There were no signs. No lumps. No symptoms. No genetic predisposition. Indeed, looking at Deborah Slack one would think shed be the last person to be diagnosed with breast cancer, a fit woman who exercised and ate well, who religiously went for annual mammograms and who, ironically enough, had spent years raising millions of dollars in support of breast cancer research and prevention. For so long, Id recited the statisticsthat one in eight women will be diagnosed with breast cancer, said Slack, the impossibly stylish and successful Vice President and General Manager of Saks Fifth Avenue Bal Harbour. And then, I was the one. The news came to her just before Christmas 2008. A couple of months earlier, a mammogram had revealed something irregular and doctors wanted to perform a biopsy. When the results of the biopsy werent good, they asked for an ultrasound. It would take until February of 2009an excruciating time to waitfor Slack to get a full-blown diagnosis, but it finally arrived in the way of a painful phone call while she was at work. I remember they said it was malignant. Or maybe they said cancerous. Or irregular. I dont know, it was a blur, she recalls, holding back tears all these years later. I hung up and sat there in shock. I thought, Oh my God...I have cancer.
It was the beginning of a harrowing two-year journey for Slack, one millions of women are all too familiar with. She underwent eight surgeries, including a double mastectomy and breast reconstruction, using whats known as the tissue flap procedure, in which the breasts are rebuilt using skin, fat and muscle from another part of the bodyall performed at the University of Miamis Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center. She went to what seemed like hundreds of medical appointments, and worked in between procedures, taking only several months off after her second surgery. She stoically faced the daunting task of having to write her living willjust in case. Yet, while many such cases end in tragedy, Slacks most certainly did not.
During her battle she immersed herself in spiritual books, refusing to read anything about breast cancer on the internet or anywhere else; instead, she visualized herself emerging a stronger person who was better than before, thinking intently about how she would change her life once shed defeated the disease. My focus was never really on beating the cancer itself, she says, it was on how I would change my life once I was better. That was important because I learned that what we resist in life only persists, and that which you push against only responds back with equal force. Defiant in the face of her own mortality, she searched for what she called the gift because spiritually, I know there is a gift in everything. And though there was nothing about the process that wasnt horrible, says Slack, a single mother to her now 20-year-old son, Dillon, I was determined I was not going to be defined by this. I decided the person I would become afterthats what was going to define my life. With Breast Cancer Awareness Month already under wayand as Slack is at work preparing for her stores own fundraiser, which takes place October 16 to benefit Miamis Mount Sinai Comprehensive Care Centerthe woman at the helm of one of Americas highest performing luxury retailers, for the first time, sat with INDULGE to talk about the fight to save her own life and the truths she learned along the way.
When you first heard the diagnosis, did you tell anyone? Actually, I just kept it quiet. I went home, and had to think about it. I had to get myself together. Then I called a friend at Sylvester, who Id been working with for years raising money. She spoke to me about the next steps. I went in, met with the surgeon and the reconstruction doctor, and the whole process started. But I never really told a lot of people because I didnt want to hear negativity or pity or horror stories. I just wanted to focus on making it through.
How did you break the news to your son? He was 16 at the time, so I gave him the cancer light version. I never really gave him all of the details or told him just how serious it was. I couldnt. He had lost his father the year before to liver disease and I couldnt let him think he was going to lose his mother too.
The doctors recommended a bilateral mastectomy, meaning both of your breasts had to be removed. Yes, and at first I didnt understand that. You really go into shock when all of this is first happening. I was overwhelmed by the situation and the process. I zoned out, and sometimes I didnt remember a thing they said. I had been told I should bring a friend to the doctor appointments, someone who could listen and take notes and stay composed. That was great advice.
What happened after your first surgery? The first one was in March 2009. They removed 17 lymph nodes and a lot of tissue and skin. To be certain hed removed all the cancerous cells, my doctor sent what he had removed to the lab to be tested. The results came back indicating there was still a margin of concern, so I had to go in for a second surgery. That second one was even harder; I heard the nurses say theyd almost lost me. And the recovery was especially difficult because of the way my skin was healing; it wasnt closing the way it should have. They said part of the issue was that I was too thin and I said, Are you kidding me? My whole life Ive been trying to lose weight and now thats preventing me from healing? I couldnt believe it.
Of everything, what was the most difficult? For five months, I faced my mortality head on. I remember how horrible it was to do a living will, when I really wasnt sure how much longer I was going to live. I didnt have bouts of depression or anger like some patients do. I kept a strong front for everyone, especially my son and my dad, who lives in Ohio. It was after the second surgery, when I was at home recovering for a few months, that I finally allowed myself to process and feel all the emotions I had inside me. That included fear, anger, guilt, and allowing myself to ask, Why me? Letting myself face all of these feelings, I believe, is what helped me start to heal.
At what point did you realize you were going to be okay? Once I was doing the reconstruction surgeries. Even though the entire process is grossIll spare you the details!I was in awe of my own body, of what it could do and how strong Id become. I was also in awe of my doctors: Dr. Zubin Panthaki, my reconstruction doctor who was with me through all eight surgeries; Dr. Frederick Moffat, who was with me through the first three; and my oncologist Dr. Orlando Silva, who started seeing me every six months after the surgeries and who, in fact, just told me I dont have to go back for another year! I have a close bond with all of them.
How important is mindset in recovery? Its a big part of it. You have to believe youre going to make it through. I remember one of my friends at Sylvester told me shed seen women who had gone through this and turned their lives into something greater than before. When I heard that, it spurred a vision in me, a mantra. Better than before. I said it a thousand times to myself and out loud. I envisioned my life was going to be better, my breasts were going to be better, everything was going to be better. Even today, Im still working on being better than before.
What did you change? When you face your own mortality, or have a dark night of the soul, your entire perspective changes. You become grateful for life itself, and theres an increased awareness and appreciation for every day blessings. I realized my life was out of balance, and that many things I thought were important were no longer important, and that other things were. My internal change in perspective shifted how I saw everything. These days, my outer world is still in the process of reflecting that. I want to do more in the way of inspiring and helping people. I want to write, I want to share my story.
Whats the most important thing you want women to know about breast cancer? One in eight. Thats the number. And even though every woman can come up with 15 reasons why it wont be themit could be. The fact that you dont have a family history doesnt mean anything; I never had one. The fact that youre not of a certain age doesnt matter because patients are getting younger and younger. Everyone needs to get a routine mammogram every year.
Whats been the most moving aspect of being a survivor and at the same time being so involved in this cause? The one-on-ones. Women who have been diagnosed and who find their way to me. They may not know my entire story, but they know I survived and that Im doing well. They just want to talk to someone who knows what theyre going through.
What lessons has this journey taught you? I learned to let go and to trust. Above all, I learned Im not in control. That none of us really are. Were businesswomen. We have plans, schedules, forecasts, goals. Were so programmed to do all of those things and, actually, none of that works when it comes to real life. I learned the only thing I could really control is my own mindset.
So did you ever find the gift? I guess now, almost three years after my last surgery, I would say the gift has become manifested as a result of the process. First you look for the gift, then you find the gift, then you become the gift. The gift is not only life itself, but how you live it differently.