In Her Words: Samantha Harris
Emmy-winning TV host, breast cancer advocate, Certified Health Coach and bestselling author of Your Healthiest Healthy, Samantha Harris puts the thrive in breast cancer thriver.
Samantha achieved her dream jobs! She hosted eight seasons of Dancing with the Stars, starred on Broadway (in the role of “Roxie Hart” in CHICAGO) and went from intern in college to one of the hosts of Entertainment Tonight. On a 2-year break during her many years on ET, she discovered a lump in her breast. It was just 11 days after receiving a clear mammogram, and she was 40 years old. Samantha stayed persistent, listened to her gut, and after being misdiagnosed by multiple doctors, an oncologist finally confirmed that it was invasive ductal carcinoma in situ, stage 2. "It had also spread to a lymph node," she said. She opted remove both breasts and due to the type and size of the cancer they found, she chose to decline chemotherapy and radiation treatment and begin her healing journey.
Following Samantha's surgeries, and as a journalist, she began to research the reasons one in eight women get invasive breast cancer. She became interested in toxin-free living and functional medicine and ultimately, that passion led her back to school to also become a certified health coach, best-selling wellness author and a breast cancer advocate. Samantha is now almost 9 years cancer free and, as a longtime national ambassador for the world’s leading breast cancer non-profit, Susan G. Komen, she has most recently become the spokesperson for the YogaWorks Pink program - a partnership between Komen and YogaWorks to provide free online yoga classes designed for the needs of the entire breast cancer community.
To read more about Samantha's experience with breast cancer and how the experience dramatically changed both her and her life purpose, see our latest In Her Words.
Name: Samantha Harris
Location: Los Angeles, CA
Current Health Status: Thriving Breast Cancer Survivor
Tell us a little but about yourself.
I grew up in Minnesota with my mom, dad and sister. It was a wonderful upbringing and childhood. Much of it was spent backstage at rock concerts, because my dad produced all the shows that came to town. My parents created one of the country's first Renaissance festivals called King Richard's Faire in Chicago. They then expanded it to Massachusetts, outside of Boston, where my mom and sister still run the business to this day. Sadly, we lost my dad to colon cancer in 1996, when he was just 50 years old.
As the little Minnesota girl who was having dinner backstage at rock concerts with the big rock stars of the 80’s and early 90s, I knew I wanted a career in entertainment. I really thrived on stage. In front of a camera, I just came to life, and I knew it was something I wanted to pursue. So, when I was 12, I asked my parents to try and find an agent for me in the Minneapolis area, which they did. I quickly started working in commercials, print ads and any jobs I could get while going to school.
I went on to Northwestern University, with a major in Journalism and a minor in Theater. After graduating, and a few months after we lost my dad, I moved to Los Angeles in 1997. I hit the pavement hard for about 6 years, juggling 3 or 4 jobs at a time to keep myself afloat and pay rent while I was auditioning. I finally started to book some really amazing jobs. One of the first was a network show called The Next Joe Millionaire that aired on the Fox Network and then, that work led me to my first of many jobs as an entertainment news journalist – this first position as correspondent and weekend anchor at the TV show Extra. Eventually I moved to E! News, where I also took on the co-hosting duties for Dancing with the Stars for 8 seasons. Then I moved to the Insider, which was the sister show to Entertainment Tonight, and then ultimately, Entertainment Tonight, where I anchored the weekend show and served as a full-time correspondent traveling the globe. I had actually interned at Entertainment Tonight when I was a sophomore in college, so it was very exciting to be able to have that full-circle moment.
When were you diagnosed with breast cancer?
So here I was, living the television life in Los Angeles, while also exercising regularly, eating what I thought were healthy foods and raising my then 3- and 6-year-olds, when I was blindsided by a breast cancer diagnosis. I felt a lump 11 days after a clear mammogram and went to see my OBGYN, who told me it was nothing. A month later, I went to see my internist, who also told me it was nothing. Finally, four months after I found the lump, I went to see an oncologist, still never thinking that it was cancer. She also did not think the lump was cancerous, but she ran some diagnostic tests, none of which showed cancer. I had two ultrasounds and a needle biopsy, all on the same day. I also had a subsequent MRI, once we knew it was cancer, but all the initial diagnostics, including that original mammogram, did not detect the cancer. After having a lumpectomy, I learned that it was invasive ductal carcinoma in situ, stage 1. It had also spread to a lymph node, which we discovered after my double mastectomy with reconstruction – so I was restaged to stage 2. So, in 2014, at the age of 40, I had a total of 3 surgeries, and it was a blindsiding diagnosis. It shook my world in every way to my core.
How did you feel when you were diagnosed?
My first thoughts after being diagnosed were that I could not miss seeing my daughters grow up. I could not miss being at their weddings and knowing their children. And I couldn't leave my husband alone to raise daughters by himself. My dad hadn't been able to be there for my family, as we came into adulthood, got married and had kids, and I didn't want the same thing to happen to my family.
How did your friends and family take the news?
Upon hearing the news, my friends and family were devastated. My mom had been through it all with my dad and now, watching her little girl undergo such intense surgeries and face the fear of what was next, ravaged her. It was also so hard on my older sister. But they were so incredible, rallying at my side, with my husband. They made up my support squad.
What kind of treatment did you seek?
I discussed my treatment options with multiple doctors. I got second and third opinions from medical oncologists, surgical oncologists and radiation oncologists, so I could determine what was the best course of action for me. I ultimately chose a double mastectomy with two-stage reconstruction. I was able to do it nipple-sparing - thankfully the nipples survived - and I am very grateful that I made that choice. When it came to chemotherapy, both my medical oncologists told me that I was in a gray area, and I had anywhere from a 1-4% reduction in risk if I underwent chemo. Ultimately, I chose not to, even though I had already reserved cold caps to try to preserve some of my hair.
I thought that I was going to have radiation because my first-opinion radiation oncologist said that I had a 20% chance of local recurrence if I did not have it. Then I got a second opinion from a radiation oncologist at a university hospital, who was on salary and didn’t have the pressure to keep the lights on like the independent radiation oncologist. Not to be cynical, but it definitely gave me pause, because the university oncologist told me that there were two new studies out of MD Anderson and Sloan Kettering that took tumor size into consideration when making recommendations for radiation. That doctor told me that radiation would not help reduce risk of local recurrence at all and that I was in a good place to not have radiation. So I chose not to have radiation treatment.
Did you work while you were going through treatment?
I was at a time in my career between TV jobs and, again, because I underwent surgeries and not chemo or radiation, I had only 6 weeks or so after each of my two major surgeries to have to truly be in bed and not active. That said, I did have pretty intense recovery requirements from my reconstruction surgeon. She did not want me out of bed or moving around more than 20 minutes every two hours for the first 3 weeks after the two surgeries - mastectomy and reconstruction. So, I worked from my bed vigorously on my computer. My hands were very busy typing and building an online platform, even though I couldn't do any other sort of activity. This part was challenging for me, because I love to exercise, I love to work out and I love to be busy. That was possibly one of the hardest things - not being able to exercise to lift my mood through those stress-reducing endorphins that I count on. And, also, having to rely on others for every bit of my care was very challenging.
How did you find the best care?
I am lucky to live in Los Angeles where there are an array of hospitals and oncology professionals to seek second and third opinions from …and, ultimately, to create a special team. That was very beneficial.
But beyond my surgeries, I also started to seek out a functional medicine, integrative internist. Especially as I began to venture into the next phase of my life - becoming a Certified Health Coach, with the goal of helping others. When I had been trying to determine my course of treatment and type of surgery to undergo, I spoke to a lot of women who were more than willing to openly share their stories, so that I could make the best choices for myself. It was very helpful to be able to reach out to other cancer survivors and see what worked best for them.
Did you receive additional support or seek alternative therapies?
I went on Tamoxifen about three months after my surgery and immediately started to have challenging night sweats that would wake me up and make sleep very restless.. I still have them in spurts each month, depending upon my cycle, and they can still be disruptive. I tried acupuncture for quite a while initially, but it did not give me any relief. So I really just learned coping mechanisms to help tolerate the night sweats -pulling sheets on and off me during the nighttime, changing my shirt if it got too sweaty and doing breath work to get me back to sleep.
Those tactics are all helpful, but the most significant alternative therapy I tried was a plant-based, whole food diet as my primary foundation of nutrition. This diet has helped me profoundly. When I learned that 1 in 8 women are diagnosed with invasive breast cancer, and that only 5-10% of those are genetic (and mine had no hereditary link), I put my journalist hat on and started searching for answers. I realized that it truly is what we put in, on and around our body that affects our overall wellbeing, and that turns on or leaves off certain cancer structures and DNA. I also learned about epigenetics - how our environment and lifestyle habit choices affect whether or not a certain type of cancer, heart disease, Type 2 Diabetes or neurodegenerative disorder develop. This information empowered me so much, because I realized I could take even better control of my health in ways I never realized were possible.
I wrote a book called Your Healthiest Healthy, because I realized that I needed to become my healthiest healthy. I found answers and guidance around a range of wellness areas – from changing up my skincare and makeup routine, to dealing with toxic relationships and people, to mitigating my stress, to switching out the cleaning supplies in my home, to redefining what was on my plate and how I was nourishing my body. Even my mindset for exercise changed. Once I learned how to do all of these things, I wanted a one-stop action plan, and it didn’t exist. So, I wrote the book. Your Healthiest Healthy debuted as a #1 Best Seller in multiple categories on Amazon and had a lot of wonderful celebrity and medical endorsements.
From there, I launched my Your Healthiest Healthy wellness retreats. I lead a retreat in Utah every year, and October 26-29, 2023, is the next one. I also offer a Your Healthiest Healthy retreat that consists of a two-day workshop in Santa Monica, CA. It includes beach workouts and yoga, coaching sessions with me and healthy, delicious food. We even go on a shopping trip to clean beauty supply stores where I empower and guide the attendees to understand how to read ingredients labels, what to avoid in terms of toxic ingredients and how to level up their home environment.
Then I decided to go back to school. Even though my TV-hosting career was my first love, wellness and health and exercise and fitness - oh my gosh, they all get me so excited and are my passion. And sharing that with others is very important to me. So, I got certified as a health coach in a year-long intensive program at a top institution, and I'm so happy I did that. From there, I created Your Healthiest Healthy: Courses - on-demand, virtual, topic-driven lessons that you can grab in bite-sized bits around many of the health subjects you want to focus on. Thriving after breast cancer, intermittent fasting, sleep routine, hormone balance, healthy weight loss - we cover all of these great topics
Last, I have Your Healthiest Healthy: Community, and this is my baby. I love it, because every week, I offer live coaching, and since I am also a certified trainer, I lead an all-levels live workout. I bring in a live guest expert weekly as well, who, really have been some of the top medical and nutrition experts in the country. Seven- times New York Times Best Selling authors like Dr. Joel Fuhrrman and Dr. David Perlmutter of The Grain Brain, the list goes on. I won't name them all, but it's fantastic and very exciting. And because it's in real time, I can have a live Q&A by members, which is wonderful. People can also watch all the “lives” 24/7 in
the on-demand feed. Ok, so I know I went on a tangent, but back to alternative therapies... For me, it's been exercise and nutrition and a new mindset around them. And also breathwork, more yoga and adding meditation and the infrared sauna. Those have been the other alternative therapies that have been incredibly supportive to my wellbeing and wellness post-cancer. Yes, want to say "post-cancer" because I am thriving, and I'm going to continue doing so. A positive mindset is a big part of it.
Who have been your biggest supporters and make up your cancer tribe?
My biggest supporters are my mom, my older sister and my husband. They are always there for me. Many are women I've met through Instagram, to be honest, and I find that the breast cancer community there is so wonderful. I have a lot of women who reach out to me now, and I DM them back with a voice or text message, sharing insights and answers to their questions. My Instagram and my Facebook handles are @samanthaharristv, and I try to respond to every single woman who reaches out to me. In terms of the other parts of my cancer tribe, there are wellness experts, oncologists and doctors who I have also met through Instagram and who have become my go-to's. Whether for gut health, hormone health or intermittent fasting questions, I've met functional oncologists and a functional gynecologist, all through Instagram. This platform can be the best thing, so long as you don't let social media pull you down.
What has been one of the most challenging aspects of the experience for you?
By far one of the most challenging aspects, initially, was having to stay in bed for 3 weeks, twice, in 2014. That, and not being the person that everyone else could depend on during the recovery – I was not able to do all the caregiving I am used to doing daily.. That was really hard.
Emotionally, it was difficult to get to a place where I knew I could live a very healthy, long life on the “other side”. The turning point for that moment occurred a few weeks into my diagnosis.
One of my oncologists (Actually, the one who wrote the forward for my book, Dr. Dennis Slamon, also known as the father of Herceptin, whose research created Herceptin to help HER2 positive patients.) was the one who helped me. He looked at me, in a matter-of-fact manner, and said, "You are going to live a long life, and you are not going to die of breast cancer." It's amazing how hope can be given through such quick and simple words…and that no other doctor thought to say that to me. It also struck me that if someone told you that you only have a few months to live, and you're never going to survive something, how detrimental that also would be. We need to have a dose of reality but being able to find that balance is also important, which is why positive self-talk has been a huge tool for me with survivorship. Changing the way your brain talks to you, getting rid of those negative thoughts (and I have a whole part of my book in which I talk about the negativity spiral, and how we can throw a wrench into it to stop it in its tracks!) has been incredibly important as well.
What is one thing you wish you knew before you were diagnosed?
I wish I had known that I could take even better control of my health and wellness as I grow older through plant-based nutrient-dense nutrition, stress-management, exercise (though I already knew that was good), quality sleep, breathwork and mindfulness. It would have really helped, and maybe I would never have been diagnosed in the first place had I done all that and also reduced or nixed all of the toxins in my make-up, hair care and skin care. I spent two decades sitting in a makeup chair, in my television job, being shellacked with bombs of harmful chemicals that were carcinogens and endocrine disruptors. Maybe it would have made a difference. This is another thing I love sharing with others. For those who want my tried and proven list of toxin-free beauty and more… all they have to do is DM me on Instagram or Facebook @SamanthaHarrisTV – or drop a comment on one of my social media posts to ask for my lists! It’s also there that I offer lots of tips, insights, tools and easy action steps to take even better control of your health.
Is there a particular mantra or inspiration that helps you?
My mantra is: “I am happy. I am healthy. I am fit. I am strong”. It is the mantra I go to when I am meditating. It is the mantra I go to when I'm having a down day. Again, it's very helpful to have positive self-talk, and a mantra is just
If you could offer a woman, who has been newly diagnosed, some words of wisdom for her journey, what would you tell her?
If I could offer anyone words of wisdom, I would say that you do not have to know everything in one day. Take everything one small step at a time. And also, look at the big picture. Look at the long-game. What can you do today, right now or with your treatment plan, that might be challenging for days or weeks or months, but that may also give you the best long shot at longevity, health and happiness?
What are you most proud of in your cancer journey?
I'm so proud that I'm able to give back to the cancer community. And to also help women who are hoping never to have a diagnosis in the first place… to make small, manageable changes to become their Healthiest Healthy. And I'm also really proud that for a little Minnesota girl who always dreamed of being on TV, that now at 49, TV isn't my only goal. It’s now helping others become healthier!
How has breast cancer affected your outlook on life and illness?
Cancer has affected my outlook on life in a way that I never saw coming. It has made me appreciate experiences much more than things that are tangible. It has allowed me to find small moments of mindful gratefulness - the birds chirping or a sunbeam on my face. It's those things that matter most along with quality time with my family. My most precious and loved thing in the world.
Throughout this journey, how have you changed?
I've changed in so many ways because I am empowered now. I am empowered in a way I never thought I could be on this wonderful journey of life. I am on the path of living my Healthiest Healthy. It isn't a destination - it is continual change, ebbing and flowing, moving forward, thriving and sharing it with others.