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Elizabeth Heiskell: My journey with breast cancer

In a personal essay, the TODAY Food contributor and celebrity chef shares a personal health story. 

Four months ago I was waiting for a yoga class to start when the teacher said hello to me. She’s one of my favorites — I think of her as a little light bulb that hardly touches the earth’s ground as she walks. She just floats through this world. No one else was in the lobby, so I decided to share my news with her. 

“I just wanted to let you know that I have breast cancer, and I had chemo yesterday,” I said. “I’m not sure how I’ll do in class today.” 

I wanted her to know that if I had to leave early or walk out in the middle of a pose, it wasn’t because I didn’t like her class. 

“You have breast cancer?” she asked, and I nodded. 

“Congratulations on your journey,” she said, as though I’d told her I had won the lottery.

If someone had a picture of my face at that very moment, I can tell you, it would have been epic. I wanted to say, “Lady, you need to quit smoking that incense you are always burning in here.” I couldn’t imagine what she was talking about. I was so taken aback. During class, I was pissed, getting madder by the minute — but I stayed the whole time.

Four weeks earlier, I’d been at a sports bar in Oxford, Mississippi, where I live. Ole Miss baseball season ended with the Rebels in Omaha and it was an amazing game. About halfway through the game, I scratched my breast and felt a lump — a big lump. I made my friend Machelle come to the bathroom to feel it. I’ll never forget the look on her face. She was terrified. 

Heiskell with her husband and two of their daughters.
Heiskell with her husband and two of their daughters.Courtesy Elizabeth Heiskell

Machelle met me at my gynecologist’s office the following Monday morning. We went into the room and Julie, my doctor, started to examine me. A very worried look came over her face. We talked about the mammogram I recalled having months earlier, and she went to look at the film. When she came back, she looked even more worried. “Elizabeth,” she said, “it has been 2 years, not 8 months since your last mammogram.”

Then she gave me the plan: mammogram, ultrasound, biopsy.

I was hearing the words, but they were not sinking in — I couldn’t let them. Julie sent me to get bloodwork but not before Machelle stood up, crying, and said, “Can we please hold hands and pray?” So we all stood there holding hands in the exam room and Machelle prayed. They were both crying, and I can remember thinking, “This is pretty dramatic, Machelle.”

Test after test, I was in more denial. I was in the best shape of my life. My career was flourishing. My daughter and I were driving to Memphis, where I had a big meeting — Goldbelly was interested in selling my cakes — when my phone rang. It was the doctor. 

“Elizabeth, we have the results of the biopsy and you have invasive ductal carcinoma,” she said. (Invasive ductal carcinoma is the most common type of breast cancer, which starts in the milk ducts and spreads to nearby tissue.) She went on to explain that I was hormone receptor-negative but still waiting on the results of the HER2 test. That is all I remember. At that point, I went into complete panic mode. We turned the car around.

We got home and my husband, Luke, knew when he saw us back so soon. He knew from the look on our faces. I didn’t have to say the words “I have cancer,” but I did because I wanted to know what it felt like. I wanted to see if my brain could even let me form the sentence. Being told you have cancer is hard. Having to tell the people you love is near impossible. 

My husband, Luke, knew from the look on our faces. I didn’t have to say the words “I have cancer,” but I did because I wanted to know what it felt like.

After getting multiple opinions from different specialists, we finally came up with a plan. Honestly, that was half the battle. Once I knew what was coming, facing it all seemed bearable. The plan was six rounds of chemotherapy, surgery and radiation. 

The morning of my first round of chemo, I tried to remember all the tips I’d been given on what to wear. Lord, I had been schooled on black-tie, summer casual, business casual, even Delta casual, but chemo casual? Not so much.

I decided on soft drawstring joggers and a deep V-neck T-shirt. I had borrowed my daughter’s soft bathrobe to keep me warm and packed it in my suitcase — yes, I took a suitcase. Luke and I may as well have had a neon sign on our backs that read, “Hello, we are new here!"

Heiskell wearing the cold cap to preserve her hair during her cancer treatment.
Heiskell wearing the cold cap to preserve her hair during her cancer treatment.Courtesy Elizabeth Heiskell

I texted my friends a picture of me in the cold cap and wrote, “This f—ing sucks.” My friend Mendy responded with instructions: “Visualize a perfect beach day, sand in your butt crack in those God-awful canvas beach chairs, a cooler full of cold beer, a slaw dog lunch, a giant bag of chips.” Well, that helped more than anyone could imagine. Then Machelle chimed in: “I think the cold cap looks like a helmet required on a vespa in Italy. Dream about riding that curvy road in Capri. Hot Italian men and an Aperol spritz.”

But the cold was unimaginable. When I thought I couldn’t take it any more, another woman who was there in a cold cap — Diane, a chemo veteran —  spoke from behind the curtain where she was having her own treatment: “Just a few more minutes and the worst will be over.” I wanted my hair for my daughter’s debutante ball. I wanted my hair for an upcoming wedding in Paris. I wanted my hair even if there was only half left. She was right. I didn’t quit and within a few minutes, the sharp pain was gone — the cap felt cold and tight, but it was manageable. 

I wanted my hair for my daughter’s debutante ball. I wanted my hair for an upcoming wedding in Paris. I wanted my hair even if there was only half left.

Around that time, the nurse came in with the chemotherapy machine. My anxiety and fear started to well up. The panic started in my gut. I looked at Luke, sitting in a tiny chair, and he had tears in his eyes. I knew what he was thinking. I knew all he wanted to do was take it all away from me. He looked so helpless, and I don’t think in the 27 years of marriage I have ever been so in love.

I was elated when the day was behind me. It’s amazing how our minds can run wild with fear. The day was hard — filled with excruciating pain and lots of tears — but it was nothing compared the picture my mind had created.  

At this point I have checked off half of my six chemo treatments. The tumor has shrunk by more than half its size. What I do to stay positive is wrap myself up in all the silver linings I have, even in this mess. And now I finally understand what my sweet yoga teacher was talking about when she said “congratulations.” There are so many lessons that can only be learned in the dark times, so many gifts that are only discovered by overcoming fears.

I can’t tell you how many people have told me, “You’re strong. God won’t give you any more than you can handle.” We’ve all heard that when going through hard times. But that’s not it. I think it’s that God knows you are ready to embark on another journey. You are ready to discover all the lessons that this new journey has to offer. 

That day at yoga, I picked up a small card the studio has set out at the front desk, each one with a different, inspiring quote. That day mine said, “Each difficult moment has the potential to open my eyes and open my heart.” 

You don’t get to choose if you get cancer, but you do get to choose how you experience this cancer journey. It is different for everyone, but I choose to search for joy and to lean into all the lessons that only moments like these can teach me.