
Samantha: [00:55] I’m so glad to be here. It’s such an important thing that Komen is doing with this podcast and I’m very happy to be part of it.
Adam: [01:01] I can’t wait to talk to you about it. And I will confess it’s a little intimidating interviewing somebody that’s done so much interviewing.
Samantha: [01:07] You’re doing a great job, Adam.
Adam: [01:09] Yeah, it’ll be a fun conversation. This’ll be great. So I’d like to start with understanding what’s your story and why are we even having this conversation? And I understand you’ve been through some things and can you share a little bit about that?
Samantha: [01:21] Absolutely. Well, yeah. So my work with Komen began because I am a breast cancer survivor. I’m about five years out. And it was something that, as many newly-diagnosed people find, is blind-siding. So at forty, I was more fit and healthier than I’d ever been, or so I thought, and I thought I would set a baseline, get a mammogram, just make sure I was all set. And my girls were just turning six at the time. My husband and I thought, “Let’s take advantage of great insurance and get that mammogram.”
[01:53] And so I did. And the results came back clear, just as I anticipated. But then eleven days later, while I was changing, I found a lump and I was very surprised by it. I took charge though. I immediately called my long-time OB-GYN, she did a quick clinical exam and said it was nothing. She said, “You’re turning forty. It’s probably glandular. This is what happens. Lay off the caffeine.” Here I’m thinking, “I don’t even drink coffee every day. What do you mean the caffeine? But oh, okay.”
[02:23] And then about a month later, that lump was still there. And I thought, “All right. I should probably get a second opinion. Let me listen to my gut and do this.” But I went to see my internist because again, didn’t think it was cancer and he did the same thing: quick clinical exam, said, “It’s nothing. If you’re worried about it, we’ll keep an eye on it,” and sent me on my way. And it wasn’t until four months later, with that nagging in my gut, that I finally reached out to a surgical oncologist to make an appointment because I figured, even though I didn’t think it was cancer, I should probably go to a specialist whose sole job is to look at breasts every single day and know what to look for and what kinds of tests to do and make sure that the diagnostics are there.
[03:08] So I did that. And at this appointment, she did two ultrasounds and a needle biopsy. Later when the pathology came back for that needle biopsy, she said, “Good news and bad news. The good news is it’s not cancer. The bad news is, I don’t know what it is. So well, let’s just take it out.” And so I had a lumpectomy. And this is where choosing a doctor who is very skilled, who’s been at it for a while is really important because during the lumpectomy, she took out all the cells that weren’t cancer, that she thought were not cancer at the time, but then on the margin there was a little bit of extra, what she said she thought was healthy tissue, but something in her gut said, “I just want to take this out and just run it through pathology.” And thank goodness she did because that came back as invasive cancer and all the cells that she didn’t think were cancer came back as ductal carcinoma in situ.
Adam: [04:06] Wow. Wow, it’s fantastic that you listened to your instinct on that, right?
Samantha: [04:12] And people always say, “How did you know it was cancer?” I didn’t know it was cancer.
Adam: [04:15] No, it just bothered you.
Samantha: [04:16] But I wanted to be sure. If you’re going to have a doctor say something is nothing, why? Why are they making…? Is it a hunch or is it based on fact? I wanted cold hard facts.
Adam: [04:28] Right. Right. And and you mentioned in your story that it’s really important to go to a doctor that really has that experience and can sort of draw from a body of knowledge and to some degree from some intuition as well from all that experience, right? Can you talk a little bit more about that?
Samantha: [04:43] Sure. Obviously I feel very lucky being in Los Angeles. We have so many great hospitals with fantastic oncology departments and so I really did have sort of options here. But I know that there are many places around the country where it’s more challenging. You have to drive a little bit further and we all want convenience. And convenience isn’t always the best answer, especially when you’re looking at something like a serious medical situation. There was a study done, and you can’t quote me on this because I can’t quote the study, but something about the further you drive away from where you are based for medical care sometimes leads to better outcomes because you’re able to then seek out the best care possible.
Adam: [05:27] I see. Right. Right. Well I mean, I wrote down what you said. Convenience isn’t always the best answer when it comes to your health. And I think that’s really the key finding here is you’ve got to be willing to travel, to go to the right specialist, to find the right doctor, to make the right connection for somebody that can really help you, right?
Samantha: [05:43] Right. And that is definitely something that… Look, we all have such busy lives. I spent the better part of a year with my husband and I in doctors’ offices. But thankfully it was maybe an hour in traffic, at the worst. And some people have longer drives than that, but being able to find the best care is really essential.
Adam: [06:03] That’s right. That’s right. Now let’s talk a little bit about kind of at doctors’ appointments, setting some expectations. What can somebody expect to go through for that first appointment? What does that look like? Can you walk me through that?
Samantha: [06:14] Sure. And of course, I’m sure each doctor has his or her own way of going about it. But for me, what that first appointment was, was first of all, finding out that I had a diagnosis. Having the doctor and her fellow really walk me through carefully in a very hand-holding way where the cancer was, what it looked like, how aggressive they felt it was, how large they felt it was, or small, the size, usually we’re talking about centimeters here. And then, once all of that conversation… And, of course, they want to field your questions and your head at that moment is spinning and questions are probably the last thing on your mind. “What’s going to happen to my family. What’s going to happen to me? Do I have a life ahead of me?” Those questions are the ones that are coming, not, “Well, what does the care look like? What does the surgery look like? What are my options? Do I need to have surgery?” Those are the questions that usually end up following.
[07:06] So two things are really important. First is to have someone with you. If you’re going to an appointment for results, there are two things that can happen in that appointment. You can get a: This is the diagnosis and this is what we need to do. And now you have someone there with you as a strong support system. And someone who can take notes because your head is not going to be very clear at that moment. There’s also the other way it can turn out, which is: Guess what? It was nothing. You’re free and clear. No signs of cancer. And then you guys go have a little celebratory lunch.
Adam: [07:37] You have somebody to celebrate with. That’s right. Somebody to give a hug to, a high five. That’s great. Now you mentioned some questions and knowing the questions to ask and having somebody to write down answers to those questions. Should somebody going into an appointment like this prepare a list of questions? Where can they get some guidance on that? Are there a few that you might recommend to start with?
Samantha: [07:57] Sure. Well, first of all, the questions that you’ll be asking may not even be directly to your surgeon. They may be to a Patient Navigator. And I have to say the Patient Navigators at many of the hospitals, that many of the hospitals offer, is a tremendous asset because that person is going to be your direct link to lots of answers, those questions that you have in the middle of the night. I remember my Patient Navigator said, “You know what? I want you to keep a pen and paper by the side of the bed. You can call me anytime. You can leave the questions on my voicemail at my office. The next day, I promise I’ll get back to you. If you need to call in the middle of the night, call in the middle of the night. Or write it down and then call me the next morning and I will get the answers to you.”
[08:35] And the Patient Navigators truly hold your hand through the process that is incredibly daunting. And also can be there for a support system for your family members who have questions that maybe they want to ask without you in the room because they are trying to be sensitive and they have questions that aren’t ones that you maybe are ready to hear at the moment. So the Patient Navigator is key.
[08:57] And so your question leading up to that was: Well, what kind of questions am I supposed to ask? Well, one thing I asked was: Would you recommend this type of surgery treatment to your loved one? I want the same advice you would give to your daughter or your wife. And then the question that I think is one of the best that my husband had me ask is: Who would you go to if you were to receive a diagnosis like this? Because I’ll tell you actually, the surgeon who did my lumpectomy is not the surgeon who did my mastectomy. I ended up going to the surgeon who she recommended. Not that she also wasn’t a phenomenal surgeon, but when I met with… You want to get multiple opinions. So I had three different Surgical Oncologists who I met with and I went with who I felt the most confident and who just happened to be the one that she recommended.
Adam: [09:50] Wow, that’s fantastic. And that’s actually one of my other questions was when do you need to look at a second opinion? It sounds like you would advocate immediately getting a second opinion. Is that right?
Samantha: [09:59] I do. I think that it doesn’t hurt. Also, one of the other doctors had recommended to me to have a second opinion of pathology. Now that’s not always as easy. I actually remember going to the lab at the hospital that I had the initial pathology from the lumpectomy at, picking up tissue slides and then delivering them to another hospital, to their pathology department, so that they could actually look at the slides just to ensure that the actual— Because each of the doctors is going off of the pathology report from the one pathologist who made the determination that yes, this is cancer. So I thought, “You know what? That seemed like some good advice. Why don’t we make sure that both pathologists agree that this is the same diagnosis?” Then the surgeons who I’m talking with and interviewing can determine, based on that information, what the course of action will be from there.
[10:53] But there are many other questions to ask. Another question to ask is: how long do I plan on being out of work? What will the recovery time be if I choose a mastectomy? What is the recovery time if I choose a lumpectomy with radiation? What are the percentage of chance of recurrence with each of those? So there are lots of other questions and komen.org is just an incredible resource for all of these questions because I think that sometimes— And I know I almost fell into this trap until someone recommended against it, thank goodness, which is: if you receive a breast cancer diagnosis, do not, and I repeat, do not go online and Google.
Adam: [11:33] Yeah. That’s never good for any ailment of any kind at all. It’s a path to failure right there. It’s dangerous.
Samantha: [11:41] Each diagnosis is so unique and so different and, once you’re diagnosed, you are going to hear horror stories and you’re going to hear tremendous success stories. Focus on the success stories, even though yours is going to be an individual journey. Stay focused on the positive because a positive mindset has a tremendous overall effect on your outcome.
Adam: [12:02] That’s right. That’s right. Wow, that’s really fantastic. So I have one more question, and this is more just me trying to understand from your perspective. You mentioned taking a friend with you to the appointment so that if you do get the diagnosis, you’re not going to be able to take notes. And that makes perfect sense because you’ve sort of just been hit by this emotional truck in a sense, right? And I guess what I’m wondering is, at what point did it really sink in for you? Did it take several days to sort of come to grips with the diagnosis or was it sort of an immediate thing?
Samantha: [12:33] No, I was completely run over by a Mack truck. I mean, that’s what it felt like. I kept waking up the next few mornings with that, “Oh, it’s just a dream. Oh no, it was reality.” It’s kind of that same feeling that you have after you lose someone you love and you wake up in the morning and for just that moment you think they’re still with you. So similarly, I would wake up and just for that moment I would think, “I don’t have… I’m healthy. I’m great. Oh, right. I have a breast cancer diagnosis. Okay.”
[13:08] So in that… And this is something I think is really important. In those moments, and they are dark moments, two things to remember: you are going to have hills and you’re going to have valleys. Know that when you are in the darkest of moments, they are only temporary and it will get better and the light will come again. And that’s something to focus on. But also, I felt it was really important to… Because I was so riddled with anxiety in those first couple of weeks after my diagnosis. And I’m a really positive, happy-go-lucky person. And here I was with this breast cancer diagnosis and I was just… I didn’t want to be devastated, even though that’s how I felt. And I realized it’s going to be a long journey ahead of me. And so what I need to do is pick myself back up. And for me the best punch to throw has always been a smile, stay positive. And that’s what I chose to do. And it was a choice. And take everything that came next in my cancer journey with a positive spin. So this is what… And a lot of positive self-talk. So this is kind of what it looked like: “Okay, here you are with a cancer diagnosis. What’s positive?” And for a moment you go, “Oh, nothing.” And wait. Go, “Wait. Wait. Bring it to the light, bring it to the light. What’s positive? Okay well, I caught it early. That’s a positive thing. What? Okay, great. Keep listening to yourself. What else is positive? Well, I’m in otherwise really good health, which is going to help reduce complications during surgery and it’s going to make my recovery that much faster. Excellent. Keep going. You’re on a roll. What’s next? What’s more positive? All right, well I’ve got great health insurance. I have got a great family. I have an incredible support system.” And riding that wave of positivity really carried me through my surgeries, my intense, intense recoveries. And I feel so happy and light and I feel happy by really what I’ve been able to overcome and what I know I’m capable of now.
Adam: [15:14] Right. Well, and now you’re, as best I can tell, as healthy as you’ve ever been and you’re all about health. You’ve written a book about it and it seems like you’re doing quite amazing, in fact.
Samantha: [15:24] Thank you. I think when I was… So after my diagnosis and getting through the year of surgeries and all of that, I started to look for answers because breast cancer is only hereditary in five to ten percent of the cases. And I had no hereditary link to my diagnosis. And so I could care less. I needed answers. So I started to research and I read everything I could get my hands on. I spoke to numerous experts and I determined it’s truly what you put in, on, and around your body that can have a tremendous overall effect on your wellbeing.
[15:56] And I searched for a comprehensive guide to just tell me, “Well, okay. So then how do I eat? And what should be my motivation for working out? And what about the beauty products I have? Are they okay? And toxic friendships, the relationships that tear you down and create anxiety and stress that you don’t even sometimes realize.” Well, the book didn’t exist. And so, since I’m a journalist, I wrote “Your Healthiest Healthy: 8 Easy Ways to Take Control, Help Prevent and Fight Cancer, and Live a Longer, Cleaner, Happier Life”. It’s now my baby and my passion.
Adam: [16:32] And I believe the book’s available basically everywhere, right? So we can all sign onto our Amazon accounts and pick it up?
Samantha: [16:38] Yeah. It’s in every bookstore. And it’s something I’m really proud of too is I’m now launching my first ever Your Healthiest Healthy Retreat because sometimes people need a little bit more than just their alone time with a book to be able to really get that leg up on their healthy journey. And so I’m really excited about it. It’s going to be… I’m hoping to offer a few of them a year and at some point to do something just for survivors ideally. But it’s really for everyone who wants to be on the path to their healthiest self. And so they’re going to be small, intimate retreats at a beautiful resort and spa where I’m going to really dissect what’s in the book.
[17:16] Your beauty products, there are toxins lurking in all of them from the major brands that could be carcinogenic, can be endocrine disruptors, and what are they? How do you know what they are? And how do you read a label to figure out what are the best ones for you? And the same goes with your cleaning supplies and your… Sorry, I know you’re a guy, but there’s a lot of ladies listening, with your period routine, the feminine care industry. We need to look for a 100% organic cotton. And then those toxic friendships, how to kick them to the curb and reinforce resiliency and positivity.
Adam: [17:46] I love how you mentioned the toxic friendships. And I think it plays a much broader role in our health than most people recognize. And it sounds like that’s been your experience as well, right?
Samantha: [17:55] I think we all have those people, you know. Whether it’s the friend who just never seems to come to your side of town when you guys have plans, or the one-upper. Or that mom at school who, even though you’re not really friends, you end up always chatting and passing, and every time you leave the conversation your shoulders are at your ears. Those are the relationships you have to sort of sit back and assess and say, “Okay, what can I take out of my life?” And I tell you, even though it’s a hard thing sometimes… And I talk about it in the book in detail with sort of scripted dialogue of what to say and what to expect as a response and how to respond to that response. But also, once you do it and you extract yourself from those toxic relationships, the light that you feel is tremendous. And the lack of excess stress being relieved is so beneficial for your overall health and wellbeing.
Adam: [18:47] That’s right. That’s right. Well Samantha, this has been fantastic. Your journey is really inspiring and I really appreciate you taking the time to share it with us on the show here.
Samantha: [18:58] Thank you. It’s been amazing and I’m just so grateful for all the incredible work that Komen is doing. And I have a lot of tips and advice and positivity and support that I offer through my Instagram, which is @samanthaharristv. And people can check back with there. And if they want to find out about the retreats, I also have a link in my bio there.
Adam: [19:16] And I follow your Instagram so I can tell you from experience that it is fantastic. Well done.
Samantha: [19:21] Thank you.
Adam: [19:22] Thanks for joining me on the show.
[19:26] Thanks for listening to Real Pink, a weekly podcast by Susan G. Komen. For more episodes, visit realpink.komen.org. And for more on breast cancer, visit komen.org. Make sure to check out @SusanGKomen on social media. I’m your host, Adam. You can find me on Twitter @ajwalker or my blog, adamjwalker.com.