Back in October 2017, we met Hillary Black at a breast cancer awareness event hosted by WeWork. We loved meeting her and hearing her story so much that we wanted to share it with all of you. Thank you for inspiring us Hillary!
Everyone reacts differently to illness – especially cancer. When it comes to getting cancer, some think “it’ll never happen to me,” or “it might, but if it does, I know what to do.” In my case, I had both of these reactions, but I still wasn’t ready for how I would really feel when I was diagnosed with stage 3A breast cancer.
Since the age of three, I have been no stranger to cancer and death. At three, my grandfather Jerry passed suddenly while shoveling the snow at age 53; five years later my grandmother Minnie passed at 60 (admittedly while playing blackjack in Atlantic City); at 14 my mother died at 42 of leukemia and at 16 my other grandfather died due to lung cancer. From these deaths, as well as multiple diagnoses throughout the rest of my family, I gained a great fear of illness and death as well as an anxious diligence with my own health.
I had regular doctor visits for blood work to rule out leukemia/blood cancer, I had yearly check-ups, frequent colonoscopies, an endoscopy several times, among other exams. Once we found a benign tumor – we called him “Lloyd the Fibroid.” There were multiple other surgeries, but I was on top of it every time. I was on the ball; my friends joked that I was being a hypochondriac, earning me the nick name “hypo” - they might not have been wrong.
I was worried about blood cancer, lung cancer, multiple sclerosis, etc., but my breasts were not on my radar - they were literally behind teeth cleanings in the check-up pecking order. So, when my doctor told me to get a mammogram at 38, I thought he was crazy. But I did, and I was fine - I knew I would be. I was cocky about it, but I really wasn’t concerned. At age 39 I had my daughter Blyer so I missed that year, but at age 40 I went back with a clean scan – easy peasy. I had my son Samuel at 41, so I missed that year and then I missed 42 because every other year had been fine and I now had two young children. But then 43 came around and everything changed.
At age 43, one of my favorite things about myself was my very long hair. It was the kind of hair that people talked about - my friend Eve would call it “Giselle hair.” It was thick and pretty and served as my security blanket amongst years of body image issues - including my breasts. For a long time my hair shielded me from what I would later recognize as an indent under my right breast. Once I noticed it, I wasn’t sure how to address it. Was it cellulite? A dimple? I ignored it, but after 8-12 weeks, my step-mom Sheila said, "I’ve heard of those indents. I don’t think it’s cellulite. Go get a mamo - and soon!"
Hillary's "Giselle" Hair
At my appointment, my doctor explained that he didn’t see what I saw, but that I was overdue for a mammogram anyway. My concern alleviated, I waited a couple weeks and then went in for the mammogram. Of course, I knew I would be fine – I wasn’t a breast cancer girl.
After my mammogram, the clinicians asked to do a sonogram and my ears immediately perked up. Having seen this story before with my family, I knew that if the doctor came back into the room post-sonogram, the news wouldn’t be good. I called my husband and told him to come immediately.
The doctor called me in and I remember that the room felt dark, too dark. I heard the fateful words, “I’m so sorry. You have breast cancer.” I couldn’t help but think: “How? I can’t! My family gets the big cancer. I get Lloyd. I get basal skin cancer.” I started to shake, but I listened and took in as much as I could. Within 30 min I had my first biopsy and my mind raced. What would my life look like now? Would my babies grow up without their mommy like I did?
We all react differently. For me, the answer was to fight. I planned on seeing my kids grow up. I had no intention of my kids going through what I did. I wanted to be at their high school and college graduations. My own mom had missed mine.
Hillary with her children during treatment
So it began. I found the best surgeons, oncologists and plastic surgeon that I could and I was on my way. I started my chemo-radiation, squeezing in sessions between time at the playground. Despite the drama of it all, there was always comic relief: with two kids under four at the time of diagnosis, getting them ready and out the door and taking care of them was the really the best medicine of all.
Hillary with her family today
I wanted to share my story to show that everyone’s “cancer box” is different; the contents are different, the way you deal with it unique, and that is ok. Be gentle with yourself and find patience with those who will never understand the journey the way you will. No matter what, don’t forget that you can do this. We can all do this. It is hard, sad and scary. All you can do is put one foot in front of the other. As I write this and reach my second diagnosis anniversary, I’m excited to leave this chapter behind. And while I know cancer will forever be a part of my story, I work to remind myself that it does not have to be my whole story. Onward and upward.
Hillary Black is a managing director and partner at Kay & Black, a leading talent management firm that connects advertising clients with top creatives. In addition to being a wife and mother to two wonderful children, Hillary is involved in Moms In Training (MIT), a fundraising campaign for The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society’s (LLS) and has volunteered with the Ronald McDonald House New York and God’s Love We Deliver. She was born, raised, and continues to reside in New York City.