On a crisp, sunny morning in October 2022, I lay on a sterile exam table at an imaging center in Orlando, trying to ignore the bad feeling in the pit of my stomach. I’d gone in an hour earlier for my standard annual mammogram, and though the diagnostic radiology specialist had asked to follow up with an ultrasound, surely there was no cause for alarm.
After all, I was 43 with no obvious risk factors for breast cancer, and I hadn’t felt a lump.
But then the ultrasound tech’s face froze as she moved the wand over my right breast, focusing on a spot three and a half inches below my clavicle. She excused herself, and 10 minutes later, she returned with the doctor.
“Kristin,” he said, “there’s something suspicious right here.” He gestured to the right side of his own chest. “I’d like you to get it biopsied.”
A week later, I did just that, still assuring myself that the lump was most likely a benign cyst. But six days after that, Dr. Saigal, the breast surgeon who’d performed the biopsy, called with bad news. “It’s cancer,” she said gently as I began to cry.
On Nov. 3, Dr. Saigal scooped out a lump the size of a pea from my right breast, along with the tissue around it and a few lymph nodes under my right arm. The cancer was stage 1, she told me afterward. In all likelihood, I would only need radiation, followed by a daily dose of Tamoxifen. The tissue samples were sent off for analysis to tell us how aggressive the cancer was.
As I waited for the results to come in, I thought about what to do next. I told my husband, family and close friends, of course. I had a heartbreakingly difficult conversation with my then-6-year-old son, Noah. And I reached out to my literary agent and my publisher, who were tremendously supportive and offered extensions on my book deadlines.
But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that as a semi-public figure — I’ve written more than a dozen novels that have been published in more than 30 languages around the world — I had a responsibility. If I had put off my mammogram, assuming that breast cancer couldn’t happen to me at the age of 43, my tumor would have progressed, becoming more complicated to treat. That felt like an important message to share. But how, and when? And how would I summon the strength to share something like that when I felt like I was falling apart?
That felt like an important message to share. But how, and when? And how would I summon the strength to share something like that when I felt like I was falling apart?
A few days after Thanksgiving, I met with an oncologist, who gave me more bad news. Though the cancer was stage 1, it was very aggressive. I would need chemotherapy along with radiation. I burst into tears; I would lose my hair and months of my life. What would Noah think when he saw me looking so sick? I spent the next few days feeling very sorry for myself.
But as I prepared to start chemotherapy on Dec. 15, just a week and a half before Christmas, I began to think about silver linings, the way that even in difficult times, it is often possible to find some good.
I read everything I could find about NBC’s Kristen Dahlgren, whose decision to speak publicly about her breast cancer diagnosis two years before had moved me deeply.
I talked to my dear friend, author Patti Callahan Henry, a 10-year breast cancer survivor, and I reached out to author and breast cancer survivor Elin Hilderbrand, who was generous with her advice about how to face a private battle publicly.
And perhaps most of all, I was inspired by the story TODAY show anchor Hoda Kotb had shared about a stranger on a plane who told her, after her breast cancer diagnosis, “You could put your stuff deep in your pockets and take it to your grave, or you can help someone.”
I knew that’s what I needed to do. I was facing a tough battle, but I also realized I had been given a gift. I never lose sight of how fortunate I am to have the job I have — to be able to connect with so many readers around the world, the majority of whom are women. Now, I realized, I had the opportunity to reach them with a vital message: Get your mammogram. Perhaps that was the “why” in all of this. Perhaps I’d been given this challenge because I had the chance to do some good with it. That realization was a big part of finding my own way back to the light.
Perhaps I’d been given this challenge because I had the chance to do some good with it. That realization was a big part of finding my own way back to the light.Kristin Harmel
I posted a video announcing my diagnosis on my Facebook and Instagram feeds the day before my second chemotherapy infusion, and I announced it that evening on Friends & Fiction, the weekly web show I host with three other bestselling authors. I wanted to remind women not only to stay up to date with their mammograms, but also that if they, too, received a diagnosis like mine, there was every reason to believe they’d be OK, just as I knew I would be.
Soon after, I partnered with California-based literary events company Adventures by the Book to put together a virtual event to raise money for Susan G. Komen and to remind women to schedule their mammograms.
On March 7, I was joined by more than 70 bestselling authors, from Louise Penny to Lisa Scottoline, Alice Hoffman to Debbie Macomber, all of whom shared the “Get your mammogram” message with their followers. We reached millions and millions of viewers across the country. I worked with organizations in Canada and Israel to reach readers there, too.
Months later, I’m still hearing from women who went in for overdue mammograms after hearing my story, some of whom, like me, found suspicious lumps and were able to begin lifesaving treatment.
I’ve been writing for more than a decade about women in the Second World War who found inner strength they didn’t know they had and discovered ways, in the darkest of times, to find the light within and to do some good in the world. I didn’t discover until after my cancer diagnosis that I’d been writing toward a lifeline that I, myself, would need one day: the realization that when the hard times come, what matters most is what we do with those challenges. I hope I’ve done some good with mine.
Now go get your mammogram.
Kristin Harmel is the New York Times bestselling author of The Paris Daughter, The Book of Lost Names, and more than a dozen other novels that have been translated into more than 30 languages and are sold all over the world. She is also the co-founder and co-host of the weekly web show Friends & Fiction. Visit her at KristinHarmel.com, or find out more about her breast cancer journey here.