From Breast Cancer to Creating a Website of Shared Stories of Turning Lemons into Lemonade

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I am a breast cancer survivor.  Those were the lemons I was dealt.  How did I make lemonade?  Well, please allow me to digress.

I am an entertainment news journalist trained at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism and made my way in Hollywood beginning with many failed TV pilots, a few lame cable shows and some guest hosting gigs on the big network morning shows.  Eventually, and with much perseverance (and finally a network primetime show under my belt), I landed as the weekend host and fulltime correspondent for EXTRA, followed by E! News, then to The Insider and Entertainment Tonight. And I feel so fortunate to have co-hosted the ABC hit Dancing With The Stars, at its height, for eight seasons. I even found my way to Broadway, starring as the iconic “Roxie Hart” in the long-running Tony-winning musical Chicago.

Being energetic by nature, I discovered that perspiration met inspiration at the gym. Working out truly fuels me and clears my head to allow me to be more productive and creative.  I’m a gym geek, I’ll admit. I look forward to when the new schedule of classes at the gym comes out to determine what new ones I can try!

Being active also has taught me to be very in tune with my body and keep aware of my family’s history of cancer.  My paternal grandmother was diagnosed with breast cancer when she was 63.  Luckily, today Nana is healthy and cancer-free at almost 94.  My mom and my sister are thankfully (knock-wood) cancer free, so while I was always breast cancer aware, I was really more concerned about colon cancer, which took my father when he was only 50 (he was diagnosed at 48).

Living through my dad’s diagnosis and struggle made me vigilant about getting screened for colon cancer early and often, including colonoscopies every three years starting in my mid-30s.  As I approached my 40th birthday, my Nana’s cancer story led me to schedule my first mammogram.  We have two young daughters, so better to get a jump on it and set a baseline.  The results came back clear, just as I expected since at 40 I was more fit and healthy than I had ever been.

Eleven days later, however, I found a lump.

After visits to my ob-gyn and internist, I was assured that the lump was glandular and that I “had nothing to worry about.” Four months later, with the lump still present, I listened to my gut and scheduled a consult with a surgical oncologist.  I was relieved when that appointment reinforced the initial conclusion: the lump didn’t seem problematic. An ultrasound and biopsy returned with the same news that the lump wasn’t cancer, but the doctors weren’t sure what it was.

An excisional biopsy (lumpectomy) and MRI later, I was yet again reassured that I didn’t have cancer.

All good news.

So when I went for my post-surgery consult and subsequent pathology results, and told my always supportive husband Michael not to worry about joining me, I was expecting more of the same recurring theme: no cancer, but yay for me for being vigilant and an advocate for my own health.

Instead, as I sat alone in my surgeon’s office, I shockingly learned that the lump was, in fact, cancerous.  The words “I have cancer” slowly, heart-wrenchingly seeped into my body.  Is this what an anxiety attack feels like?  Adrenaline coursed through me with more speed and intensity than a Formula 1 racecar.  Could the doctors hear my heart thunderously pounding… about to detonate?

In an instant my life changed. In that instant, my cancer journey began.

Over the next few days, my body turned on me for the first time in my life.  My stomach seemed to ulcerate as it churned, my chest felt the weight of an elephant, and the nerves throughout my arms and legs fired uncomfortable, restless vibrations.

After nearly a week of feeling this terrible way, and sitting through not only 2nd and 3rd opinions but 4th and 5th ones too, things had to change.  My head was spinning from the crash course in breast cancer diagnosis and treatment.  It was more than I ever wanted to know.  I was physically and mentally exhausted.  I had a long, bumpy road ahead of me.

So I made a conscious decision to turn around my perspective.  It was the clear solution to stamping out this horrid feeling. I am innately a positive person, but cancer struck that down.  I needed to pick myself up and fight back!  For me, the best punch to throw was a smile.  Stay positive.

In sharing that with my husband, Michael, he simply said, “Babe, when life gives you lemons, you gotta make lemonade.”

And so this endeavor began.  As each blow was dealt through this cancer journey, I steadied myself with positive strength.  Readjusted my perspective and walked forward, one step at a time with Michael at my side, never missing an appointment.

Because my work means I am on TV, social media can be an asset and a liability.  In this case – I could not have been more grateful to live in the Internet age.  I carefully decided to go public with my cancer diagnosis before word got out through other sources.  I chose to be extremely open and honest, even though I feared a backlash.

Instead, the only thing that came was unbridled compassion, support, friendship and sharing.

Thousands of survivors and families of survivors, so wonderfully opened up to share their paths to survival with me.  Their stories and experiences made me believe that at every step, there is the “other” side.  And I wanted to get there.  It was their openness, positive energy and support that, along with my family and close friends, got me through three surgeries, three recoveries, all the treatment choices and ultimately my treatment decisions.  I am so indebted to all of these strangers to whom I now feel close.  I wanted to be able to give back in a similar way.

And so GottaMakeLemonade.com was born.  It’s an important personal project for my husband and me as a way to inspire positivity in the face of adversity.  While we could have simply kept it focused on cancer survivors, thinking of our two girls gave us another idea.  We know challenges come in all sorts of gift boxes.  I say “gift” because in a way it is.  We grow and strengthen from our challenges.  No one wants them, but yet here they are.  Illness, injury, relationship disappointments, and career lows.  As they say, it’s not about getting knocked down – it’s about how you get back up.  This is something important for us to teach our girls.  Hearing others’ stories is something that inspires us to be better people and make the best out of bad situations.

Our lemon was my cancer.  Our lemonade is to help others find positivity within themselves.  To inspire ways to meet each challenge and take it on head first with a positive attitude.  Make the best out of it.  Those stories will live here on our site as a home for you to visit often, sharing your own when or if the time comes.

To those of you who are willing to share your own personal story, thank you for being part of this inspiring endeavor!

Remember you Gotta Make Lemonade™!

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  1. Gina Reply

    Hi Samantha!! I cried so much reading your story. I can relate to it very much as my own Mother was diagnosed with breast cancer when I was 15. My Mom didn’t have any support at the time as my Father had passed away a few years prior. She was so scared, she denied it at first and didn’t get medical help until it was too late for her!! I lost her when I was just 19. When you described how you felt, when learning you had cancer, my own heart was racing!!! I had a cancer scare a few years ago too, Uterine cancer though..did 2 treatments of Megace a chemotherapy in pill form and I’ve yet to have my first mammogram. I am terrified and like my Mom, I have 0 support. I am struggling with depression right now, unemployment, anxiety and loads of other things. I am so glad you have a great husband and support system. I am trying to deal with all this on my own and its a struggle. I loved reading your story, thank you so very much for sharing it with the world. I would also like to find my “lemonade” as I have dozens of lemons to make it with! 🙂

    • admin Reply

      Thank you for sharing your story and for your comments! If you need support, imermanangels.org is a fabulous resource. Good luck! Wishing you continued good health. Xo Samantha

  2. Cindy Reply

    Hi Samantha! I to have been diagnosed with breast cancer. I found the lump in my right breast in early May 2014, went to my OBGYN who sent me for a mammogram, I then had a biopsy. On June 2nd I was given the results, I was devistated! My husband was with me for the results, and for my birthday not quite 2 weeks later said he would help me through it. I had to go for a lumpectomy, and had a breast reduction right away. Then started chemo in October. On December 5th my husband wakes me at midnight to tell me he’s in love with a 21 yr old. Even though this her is out of my life, I’m thankful for all the support I have from my family, his family, my work family and my friends! I will get through this, and hold my head high, and I will be a stronger person for it! I guess you can say I’m also making lemonade.

    • admin Reply

      Good for you! What tremendous strength it takes. Wishing you continued good health and a lifetime of lemonade!
      Best, Samantha

  3. Elizabeth Heim Reply

    Hi Samantha,

    I was diagnosed with a rare medical condition known as hydrocephalus, which is a form of cerebral palsy. As a result of this disability, my development was delayed with walking and talking. I was told by many medical professionals that walking and talking independently would never be possible. However, I was able to prove them wrong at the age of 3, when I began to walk and talk. I still have some struggles with movement, although they are not as obvious. I am just grateful to have these abilities in spite of medical opinions.

    • admin Reply

      Hello Elizabeth!
      That is a beautiful thing to hear. If you want to share your story, please do!!! Just click the pink “Submit Your Story” button at the top of the page.

      Wishing you continued good health!

  4. Gloria Rodgers Reply

    Back when I had breast cancer , there was no one to support me . It was back in March 21 1996 . I found it myself , I was 42 . My doctor did a mamagram on me . Found it , then sent me to a extra good cancer doctor . My doctor knew I had epilepsy , he wanted special care on me . I had to have a maseptiney done to my left breat .

    Back in 1996 , the doctor told me after my chemo . It will be 5 years , then I will have it reconstructed . I had real strong chemo treatment . Today , the doctor comes in & does the reconstruction , right after it is taken off .

    The hospital doing it , explain that because I had 3 kinds of cancer in me . I had to have this strong kind of chemo once a month . After the treatment , I had to go to the hospital to get a shot each day , for 12 days . That brought up my white blood cells . That way I could have my next treatment .

    After 5 treatments , I was told . I was clear . My older sister would send cards to me telling me , you can make it through it . I had my mother & dad , because I am single . After the treatment , the seizures lowered . I became under control with the medication , I was given for the seizures . It was never under control , before .

    My lemons aid was that I got my driver license at 43 years old . It changed my life . After I had this happen to myself , I would tell others , when I would see them getting treatment . I wanted to tell your people also . I will be a 20 surviver on March 21 , 2016 . Today , the doctors are so much better .

    My mom died before I had the construction . But the wonderful thing , before her death . I was able to drive myself to the hospital to see her . My mom watched me out the window . It is something , I will always remember . Remember you can make lemon aid out of those lemons

  5. Sandi Razen Reply

    Dear Samantha, I just wanted to let you know, that last Summer my Husband and I had taken a trip of a Lifetime, and spent 2 weeks in California. It was on that trip. that we met you,at Universal Studios. You were so sweet and gracious. I want you to know that you truly touched our hearts, You see we had just lost our son Jeff to Stage 4 Brain Cancer, the February before, after a 27 months battle, and to make make matters worse, i had during that time been diagnosed with Stage 1 Uterine Cancer, luckily i only needed a total hysterectomy, and no chemo or radiation, and today i am considered Cancer Free. You took the time to give us a hug, and asked how we were doing, and really cared, I could see the concern in your eyes. It put a smile on our face. i entered a short story regarding illness and health on your site, first i got notification that it needed to be tweaked, so back to the drawing board, and now recently it was re-submitted , and anxiously waiting to hear if it has been accepted. We wish you all the very best, and hope all is well. Fondly Sandi and Ken Razen.

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  7. Kech N Reply

    Hello Samantha , I saw you on the tv show the Doctors , knew about your story and website , at that I was struggling because of my brain accident and was emotionally exhausted , sharing my story here helped me to overcome my bad feeling and to turn lemons into lemonade 🙂 , my story is published here under : from partial amnesia to getting Master degree !
    Thank you 🙂

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