Meet Judith Basya – a two-time breast cancer survivor and writer who uses her journalist background and cynical sense of humor to share the truest realities of her experiences with cancer. Hoping to shed some authentic light on a subject most people can't understand or talk much about – unless they've gone through it themselves – Judith's voice is a force to be reckoned with, as seen in her powerful piece for Refinery29 titled, "The Secret Suckiness Of Life After Breast Cancer." To read more about her treatment choices and greatest challenges, such as her continuous loathing for hormone therapy, read our Q&A below.
Name: Judith Basya
Location: Sacramento, CA
Current Health Status: No evidence of disease (NED) as far as I know
Tell us a little bit about yourself.
At the moment I live in Sacramento, CA with my husband, two daughters (13 and 10), and our beloved Doodle mutt. We like it here well enough, but we miss Manhattan, which we left a few years ago for my husband’s job. I’m a journalist and photographer. Most of my work has been in music and book reviews, but I also wrote an advice column for a few years, something I’d wanted to do since childhood. I’ve been interested in photography since I was a kid, too, but only recently figured that out.
When were you diagnosed with breast cancer?
I found my first lump at 40 while nursing my then-toddler; my hand brushed against it accidentally. I’m an Ashkenazi Jew so it shouldn’t surprise anyone that I have a family history of breast cancer, but I wasn’t aware of it then because my family is huge and somewhat secretive. Anyway, my first lump was DCIS, ER and PR positive. Two years later, I had a scare in my other breast that turned out to be benign. And two years after that I found another lump exactly where the first had been. I found this one by accident also, except instead of nursing I was putting a bra on, and instead of DCIS and hormone receptor-positive, it was stage 2 and triple-positive.
What were your first thoughts when you were diagnosed?
Going back to the first time: as I was leaving the building after my biopsy, a bird pooped on me. When I got home my laptop wouldn’t boot. And the next day I lost control of my daughter’s stroller while rollerblading and knocked over an elderly man. All signs pointed to bad news, in other words. Yet when the doctor said “malignant” I was shocked. Cancer? Me?
How did your friends and family take the news?
After my first diagnosis my mother emailed basically everybody she knew asking them to pray for me, and then I got all these messages from people I hadn’t heard from in years, which stirred up a lot of crap that I wasn’t in the mood for. (PSA: if someone you bullied in middle school has cancer, keep your well-wishes to yourself.) Then my father showed up the day of my lumpectomy, took my daughters to the playground, and told the other parents and nannies why he was there. I had to do damage control to keep the news from my kids – they were only six and three, and I wasn’t getting chemo; they didn’t need to know.
Four years later, my parents weren’t newbies to having a child with cancer anymore. They asked me what I needed and did as much as they could. The challenge this time was breaking the news to my girls. I’ll never forget my older daughter blurting out, “You have cancer?!?!” or my younger one asking, “What if they don’t get all the cancer out?” They wore pink to school on the day of my mastectomy and came home with cards from their classmates. As much as I hate all the pink-ribbon bullsh*t, I appreciate that it comforted them.
As for my friends’ reactions, it’s been a process for me to learn to accept help and to appreciate what people have to offer rather than dwell on what they can’t. I could tell funny stories all day about the help that isn’t actually helpful, but I’d be revealing my own neuroses as much as anybody else’s.
Describe your treatment and how you arrived at that course of action.
The first time was lumpectomy, radiation and Tamoxifen. I lasted three months on Tamoxifen, but my then-oncologist was OK with me quitting. The second time was a bilateral mastectomy, chemo, Herceptin and, yay, Tamoxifen again. I’d just moved across the country so I had to find new doctors again, but they all recommended the same things so my treatment decisions were mostly about who and where. These are weighty choices, though. At one point I had mastectomies scheduled a few days apart at two different hospitals because location versus surgeon versus plastic surgeon versus be away from home during the week or over a weekend. It was ridiculous. I spent less time and angst deciding to remove both breasts instead of one.
Were you able to work through treatment?
There’s one piece I’m still proud of that I wrote just a few days after surgery – a book review fed by the crazy dreams and emotional swings that I was experiencing. That’s all I managed to produce for the next eight months, though. Chemo made me nauseous and my mind sluggish. I’m in awe of women who work through treatment – especially for those who have no choice.
Where and how did you find the best care?
I’ve been lucky to get cancer in major cities: New York and San Francisco. In New York, I never set foot in a hospital. Everything was in a doctor’s office or private facility, and I liked that. I pictured Sloan-Kettering as this giant, Kafkaesque institution with endless hallways. In San Fran I went to UCSF, though, and appreciated their resources and care coordination.
Did you receive any additional support or alternative therapies?
I tried acupuncture while undergoing chemo, but it made me even more tired than I already was.
What or who have been your biggest supports? Who makes up your cancer tribe?
Frankly, the only people who really get it are the people who’ve dealt with it. I truly appreciate the various support groups I’ve joined, mostly online, but especially Bay Area-based BAYS. I don’t live there anymore – yup, I moved again – but I make the ninety-minute drive once in a while to attend a BAYS function.
What has been one of the most challenging aspects of the experience for you?
The mental fog and physical debilitation. Chemo was temporary, but now Tamoxifen is addling my brain while also stiffening my joints, cramping my muscles, giving me insomnia, mood swings, facial hair, and I could go on. I’m supposed to take it for ten years. I would go through chemo again to be done with Tamoxifen – that’s how much I hate it.
What is one thing you wish you knew before you were diagnosed?
It would have been nice to know everything I now know about breast cancer going in. Those initial weeks after diagnosis when you’re frantically scheduling appointments and visiting every cancer website this side of the Internet is insane.
Is there a particular mantra or inspiration that helps you?
I’m too cynical for mantras, but fear of another recurrence, which in my case would be terminal, is a pretty good motivator on its own. Whenever I find myself hesitating due to insecurity or anxiety, I remind myself that I might not be here in ten years – on some level I don’t expect to be. Then I tell my anxieties to f*** off (or acknowledge them kindly, on a good day) and get on with whatever mildly scary thing they were blowing out of proportion.
If you could offer a woman, who has been newly diagnosed, some words of wisdom for her journey, what would you tell her?
The only thing I’d say to a woman who’s newly diagnosed is that the first few weeks are often the worst in terms of fear and stress. Any other advice can wait. If you’ve just been diagnosed, you don’t want to hear that your old life isn’t coming back and your new one may take a few years to sort out.
What are you most proud of in your cancer journey?
Pride isn’t the right word, but shortly after chemo, I agreed to take pictures of my daughter’s flag football team for the league website in exchange for lessons from another parent on using my camera. I would probably have said no if I’d been working, but I’d been lying around watching Amy Schumer videos all summer thanks to chemo, and I recognized that I wouldn’t be getting back to writing right away. Flash forward to this year, I earned equal income (albeit very little) from writing and photography. So, I’m grateful to myself for saying yes that day, but I wouldn’t call it pride because too many ducks lined up behind that opportunity, including cancer, which I will never thank for anything.
How has breast cancer affected your outlook on life? On illness?
A lot of people find god after illness, but I went the other way and let go of religion. To be fair, all I had left of religion was guilt. But I’d been acknowledging that guilt too kindly for too long. I told it to f*** off, finally, and I still have to remind myself occasionally, but not nearly as often as I remind my insecurities to f*** off.
As for my outlook on illness, the biggest change is I no longer believe it won’t happen to me.
How have you changed?
I really can’t answer that until I’m done with Tamoxifen. It makes me so short-tempered that I don’t recognize myself. I take anti-depressants to mitigate that and they take the edge off, but I don’t feel like myself on all these drugs. The attitude shifts that I mentioned earlier may even be more attributable to the meds than any self-reflection on my part. And don’t get me started on the physical changes – we’ll be here all month.
If Judith's honest tone has you hooked, you can find more of her writing at The Manifest-Station, "What to Expect When You Weren't Expecting Breast Cancer: The Stages of Mourning a Diagnosis", as well as a few Heeb Magazine book reviews here.