Every day I try to bring my focus back to the beauty of life rather than the fear of death.
Itâs been nearly two years since Good Morning America anchor Amy Robach announced her breast cancer diagnosis on live TV, followingÂ an on-air mammogram that colleague Robin Roberts urged her to get. In Amyâs new memoir, Better ($27, amazon.com), she writes candidlyÂ about her mastectomy, chemotherapy, and recovery over the next 12 months. In this excerpt from the bookâs last chapter, she reflects on her new ânormalâ and what itâs like to live with the odds of a recurrence.
For women whoâve been successfully treated for breast cancer, there is a 30 percent chance that the disease will come back. Thereâs also something called an âOnco Score,â which weighs the details of each case to arrive at an individualâs specific odds of a recurrence. My Onco Score predicts my chances of bad news at 16 percent. But as my brother explained to me, the odds for any given individual are either 100 percent of zero percent. Thatâs because, where it counts, each of us is a population of one.
The disease gets cut out and blasted and poisoned away, and then you sit and wait. Doctors say, âYouâre going to be fine,â but it really breaks down into survival rates at five years and survival rates at ten years. If breast cancer metastasizes, itâs terminal. Iâve always been a very positive person, even during my divorce and earlier medical issues. Iâm like Orphan Annie, I guess, always believing that everythingâs going to be better tomorrow, even when itâs hitting the fan today.
But when I was diagnosed, I felt that my sunny outlook had been stolen, and for a long time I was pissed that I couldnât get it back. I kept trying to frame things in a positive way, but somehow I couldnât find the unbridled joy and optimism I used to have. Thatâs because, deep down, I spent a lot of my time feeling terrified.
Fear is an adaptation meant to keep us out of trouble, so it can be a good thing, but only if we learn how to manage it and make the most of what itâs trying to tell us. But there have been plenty of moments since my diagnosis when what I felt was plain old vanilla fear, and thatâs when Iâd break down.
Living with cancer is like your first time on a sailboat: If youâre not used to sailing, it takes a while to adjust to the way the boat heels over on its side. It takes time to relax and accept that this is just how sailboats are and that youâre not going to go down because youâre on a slant and a few waves are coming over the railing.
When youâre living with cancer, your feet can be on dry and solid ground, but you still feel tippy. You are never fully stable and secure. Iâve always been a list-maker, a goal-setter, and a forward thinker, because Iâve always had the luxury of assuming that the future is part of the deal. I felt robbed of that, as well. For the first time in my life, I was afraid to think about next year, or the year after. Trying to picture five or 10 years down the road seemed impossibly audacious. Iâve had to work to see the future as part of the excitement of life, and that excitement comes not only from anticipating it but from investing in it, too.
I think we all begin to see mortality as less distant and abstract as we get older. Our expectations no longer flow endlessly from this decade to the next and on and on. Instead we start counting backward, keeping a tally of how much time we figure we might have left. When I got my diagnosis, that sense of limited time hit me in the face with a whopping one-two punch.
So for a while I stopped making to-do lists and caring about whether the laundry was neatly folded. But being indifferent to the small stuff is unsettling when being super-organized and getting all those details right is essential to who you are.
Technically, a breast cancer patient is back to ânormalâ after a year out of chemo. But the fear lingers in your gut because youâre only good until you find that next lump, or that next ache, or you do the next blood work. You no longer have the luxury of feeling that tomorrow is a given.
When I am going to die becomes front and center in your consciousness, you lose touch with the little pleasures of moment-to-moment existence. The cup of coffee in the morning isnât as tasty, and going to bed at night isnât as cozy, because youâve looked beyond the veil. Once youâve lost the positive illusion of endless time, you have to struggle to feel that life is good, because you can never say to yourself, Relax. Settle in. Iâm going to be here awhile.
There have been a lot of days since October 2013 in which Iâve felt in my gut that my cancer will come back. But, as my husband Andrew always reminds me, âDonât die before you die.â Every day I try to bring my focus back to the beauty of life rather than the fear of death.
In books and movies, characters who have a health crisis always quit their high-powered jobs to do something âmore meaningful,â like work with wood or grow organic vegetables. But you donât have to completely reinvent yourself in a one-stoplight town in order to be transformed by a horrible experience. I would say that thereâs also something called âtransformation in place.â Itâs more subtle, because it looks like youâre doing the same things. But the difference is, youâre doing all those things in a more mindful way, because youâve looked into the valley of death.
The issue isnât whether your life is hectic or low key but whether it is authentically yours. Whether I have five years or another 50, I want to relish every minute. And for me, that means living in the moment and doing exactly what I do, at the same frenetic pace, because I really love it.
Excerpted fromÂ BETTERÂ by Amy Robach Copyright Â© 2015 by Amy Robach. Excerpted by permission of Ballantine Books, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.