Dr. Marla Shapiro: On Cancer, Her Busy Lifestyle, and What It’s Like to Be a Patient
By Carol Crenna
Dr. Marla Shapiro has been offering the latest in health and medical news on CTV’s Canada AM for 13 years. She is also on CTV National News; she hosts Balance: Television for Living Well; she writes for Canadian Health and Living Magazine, and is editor of Health Essentials Magazine and ParentsCanada Magazine. Dr. Shapiro also has a private medical practice, and is an Associate Professor at the University of Toronto.
She won numerous awards (including the New York Film Festival award) for her documentary about menopause called Run Your Own Race. “Dr. Marla” was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2004, and wrote the national best-selling book book Life in the Balance: My Journey with Breast Cancer.
Dr. Marla is obviously a very busy gal ─ so is her life in balance? She says, yes, and that busy-ness doesn’t have to equate with health-hampering stress.
In 2004, when Dr. Marla found out that she had an invasive form of breast cancer, like over 22,000 other Canadian women diagnosed every year, her world changed forever.
Unlike most, she had insider knowledge as a doctor, which she has described as both a blessing and a curse. Here she candidly recounts her struggle with cancer, and the resolve that she gained as a result.
CAROL: You have a very demanding life. How do you keep it all together?
DR. MARLA SHAPIRO: I am a very organized and structured person. I continue to learn on a daily basis what my priorities are and how to make changes to ensure they’re honoured. I have found that being a clear communicator is vital.
CAROL: How did you become a better communicator, and how does it balance life?
DR. MARLA SHAPIRO: I learned through trial and error. Many people fall short, which causes problems because we don’t communicate our expectations and needs fully and we think people can read our minds.
In the work-life harmony lectures that I give, I use the example of asking my husband to take the garbage out. If an hour later he still hasn’t done it, it’s not his fault. I joke that it is the missing “now” in that sentence that I failed to communicate! I’ve learned to clarify, and to apologize when I haven’t been clear.
CAROL: Do you think the pace of your life had anything to do with your illness?
DR. MARLA SHAPIRO: No. My life is always busy, and has been that way for many years. There are times when even a well-laid schedule becomes unusually hectic. But it is a myth that being busy has to be equated with stress; it is only if you perceive something as stressful that it is.
Someone made a comment that high profile success-oriented women like Pamela Wallin, Bev Thompson (also on Canada AM) and I all got cancer due to our so-called stressful careers, which made me angry. Stress does not cause cancer, per se.
I love to be busy and I think I’m one of the luckiest people on the planet to have this career. I’m passionate about writing, being on television, and my medical practice.
I become stressed about my kids and other life events but my work doesn’t cause stress. I also love to cook, and to be in the house full of kids when friends come over, and I don’t find this stressful.
CAROL: In interviews and in your book Life in the Balance: My Journey with Breast Cancer you very candidly recounted your illness experience. Why were you so open about such an intimate matter?
I also knew that as a doctor on-air who gives health and medical information to others, I couldn’t send the message that I was hiding information about myself, or that this was something that society shouldn’t talk about. I planned to release a short statement of the facts, and that I would give it my best shot to fight it.
It became very clear, though, that there is so much we don’t talk about that needs to be said. I take care of people with cancer almost every day, and consider myself a caring, empathetic doctor, yet I didn’t talk to patients about their feelings, just their options and physical progress.
I didn’t necessarily want to talk about the way I was feeling with cancer either, since much of it was personal and private.
But I changed my mind after my hair was buzz-cut short, and then I became bald. And I realized that my entire family was affected by this as much as me, and that emotions are often what others don’t let people see, and don’t talk about.
I became a face similar to many women that have had cancer since many of my thoughts and fears are common. And I went from the person who routinely delivers all the seemingly right answers to patients and family to the person who discovered that there are no right answers when it came to my own experience and decisions.
CAROL: How did your family become so candid about the process?
DR. MARLA SHAPIRO: When I told my husband that I wanted to speak about my cancer, he agreed but felt that our relationship and home life should remain private.
The first time I left the house bald, he asked if I was forgetting something. The wig made others feel that things were “back to normal” but that was not the way my life was. The wig was very uncomfortable, and most of the time I chose not to wear it.
I went on the Vicki Gabereau show bald for the first time on national TV and there was an outpouring of support from both men and women. I had letters and emails saying things like, “You empowered my wife to walk around without her wig,” even though it was not my intention; I simply didn’t want to hide who I was.
The public began sending messages to my husband asking how he was doing, and he said, “Let’s talk about this.”
CAROL: And your children?
DR. MARLA SHAPIRO: It took an enormous amount of courage for my family to allow us to speak so publicly. My son Matt would ask difficult questions that others that were too socialized to ask wouldn’t: “Are you going to die?”
“Why did you get cancer?”
“If you take all of your medicine, will it be gone forever?”
“Why is your hair falling out, and if it all grows back, does that mean that you’re healthy?”
“Will it scare me to see you bald?” and
“What will my friends say when they see you?”
We encouraged him to talk about his fears, as painful as it was for me to hear them. We encouraged the kids to talk to friends when they needed support. My kids became totally uncensored about their feelings in public.
My daughter said on camera that breast cancer was the best thing that ever happened to our relationship because at least I was there for her while I was going through it. It was hard to hear, but reflected my busy schedule, and was an incredible life lesson.
CAROL: You said that not being able to shield your children from treatments was the most difficult part, yet you chose to be very open and inclusive. Why?
DR. MARLA SHAPIRO: In the act of letting someone support you, you support them as well. They needed to feel involved, and to deal openly with their fears as they watched their normally strong go-getter mother become progressively ill, weak, teary and frightened.
My three kids came with me to chemotherapy and my bilateral mastectomy because we thought that imagining what it would be like would be worse than reality. We also didn’t shelter them from conversations.
As a result, my son (who was 10 at the time) learned about blood counts and became actively involved in reminding me to take daily injections.
CAROL: Did you adopt a healthier diet and more exercise after your diagnosis?
DR. MARLA SHAPIRO: I always had a healthy diet and worked out at a gym — so I didn’t change anything.
People asked if I was disappointed that I got cancer despite having a healthy lifestyle. There is no question I was angry and initially frightened. But it doesn’t mean that I’ll abandon my good habits because they might be perceived not to have ‘worked’.
I firmly believe that part of my ability to get through the treatment was based on my attitude which includes my beliefs about nutrition and exercise.
There is a chapter in my book written by my personal trainer and one by Bonnie Stern about nutrition because there is little written elsewhere about how much you can or can’t exercise and what you can eat when you’re going through treatments.
Together, we adjusted a routine, and found out what I could slither down on the days when my mouth was so full of ulcers that I could barely swallow, but still needed to keep up my strength.
CAROL: What are your thoughts on cancer prevention, and did you try complementary treatments?
DR. MARLA SHAPIRO: I definitely feel that a healthy lifestyle is preventative. But do I think that exercise and food are a 100 percent guarantee? Of course not.
The only complementary treatment I had was massage therapy to help with side effects. Chemotherapy was the mainstay of my treatment.
CAROL: Why did you have both breasts removed?
DR. MARLA SHAPIRO: There is no disease called breast cancer. It is a host of diseases and every woman is unique. Therefore there is no cookie-cutter approach. For a host of reasons unique to my situation, I chose this approach, with support from medical professionals and family. It wasn’t a quick or easy decision.
CAROL: Do you consider cancer to be a symptom of something else, perhaps a life imbalance or mind/body/spirit disconnection?
CAROL: Do you agree that having cancer can inspire you to become a more “whole” person?
DR. MARLA SHAPIRO: I don’t think having cancer made me whole because I don’t think that I was broken to begin with. The experience has definitely changed me, in some ways enriched me, but I wouldn’t have invited the experience because I needed to be a better person, and I think that is a ridiculous thought.
You get what you get and then your attitude helps you do with it what you can.
CAROL: Relating to the title of your book, do you feel that you have balance?
DR. MARLA SHAPIRO: I’m more cognizant of balance now. We tend to violate our attitudes with our behaviour – talking the talk but not walking the walk. I’m trying to adopt a lifestyle more synchronistic with my attitudes. And I’ve learned to say no, which means saying yes to something else.
CAROL: How has cancer changed you?
DR. MARLA SHAPIRO: The lessons were not as much about surviving disease as about living life. I’ve learned to deal with today and what’s planned for tomorrow, but I try to live in the present, and enjoy it more.
When patients going through treatment ask me when it will be “normal” again, I remind them that this is normal for the moment and you’ve got to learn to live each moment.
Original article by Carol Crenna featured in VISTA Magazine, and was updated in Breast Friends Inspire Health Cookbook (2012)