Amy Robach on What Life After Breast Cancer Is Really Like

It’s been nearly two years since Good Morning America anchor Amy Robach announced her breast cancer diagnosis on live TV, following an on-air mammogram that colleague Robin Roberts urged her to get. In Amy’s new memoir, Better ($ 27, amazon.com), she writes candidly about her mastectomy, chemotherapy, and recovery over the next 12 months. In this excerpt from the book’s last chapter, she reflects on her new “normal” and what it’s like to live with the odds of a recurrence.

For women who’ve been successfully treated for breast cancer, there is a 30 percent chance that the disease will come back. There’s also something called an “Onco Score,” which weighs the details of each case to arrive at an individual’s 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. That’s 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, “You’re going to be fine,” but it really breaks down into survival rates at five years and survival rates at ten years. If breast cancer metastasizes, it’s terminal. I’ve always been a very positive person, even during my divorce and earlier medical issues. I’m like Orphan Annie, I guess, always believing that everything’s going to be better tomorrow, even when it’s 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 couldn’t get it back. I kept trying to frame things in a positive way, but somehow I couldn’t find the unbridled joy and optimism I used to have. That’s because, deep down, I spent a lot of my time feeling terrified.

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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 it’s trying to tell us. But there have been plenty of moments since my diagnosis when what I felt was plain old vanilla fear, and that’s when I’d break down.

Living with cancer is like your first time on a sailboat: If you’re 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 you’re not going to go down because you’re on a slant and a few waves are coming over the railing.

When you’re living with cancer, your feet can be on dry and solid ground, but you still feel tippy. You are never fully stable and secure. I’ve always been a list-maker, a goal-setter, and a forward thinker, because I’ve 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. I’ve 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.

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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 “normal” after a year out of chemo. But the fear lingers in your gut because you’re 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 isn’t as tasty, and going to bed at night isn’t as cozy, because you’ve looked beyond the veil. Once you’ve 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. I’m going to be here awhile.

There have been a lot of days since October 2013 in which I’ve felt in my gut that my cancer will come back. But, as my husband Andrew always reminds me, “Don’t die before you die.” 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 “more meaningful,” like work with wood or grow organic vegetables. But you don’t have to completely reinvent yourself in a one-stoplight town in order to be transformed by a horrible experience. I would say that there’s also something called “transformation in place.” It’s more subtle, because it looks like you’re doing the same things. But the difference is, you’re doing all those things in a more mindful way, because you’ve looked into the valley of death.

The issue isn’t 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 from BETTER by Amy Robach Copyright © 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.


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