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Behind Closed Doors with Rene Syler


I'm Michel Martin. This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Coming up, the last day of a long war marks the beginning of a new life.

But first, White House Press Secretary Tony Snow returns to work today after a month of treatment for cancerous tumors in his stomach. Snow is one of many high-profile people who have had to deal with their illness in public. But for most people, illness is an intensely private matter. We're going to spend sometime shedding light on perceptions and issues that may not be talked about openly in all communities. We're calling that segment Behind Closed Doors.

Today, we talk with Rene Syler, former CBS "The Early Show" co-anchor, mom and author who made a difficult decision about her health.

Welcome, Rene. We're so happy to talk to you.

Ms. RENE SYLER (Former CBS Anchor): Good to talk to you.

MARTIN: You recently decided to have a double mastectomy, even though you did not have a breast cancer diagnosis.

Ms. SYLER: Right.

MARTIN: Why did you do that?

Ms. SYLER: Well, I think that's an important distinction. You know, it in a lot of ways made the decision very, very difficult. I have a mother who had breast cancer. She was diagnosed post-menopausely at 64, and I had a father with breast cancer. He was one of the 1,500 men in the country that are diagnosed each and every year. And it was a very difficult decision for me, because while I didn't have cancer, I was having to go and have a regular routine mammograms, which, of course, you're supposed to do after you're 40. And those mammograms would be followed by a biopsy, followed by three days of waiting and wondering whether I had cancer.

The other thing was I was diagnosed in 2003 with hyperplasia atypia, which is in many circles thought of as the stage right before a breast cancer. It's that all of these sort of things working in this breast cancer cauldron, if you will, and I just thought I would rather be proactive than reactive.

MARTIN: You've been vigilant about the issue for years, I guess, just because of your parents I assume.

Ms. SYLER: Yeah. I mean, when I was…

MARTIN: Really proactive about your health…

Ms. SYLER: Absolutely.

MARTIN: …getting the mammograms and stuff like that.

Ms. SYLER: Well, I mean, like any cancer, the earlier it's caught, the better the prognosis. And so I was, because of my family history, hypervigilant about my screening. I had doctors that wouldn't let me not be hypervigilant. So - but it was important to me. I had - obviously, I have a family, I have two children and a husband. And it was important not only to me to be healthy, but, you know, I'm the linchpin of my family, and I had to be there for them.

MARTIN: You were very public about it. Did you feel you had to be public about it, or did you want to be?

Ms. SYLER: Well, I wanted to be public about it because I feel like it's about educating people. With regard to what I had done - the prophylactic mastectomy - it's not the choice and decision for everyone, but it was the right choice for me given my family history. I just wanted people to know that they had options. And this is a decision that wasn't made overnight. I'd been thinking about it for a number of years. It wasn't made in a vacuum. I was talking to my doctors about it.

But it was the decision that was - after years and years of painful biopsies -and I really just felt like, am I waiting for the time that I'm diagnosed with breast cancer? You know, years and years go by, and every year you feel like you dodged a bullet. How did I know the next year I wasn't going to go in and they said, okay, now you have breast cancer? And now we have to fight really aggressively.

MARTIN: Cancer's very much in the news these days, with some very high-profile people talking about their struggles and discussions on this issue - Elizabeth Edwards, the wife of presidential candidate John Edwards, Tony Snow, the White House press secretary. But we were observing that very few celebrities of color who are addressing these issues seem to be doing that publicly, which is one reason we wanted to talk to you, frankly. We wanted to talk to you about, you know, first of all, why do you think that is? Do you - and I must tell you, my parents still don't use the word cancer when talking about friends or family.

Ms. SYLER: Wow.

MARTIN: They still use words like the big C.

Ms. SYLER: Really?

MARTIN: And I just wondered, what do you think? Why do you think that is?

Ms. SYLER: I'm not sure why that is. I feel like the best way to confront your fears or to deal with your fears is to confront them. I mean, listen, it was a scary time for me - a very frightening time. But I got through it by talking to family and friends about it, making sure I had adequate care and great doctors. And it was my, sort of, hope that in doing what I was doing that I would - I guess, it sounds kind of corny - but to blaze a trail or to at least open up a little bit of a pathway for someone who might be facing some of same issues.

MARTIN: Help us talk about this, if you would. How did you go home that day, when you - you know, you've obviously been getting mammograms for years, you've been aggressive about this for years. But when you first started thinking about - how did you talk about it?

Ms. SYLER: Well, I mean, this really was a process. I had been talking to my husband about it. You know, year after year - when we'd have these mammograms and they'll be followed by the three days of watchful worry. And I've got to talk to my doctor about it. And he said, you know, there's always this option. And I went home - this is couple of years ago - and I said, you know, this is, kind of, maybe not now, certainly, maybe not now is the time, but maybe down the line we should be thinking about this.

Well, down the line happened in July of last year. I had my last biopsy, and when I was recovering from that and the swelling went down and I felt what was left in my breast and it was like, my breast was really deformed. It was missing - it was probably half a cup size smaller than the other breast. And it was such a disheartening thing to think about it and to see.

So I went back to my doctor and I said, how can we fix this? And he said, well, we can use an implant to fix it. But if you use an implant, then you know you're never going to be able to have a less invasive type of biopsy again, and given your history and your pattern, you're probably going to be back here next year for another biopsy.

MARTIN: So they're going to keep cutting on you.

Ms. SYLER: Right. And the futility of it all just hit me then. It just - what was I doing? What was I waiting for? And that's when I said to my husband, well, what do you think about this? And he said, you know, well, it seems kind of, like a no brainer. Because what happens, Michel, as you bring your breast cancer risk way down. Now, I had a procedure that's called a nipple-sparing areola - a nipple-sparing mastectomy. So you keep your own nipple and areola, they take out are the breast tissue.

MARTIN: And you had reconstructive surgery?

Ms. SYLER: And I have had - three weeks ago, I had reconstructive surgery. So I asked my husband, what do you think? And he says, well, it seems like a no brainer to me. And I'm, like, well, yeah, because they are not your breasts that are being cut off. It really wasn't a no brainer, but actually, it was. It was actually - once I had made the decision and I was 99 percent there -because I can't say that I was ever 100 percent there until after the fact. Even when I lay my head on the table the morning of surgery, I still wasn't 100 percent sure.

MARTIN: Were you worried that your husband might not find you as attractive?

Ms. SYLER: No. No. We've been married for 13 years. And I wasn't worried about that because my breasts were just a part of who I was. I felt like they would want me and my family needed me to be there for them, even it meant a part of me was missing. And that was the attitude I adopted.

MARTIN: What about the kids? Did you talk to your kids about what you were doing?

Ms. SYLER: Yeah. You know, my kids - KC(ph) who's 10, my daughter and my son, Cole(ph) who's eight - I did talk to them about what I was doing. It was important that they also be in on it - certainly not in the decision-making capacity, but that they knew what was happening. We've been - they'd been following mommy and her breast issues, you know, from the first biopsy, because they - I would come home from these biopsies, and they would want to give me a hug, and I would be sore and recovering. So they knew from the beginning what was going on.

MARTIN: Sometimes when folk are very open about things that they're going through, other people don't appreciate it. Did you ever have somebody say, girl, why - putting your business in the street?

Ms. SYLER: No. And I - luckily, right now, I have not. So far it's just only been positive. I guess I would question, you know, why someone would feel the need to say that to me when really, what it was about was presenting people with options and women with options about what they could do.

MARTIN: Some people also - I think, positing a theory here - might not be so open about their health issues because they feel that their job situation or their standing is already precarious and they feel, that, you know, perhaps I might not get the support that I would hope for.

Ms. SYLER: And, you know, and what a sad thing, right?

MARTIN: But what if that is the case? I mean, and forgive me for, you know, I hope this isn't painful to bring up, but you, in the middle of all this…

Ms. SYLER: Yeah.

MARTIN: …when you'd plan the surgery, you lost your job.

Ms. SYLER: Yeah, I got fired by CBS, sure. No. It's not painful. I mean, listen, after you've gone through what - listen. I mean, I went to hell and back in December and January. It was not easy, because five weeks after I was fired, I, you know, I had my breast removed. So, yeah, it was a very difficult time.

MARTIN: I'm just saying that I think for some, culturally, it's considered not - it's considered important not to show weakness, and that if you talk about your health, you're showing weakness. And I'm just saying for people who have that attitude, what would you say?

Ms. SYLER: Well, I mean, I think you certainly you have to be true to yourself. And for me to be true to myself, it's about, you know, being open and honest about what I was going through and drawing support from the people around me. But I feel like for me and for - my mother's always been open with her battle with breast cancer, so has my father - it's about education. And that's why I decided to speak out about it, because I feel like if you, sort of, de-stigmatize it, people will be more, obviously, willing to talk about it, obviously, more willing to get proper treatment and care for it. And that's the way you beat cancer, is through an early diagnosis, and therefore the prognosis is better.

MARTIN: I wonder if some of it has to do with continued suspicion of the medical establishment…

Ms. SYLER: You know…

MARTIN: …that for some reason that legacy of mistrust…

Ms. SYLER: Yes.

MARTIN: …continues…

Ms. SYLER: Sure.

MARTIN: …in a way that makes people not as aggressive about pursuing information. Or perhaps a relationship with authority that suggests that, you know, I can't ask questions.

Ms. SYLER: Well, I think perhaps that might be part of it. It might also be the fact that - like you said - it might be about trust, maybe not trusting, or maybe they just haven't - if they don't have the proper care to get a regular family doctor, you don't feel like telling your life history and story to somebody new every time you go in to the doctor.

MARTIN: Do you think it's important to get along with your doctor or to feel a connection or simpatico with your doctor?

Ms. SYLER: Well, I think you…

MARTIN: Is that important to you?

Ms. SYLER: …certainly have to feel like they're on your team. I mean, I went through a situation in - early on in one of my biopsies where I'm - here I am, wearing this flimsy paper gown, and I'm scared to death and this doctor comes in, and I started crying. And he said, well, what are you crying about? We don't even know what we have here.

And you know what? I have to tell you - this is where it's important to be empowered. I went through the rest of that exam, I got dressed, I went right away and said I want my films. I'm out of here. I'm not going to ever come back here again. I'm going to find a doctor who listens to me and who understands me and my fears.

And they - see, the thing is, for him, I was just another patient. But for me, I was - this is my first brush with a breast cancer scare. He sees it 20 times a day, so he was not what I needed. He was not the person that was going to be on what I called Team Syler. And I found a great and wonderful doctor who'd been caring for me for the last four years.

MARTIN: Good for you.

Ms. SYLER: Yeah.

MARTIN: Good for you. That's a great story.

Ms. SYLER: But you know what? You really have to - if you feel in your gut that this is the wrong person, then you should listen to that. You should heed that small warning and go find someone that you think will listen to you and take adequate care of you and appropriate care.

MARTIN: And the final question I have for you - in terms of difficult conversations - what common sense advice would you give to people who are struggling with, you know, health issues that they think other people might not understand and perhaps feel alone in? What would you say?

Ms. SYLER: Well, I think now, in the Internet age, there's so much information out there. There are so many support groups and Web sites that you can go to. I would try to get hooked up with whatever organization or issue you were having and find an organization from which you could get some good, sound advice.

The other thing is, you've got to go to your doctor. When you go to your doctor, you have to be honest with your doctor. You can't lie to your doctor, because they can't help you if they don't have all the information.

And the third thing I would say is, illness is nothing to be embarrassed by. Ask for help. If you can't - you know, when I was in the middle of my reconstruction, I had to have neighbors come over and take care of me and take my children for a couple of days because I was physically unable to care for them. Don't be afraid to ask for help.

MARTIN: Rene, thank you so much for talking with us.

Ms. SYLER: Good to see you. Bye.

MARTIN: Rene Syler is the former co-anchor of CBS' "The Early Show." She joined us from our studios in New York. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.