Sally Yates opens up about her breast cancer diagnosis and what she wants other women to know

Former Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates shares her experience fighting breast cancer in an essay for CBSNews.com ahead of her interview with Norah O’Donnell on tonight’s “CBS Evening News.” Read her essay below.

It is never a good sign when you call a doctor for test results and are put straight to the doctor.

When the radiologist who biopsied my breast tissue came on the line, I could hear the diagnosis in her voice before uttering the words “you have invasive breast cancer.”

Instead of questioning my own health, I found myself empathizing and even trying to console myself with the doctor who was in the terrible position of having to deliver the news. “It must be so hard for you,” I said. It’s not that I’m a particularly selfless person; I’m convinced it was more of a coping mechanism to focus on taking care of my doctor’s emotional needs rather than immediately processing my diagnosis. My reaction was also reflexive. Women tend to take on a nurturing role for others but are often less attentive to taking care of ourselves. A simple but important way we can change that is by getting a regular mammogram.

Former Deputy and Acting Attorney General Sally Yates CBS News

About 280,000 women in the US are diagnosed with breast cancer each year. Many of those women are not as lucky as I am. I had access to first-class medical care and paid sick leave – benefits that are an absolute necessity for many during a health crisis. The pandemic has greatly exacerbated the embarrassing health disparities. People with unstable or low incomes, especially people of color, have worse survival rates for cancer and COVID-19. A recent Washington Post article revealed that since the pandemic began, millions of health care providers and patients have canceled cancer screenings and diagnostic tests. Many women who struggled to provide for their families while homeschooling their children, too often without insurance and regular doctors, did not have timely diagnostic tests. This represents a looming public health crisis, as delayed diagnosis can have a significant impact on a cancer patient’s prognosis.

Whether someone has access to early detection methods and treatment – essentially, whether someone lives or dies – shouldn’t depend on a person’s race, ethnicity, zip code or bank account.

After hearing the words “you have cancer”, nothing feels the same anymore. But hearing those words sooner rather than later makes all the difference. Last July, I was a week away from a scheduled mammogram when I discovered a lump in my breast. I was (mostly) sure nothing was wrong; I’ve enjoyed good health all my life, and nothing felt wrong. However, after a battery of tests and biopsies, I was diagnosed with invasive papillary cancer – a rare but not more dangerous form of breast cancer. I am fortunate that my cancer was detected early and grew slowly. After a double mastectomy, my prognosis is excellent.

My experience has taught me that no matter how healthy a person feels, we never know what may be lurking unnoticed. That is why it is essential to have regular diagnostic tests such as mammograms. I’ve also learned that in addition to taking care of our physical health, it’s important not to set unrealistic standards for how we deal with unexpectedly bad news. When discussing my diagnosis or surgery, my adult children chide me for constantly averting their concerns by saying how “lucky” I was that I caught the cancer early, before it progressed to my lymph nodes. I feel incredibly grateful — and in some ways guilty — that I’ve been given a positive cancer hand so far. But I’ve learned that it’s not ungrateful to think, and even say, “this stinks.” Counting your blessings and mourning a situation are not mutually exclusive. In fact, recognizing the full spectrum of emotions can be helpful and even healing. I hope this awareness will enable me to better support others in coping with breast cancer, or any life challenge for that matter.

Despite having spent quite a bit of my professional life in the public eye, I am quite a private person when it comes to my personal life. But whether you have a public platform or a small circle of friends, the stakes on cancer are too high for the luxury of privacy. We need to talk about cancer. We must share our stories. We must encourage our family members, friends and colleagues to take responsibility for their health. This month for breast cancer awareness, I hope that more women will have their routine checkups and schedule their regular mammograms, that our country will prioritize true health equality for all, and that every woman facing a breast cancer diagnosis will give herself the grace to allow others to care for her.

To hear more from Yates, watch CBS Evening News at 6:30pm on CBS and 10pm ET on CBSN tonight.

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