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Deborah Slack

There were no signs. No lumps. No symptoms. No genetic predisposition. Indeed, looking at Deborah Slack one would think she’d 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, I’d recited the statistics—that 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 weren’t good, they asked for an ultrasound. It would take until February of 2009—“an excruciating time to wait”—for 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 don’t 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 what’s known as the tissue flap procedure, in which the breasts are rebuilt using skin, fat and muscle from another part of the body—all performed at the University of Miami’s 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 will—just in case. Yet, while many such cases end in tragedy, Slack’s 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 she’d 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 wasn’t 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 after—that’s what was going to define my life.” With Breast Cancer Awareness Month already under way—and as Slack is at work preparing for her store’s own fundraiser, which takes place October 16 to benefit Miami’s Mount Sinai Comprehensive Care Center—the woman at the helm of one of America’s 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 I’d 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 didn’t 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 couldn’t. He had lost his father the year before to liver disease and I couldn’t 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 didn’t 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 didn’t 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 he’d 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 they’d almost lost me. And the recovery was especially difficult because of the way my skin was healing; it wasn’t 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 I’ve been trying to lose weight and now that’s preventing me from healing? I couldn’t 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 wasn’t sure how much longer I was going to live. I didn’t 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 gross—I’ll spare you the details!—I was in awe of my own body, of what it could do and how strong I’d 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 don’t have to go back for another year! I have a close bond with all of them.

How important is mindset in recovery?It’s a big part of it. You have to believe you’re going to make it through. I remember one of my friends at Sylvester told me she’d 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, I’m 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 there’s 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.

What’s the most important thing you want women to know about breast cancer? One in eight. That’s the number. And even though every woman can come up with 15 reasons why it won’t be them—it could be. The fact that you don’t have a family history doesn’t mean anything; I never had one. The fact that you’re not of a certain age doesn’t matter because patients are getting younger and younger. Everyone needs to get a routine mammogram every year.

What’s 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 I’m doing well. They just want to talk to someone who knows what they’re going through.

What lessons has this journey taught you?I learned to let go and to trust. Above all, I learned I’m not in control. That none of us really are. We’re businesswomen. We have plans, schedules, forecasts, goals. We’re 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.”