Nicola Pytell



Nicola delivered the following speech at the 2006 Susan G. Komen for the Cure Twin Tiers Race for the Cure®.

First, I want to thank everyone for coming out today for this great and very important event. I’d also like to thank the Race organizers and my former employer, WETM-TV, for inviting me to speak today.

I graduated from high school in 1986, during the instant-gratification “me-decade” of the ’80s. Many of us are somewhat spoiled, fun-loving and pretty well-educated, and we were raised to embrace the idea of having complete control over our lives. We are also a generation that wants and expects answers. Since being diagnosed with stage II breast cancer last October, I have been on an eternal, often frustrating, middle-of-the-night quest for ANSWERS. Answers about breast cancer and answers to help me learn how to live my life as a breast cancer patient and survivor. When I told some people I had breast cancer, they often said something like, “A lot of women get that and have survived it, and I’m sure you will be fine, too.” These were nice words to hear, but as I learned more and more about being a patient, these same words made me realize that others knew as little as I did about this disease.

That was last October, and I have learned a lot since then. Today, I know that having lymph nodes removed to be tested for cancer can cause permanent swelling (lymphedema) in your hand or arm. Today, I know that chemotherapy can cause irreversible menopause and can change a woman’s reproductive life forever. And today I know that even with all the aggressive treatment I had, it—the big “C”—can still come back. It is better indeed to have answers, and for these I am grateful, but here’s the rub that many of you know all too well. Today, in addition to not yet knowing what my hair will look like, I do not know whether my lymphedema will get worse. I do not know how my body will react to the years of hormone therapy I am just now beginning. And, as hopeful as I try to be, I do not know whether it—the big “C”—will come back.

This leads me to the other lesson: learning, in the face of so many unknowns, to be a cancer survivor. For many of us, along with our families and friends, the cancer journey is only just beginning when formal treatment as a patient ends. Because then you begin what you hope will be a long life as a survivor, which is the most challenging role I will ever play. I admit that I’m not at all good at this yet. At the very beginning of this journey, I was told many times by many different medical people, “It wasn’t your fault…It’s nothing you did.” At first, and to many, these words might seem like they would bring tremendous relief. Phew, I didn’t do anything to cause this. Good, I didn’t sabotage myself and my life. However, as many of you know, it is those exact words that—as we go from patient to survivor—haunt us. For living as a survivor of cancer means that while you are of course rejoicing in the gift you have been given of detection and treatment, you also live in fear of the big “R”—recurrence. And if it’s nothing you did the first time, how…how can you keep it from coming back?

I have tried as hard as I can to find the thing. “Ah, it was all that diet soda I drank in my teens,” or, “Ah, it’s because I grew up in Rochester only 80 miles from Love Canal—that’s it!” Or, “It’s got to be (and I’m going to quote ‘The Graduate’ here) PLASTICS!” Well, of course we have no idea and that is why today we celebrate finding the real answers and race for a cure.

But what can we do in the meantime? We can support and love each other, we can remind everyone we see to feel their boobies and drink their pomegranate juice (superb anti-oxidant benefits) and we can embrace every day—even the dark days when the demons come and fear becomes overwhelming—as part of this amazing life that we have been given in bodies that are sometimes more fragile than our souls. We here can also thank God for the superb care we are provided from the dedicated professionals in this field who are every day in their own ways, racing for a cure. There are a lot of them here in the Twin Tiers. When I was diagnosed, I went to Sloan Kettering for a consultation, and while it was great to have their advice, too, what I realized is how lucky we who live in this area are to have the facilities and the people we do caring for us. I can say this for sure, given I was destined to face cancer in my life, “I am so very lucky to be facing it as a resident of the Twin Tiers.”

Before I close, I’d like to say something to the families, the caregivers, the co-workers and the friends—those of you out there who raced today and have stood by our sides and undoubtedly uttered the words “Don’t worry about me, you’re the one going through this.” To these people—who are going through this along with us—we thank you for telling us it will be OK on days we’re certain it won’t; for telling us we look great when quite frankly, we look and feel like hell. And we thank you for stopping by with a flower, a Gatorade or just a silly story to remind us that life is going on and is well worth fighting for. For all of these things, we thank you so very much.

Because I chose to make my story public on WETM, I have also had an additional gift from well-wishers whom I don’t even know, approaching me in Wegmans or in my favorite haunt, Horigan’s. They just say “Hi” and “Good luck,” which is so lovely, and I always think how very lucky I am to have such kindness and support in my life. I’m sure many of you out there feel exactly the way I do about your own support network. I’ll end this part with a quote from poet W. B. Yeates that captures how I feel better than I ever could express myself: “Think where man’s glory most begins and ends and I say my glory was I had such good friends.”

So for today, thank you for racing for the cure, but thanks also for racing for continued advancements in diagnostics and treatments. One day soon we should be able to say definitively who will benefit from chemotherapy and who will not, thus saving many people from the devastating effects of this treatment. One day soon we should be able to say who will need hormone therapy and who will not; we should be able to treat lymphedema with something better than a sexy compression garment. And one day soon we should be able to say that, in order to keep your cancer from coming back, you need to eat more green peppers and you just need to relax more and drink more red wine!

Whatever the advancement, whatever the information, thank you for racing for it today and for celebrating today and in the future, as we honor those surviving and those we have lost. The future is ours, so let’s keep asking questions and keep demanding the very best for ourselves, not just as cancer patients or loved ones of cancer patients, but as human beings who—whatever our fates are here on earth, for whatever time we are given—deserve every opportunity to embrace every precious moment. Thank you so much.