Living With Breast Cancer – Ann Murray Paige
The Pink Warrior
by Lee Woodruff
Last October, Breast Cancer Awareness Month took on a whole new meaning for television journalist Ann Murray Paige: She became aware that she had breast cancer. Again.
Rewind to six years earlier, when Paige was 38 and her life was, she says, “pretty much in balance.” She was freelance anchoring a Maine Public Broadcasting civic affairs show, and her husband, Sandy, had recently gotten a job after receiving his M.B.A. They had two children. She looks back at the time as one of “the right combination of work, mothering and downtime. We were making it in Maine, as the slogan goes.”
Then, in the shower, doing one of an estimated 1,500 self–breast exams since being taught how by a high school gym teacher, Paige felt a small lump. “My first thought was, Are you kidding me? I was physically and mentally paralyzed as I stood there with the water coming down,” she says. “In that moment, everything changed.”
She could hear the happy, unaware voices of her husband and kids at the breakfast table. Over the next few days at that table, she would pour coffee over her cereal and let the kids eat candy for their morning meal. “Immediately, I was not myself,” she remembers. “I was distracted, scared and worried that I might die.”
When the call came with the devastating diagnosis of Stage 2 Grade 2 breast cancer, what her doctors described as a “middle-of-the-road breast cancer,” Paige burst into tears. Despite her rigorous self-exams and regular ob-gyn checkups—including one three months earlier that had pronounced her clean—the doctors estimated that the lump had been slowly growing for seven to 10 years.
Then, on that first call, her reporter instincts kicked in. She grabbed pen and paper and began scribbling. She asked the who-what-when-where-why of the doctor and wrote it all down before she hung. She got on the Internet, learning everything and badgering everyone she could. “That focus,” Paige says, “was the one thing that kept me sane during that time.”
After her husband’s own tears, he became the rock of strength he always is, says Paige. “It was my mother who immediately cried,” she says. “And that was the first time it occurred to me that sometimes I would need to be strong for other people, even if I didn’t particularly feel that way.”
The Warrior Emerges
As it turns out, Paige would become a warrior—a warrior for herself and her family, a Warrior in Pink, a warrior for many other people, most of whom she didn’t even know.
Her sister-in-law, former ABC News reporter Linda Pattillo, who observed her doggedly researching and taking notes, suggested she make a documentary about her experience.
“My first thought was, How can I document something I don’t even understand myself? And who wants to watch cancer on the screen?” says Paige. “But then I realized, if I don’t live through this, I want my kids to know me and I want them to know their mother was a fighter. I also knew that I’d be changed in profound and permanent ways by what was going to happen. I thought that might be important for others to see.”
Pattillo and Paige both picked up video cameras and began to document her battle, which included her difficult decisions to undergo a bilateral mastectomy and to not reconstruct her breasts. The result is “The Breast Cancer Diaries,” an honest and witty—and award-winning—film that continues to be broadcast around the world.
After eight rounds of chemo, 25 rounds of radiation, and the loss of hair, weight and strength, Paige reevaluated her life and decided not to return to 24-hour news. She and her family made sacrifices so that she could stay at home with her kids more.
Six years after her diagnosis, Paige had passed the key five-year mark of being cancer-free, had taken her documentary to film festivals and had begun a humorous blog(www.projectpinkdiary.com) about the life of a breast cancer fighter and survivor. Her family had relocated to Sacramento, where Sandy had a new job.
A Second Diagnosis
Then, last October, during a routine checkup, her oncologist detected a slight whooshing sound in Paige’s left lung and ordered some tests, including a PET scan to check for cancer.
Another phone call dashed any normalcy Paige had been living. The breast cancer was back, in her lung. “If the original cancer is the weed in the garden that you rip out, if it comes back a second time, it’s more like shadows on the garden,” explains Paige. “You have to hope the medicine will be powerful to push the clouds away.”
But Paige was put on a medicine that didn’t work, and her tumor markers were rising. She underwent a procedure that burned the lung wall to stop the cancer from traveling farther. Outside observers might have seen her life as one heading in a downward spiral.
The Warrior Returns to Battle
Then Ann Murray Paige did what women all over the world do when they hear the news they don’t want to hear: She reverted to warrior mode (again) and armed herself for the next battle. She turned that downward spiral on its head. In fact, the upward-pointing Spiral from Ford Motor Co.’s Warriors in Pink program is a symbol that motivates her to beat her cancer. Warriors in Pink says the Spiral “represents life. A conduit through which physical and spiritual energies flow.”
And did her energies flow.
Paige walked a 5K race with her left lung at 20 percent capacity. She increased her workouts with a trainer to keep her body strong. She researched nutrition and altered her diet to cut out processed sugar and dairy (she describes herself now as a dairy-free vegan). She worked on her mental strength by blogging and corresponding through email and Facebook with friends who offered support. After eight months, her hard work and discipline paid off: Her tumor markers had dropped from 300 to 158.
Then she wrote two books that incorporated the breast cancer tips and advice she had been giving on her Project Pink blog:Pink Tips: Breast Cancer Advice from Someone Who’s Been There and Words to Live By: Whatever You’re Up Against, This Book’s for You, her blog anthology.
“I don’t think of myself as a survivor,” Paige says. “I call myself a breast cancer fighter.” One of the many ways she shows that fighting spirit is by wearing her “Unstoppable” T-shirt from Warriors in Pink (a fundraising initiative through the Ford company’s FordCares.com that donates 100 percent of the net proceeds to Susan G. Komen for the Cure. “Supporting Komen and giving women a stage to share their strength with others as they fight this insidious disease makes me proud to be a Warrior in Pink,” Paige says.
She is determined to do whatever she has to to keep fighting and come out on top. But she is also realistic. And she knows the future is uncertain.
“I don’t know how much time I have, and it’s important for me to do something. If I’m not here for my children to know me, then my writing will speak to them and to others,” says Paige. “Any way that I can make something positive happen, then that’s what I need to do. Because if cancer just simply takes me away too soon, that’s unacceptable to me. I can’t give cancer that power.”
About the author of this profile: Woodruff is a contributing editor for ABC’s Good Morning America, and the co-author, with her husband and former ABC News Anchor Bob Woodruff, of the best-selling book In an Instant, which they wrote after he was critically injured in Iraq. She recently published a second book,Perfectly Imperfect. Read more at LeeWoodruff.com