Meredith Vieira's Grandmother Had Metastatic Breast Cancer—And Now She's Helping Others With the Disease
She hopes to give people the courage and opportunity to take control of their health.
Meredith Vieira was a teenager when her grandmother was diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer. But, despite the seriousness of the diagnosis, the TV journalist says her family didn’t discuss it.
“We didn’t talk about it,” the 25 Words or Less host tells Health. And, it seems, her grandmother didn’t talk about it a lot either. Vieira says her grandmother was shy and “didn’t know how to stand up for herself,” adding, “I don’t believe she ever questioned her doctor—she just did what she was told.”
Metastatic breast cancer—commonly known as stage 4 breast cancer—is a form of breast cancer that has spread beyond the breast and nearby lymph nodes to other parts of the body, the American Cancer Society (ACS) explains. When breast cancer spreads, it often goes to the bones, liver, and lungs, although it may spread to the brain or other organs as well, the ACS says. Metastatic breast cancer is considered incurable, but the ACS says treatment can often shrink tumors or slow their growth, improve symptoms, and help patients live longer.
Vieira says she didn’t really understand what stage 4 cancer meant at the time, but she remembers that her grandmother “clearly was scared.”
“When I look back, I think she also felt incredibly lost, like you’ve lost your bearings and you have no idea … how you’re supposed to operate,” she says. Vieira’s father was a doctor, but her grandmother’s didn’t even discuss her cancer with him. “No one talked about the illness. We just lived with this cone of silence,” Vieira says.
Vieira’s grandmother died in 1977. “I didn’t appreciate the fact that there was not much that could be done at the time,” Vieira says. “I just saw her increasingly in pain.”
A history of breast cancer in Vieira's family inspired her to focus on her own health.
Vieira’s mother later developed breast cancer—“but not metastatic,” she says—leading Vieira, now 67, to be proactive about her health. “You see a pattern with the disease in my family, and I also am of an age where women by and large are becoming more aware of their health,” she says.
So, Vieira gets regular mammograms. Vieira says she has dense breasts, meaning there is more tissue and less fat in her breasts, which has often led to her needing to get additional testing for breast cancer screening. Women with dense breasts have a higher risk of developing breast cancer, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and regular screening is important. “I’ve had a couple of biopsies but, fortunately, nothing has been cancer,” Vieira says.
To make sure she stays consistent with her mammograms, Vieira always books them with a friend. “Mammograms are something that’s easy to put off,” she says, noting that scheduling them with a buddy makes it harder to reschedule. “We make it a day—we got in the morning and then have lunch afterward,” she says.
That turned out to be a lifesaving habit for one of Vieira’s friends and co-workers in 2014. Vieira and Angela LaGreca, a supervising producer of The Meredith Vieira Show, used the buddy system to get mammograms as part of a segment for Vieira’s show, and LaGreca’s test detected cancer. “In a way, it saved her life,” Vieira said during the show. “She wouldn’t have had a mammogram otherwise.”
Vieira says she also lives a “healthy lifestyle overall.” While she says she’s eaten more sweets than usual during the pandemic, she typically eats well and exercises regularly. She also stopped smoking when she found out she was pregnant with her son Ben more than 30 years ago.
Now, Vieira is on a mission to help women with metastatic breast cancer, in memory of her grandmother.
She’s teamed up with Pfizer’s Find Your MBC Voice initiative, which breaks down treatment options for metastatic breast cancer and encourages people with the disease to speak up and have informed conversations with their doctor. “So often individuals—women in particular—feel that they have no control or that it’s unfeminine to speak out,” Vieira says. “To get a diagnosis like this, it’s like you’ve been stunned. All of those things you may miss verbalizing in the moment, we’re walking you through the steps.”
The site specifically provides patients with questions to ask their provider, and helps patients put together a care team. Among other things, it also asks patients what their treatment goals are (options include to live with as little pain as possible, to spend more time with loved ones, to be active, and to be independent for as long as possible) to help give them an idea of treatment options that fit those goals.
It’s estimated that more than 168,000 women are living in the U.S. with metastatic breast cancer, and a small number of men have the disease as well. “It’s really important that you stay on top of your health, especially now with COVID-19. People have skipped appointments,” Vieira says. “But if something doesn’t feel right to you, use your voice and speak up. You can’t put cancer on hold.”
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