Some women look to celebrities when they're pregnant, identifying with famous moms-to-be who are due around the same date.
Others, like me, look for celebrity cancer twins. E! News host Giuliana Rancic just joined the ranks of my small group of hapless -- but hardly hopeless -- heroes.
Don't get me wrong; I wouldn't wish cancer on anyone. But there's something incredibly powerful about a smart, successful celeb letting down her perfectly coiffed hair to speak openly, honestly and even fearfully about a wretched, life-changing disease that has turned her world -- and mine -- completely upside down.
Breast cancer twins
Wanda Sykes is another such cancer twin. Diagnosed in February of this year (same as me), the comedian went on Ellen back in September to talk about her double mastectomy. During the interview, which I've probably watched a dozen times, Sykes looks healthy and beautiful and strong. More importantly, she's fazed but still funny, taking potshots at her cancer as if she were back roasting the president at the White House Correspondents' Dinner.
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And now there's Rancic, the 37-year-old funny, self-effacing cohost of E! News and Fashion Police, who discovered her disease while prepping for a third round of in vitro fertilization treatments (Rancic and her husband have chronicled their struggles with infertility on their reality TV show.)
In mid-October, a visibly shaken Rancic revealed on TODAY that she'd been diagnosed with early stage breast cancer after a doctor pushed her into getting a mammogram before pursuing further IVF treatment.
According to the E! News star, she went "kicking and screaming" to get that early mamm, then got a follow-up phone call telling her she needed to come back because they'd "found something."
Blast from the past
Listening to her talk about the "kick in the stomach" that accompanied that phone call put me right back in the darkened room of the women's imaging center where I had my diagnostic mammogram and ultrasound 10 months ago. I remember lying there -- scared, stunned, annoyed -- watching the technician slowly circle my chest with a lubed-up wand as if she were trying to coax secrets from a Ouija board.
Gazing at the glowing ultrasound screen, I saw a black mass when the wand honed in on the underside of my left breast.
"Is that the cyst?" I asked, innocently. "My ob/gyn said I probably had a cyst on my left boob."
"That's not a cyst," the technician told me, refusing to make eye contact.
"Well, if it's not a cyst, what is it?" I pushed.
"You'll need to talk to the doctor about that," she said.
I can still feel the cold fingers of dread crawling up the back of my neck at that moment, just as Rancic must have felt when she got the news that instead of having a baby, she'd be having a double lumpectomy followed by six weeks of radiation.
Unfortunately, the lumpectomies didn't get all of the cancer. This morning, Rancic went on TODAY again to share the news that in two weeks' time, she'll be having a double mastectomy -- just as I had to do back in April.
"With a double mastectomy, I have less than a one percent chance of getting it back," Rancic told TODAY this morning. "With another lumpectomy, radiation and medication, I could have a 20, 30 or 40 percent chance in my lifetime. In the end, it all came down to choosing to live and not looking over my shoulder the rest of my life."Video: Giuliana Rancic will have double mastectomy (on this page)
Her decision was not an easy one to make. In fact, much like me, Rancic freaked out when the word mastectomy came up.
"When they first told me it was an option, I said absolutely not," she told TODAY. "Absolutely not. I'm 37 years old. I don't want to do that.”
But after research and soul-searching and some show-and-tell with a close friend who'd had a mastectomy and reconstruction several years earlier, Rancic chose to "live and be healthy."
Amen to that.
A hand up
Do I actually have anything in common with this woman, this "twin" of mine?
Hardly. She's younger, thinner, more beautiful, more glamorous, more married, more successful, and probably 50 times nicer than me. A red carpet fixture with a Masters in journalism, she not only knows what a flat iron and a Gucci python clutch are, she knows how to use them.
Yet my heart goes out to my twin, knowing what she's gone through already (a miscarriage, the diagnosis, the lumpectomies) and what she will be going through in days to come: the loss of her breasts (far better ones than mine!), those horrible drains, and after that, who knows? Chemo with its heart-rending hair loss? A few blasts of radiation?
There's no telling with cancer; it's a lousy disease full of left turns, disappointments, dead ends and tough decisions.
But there is telling about cancer and for that I'm grateful to Rancic and Wanda Sykes and Christina Applegate and Andrea Mitchell and Robin Roberts and Hoda Kotb and all those other cancer twins who've come forward to talk about their disease. For saying it's okay to break down in sobs at 2 in the morning. For admitting that mastectomy is one of the scariest words in the English language.
For some, Rancic's recent health revelations will seem like the same old celebrity self-indulgence, on par with tips on the latest colonic cleanse.
But for me and the thousands of other women clawing their way through the steaming mound of crap that is breast cancer, this kind of sharing is something quite different.
For us, it's validating and informing and strengthening. For us, it's an outstretched hand. A way to pull ourselves up and out of the muck. To help us do it, get through it, and then move on. So we, in turn, can reach out to help someone else, just as those who've kicked breast cancer's butt are now reaching out to Rancic.
"I think it's very important that girls and women, that we stick together and share our experiences with each other," Rancic said on TODAY. "That helped me, I think, more than anything."
For the record, Guiliana, it's helping all of us.
Diane Mapes is a frequent contributor at msnbc.com and TODAY.com and the author of "How to Date in a Post-Dating World." She blogs about life with breast cancer at www.doublewhammied.com.
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