It was earlier this year when I met Elizabeth at Rm. Fifty5 in the Dream Hotel in Midtown Manhattan. We were there to toast Melissa, a single 40-year-old woman finishing her final treatments for breast cancer. There was so much promise in the air.
Elizabeth, a stylish and attractive woman in her mid-forties who looks much younger than her real age, was also a recent survivor -- not only of breast cancer, but of over a year of unemployment. And she was thrilled. She was about to begin working a few weeks later at a company founded by and designed for women that supports, of all things, women's health. It sounded like the perfect job for Elizabeth, a true survivor.
Six months later, Elizabeth was at a newer job when she called me.
"I have something to tell you," she said, "something I know you'll appreciate considering your audience." Elizabeth knows I write about subjects that concern women without children. She imagined her issue would be best shared with me.
The timing couldn't have been better, I thought to myself when I heard her voice. The week before I had gone for my first mammogram. I'm 42 and had been pushing off making an appointment. But I had finally "gotten it over with" and a week had passed when I realized I was probably in the clear. But in the eleventh hour of that week, a woman with a Brooklyn accent called to tell me they needed more pictures of my left breast and a unilateral breast sonogram. I was doing my best impression of stoicism as I took down the address of the doctor's office again as I completely blanked on where it was, even though I had just been there a week prior.
I hung up the phone with the nurse and wondered what might happen if indeed I had breast cancer. Just days earlier, 38-year-old E! star, Guiliana Rancic, announced on "The Today Show" that she and her husband Bill were putting off her fertility treatments because it was discovered she has breast cancer. "I will be OK, because I found it early," she told Ann Curry and the rest of the nation, holding back tears.
As a single woman, I felt alone for the first time since I had been diagnosed with MS in 2005. There's nothing like a diagnosis to make one feel more single than ever. In that moment, I was somewhat envious of Giuliana because she has Bill, and he'd been by her side throughout the news and later, her lumpectomy. I, like Elizabeth, would go through this alone, if I were diagnosed.
I looked in the bathroom mirror as my eyes filled with water and worry. But there was no time for self-pity. My work day was not over. And besides, in less than 24 hours I'd know my fate. There was nothing I could do but go on as if nothing happened. I blew my nose, threw on some red lipstick (red lipstick always makes me feel more powerful), and went to a business cocktail meeting. I was grateful for the distraction and the Grey Goose and tonic.
It was the next morning, before my follow up appointment, when Elizabeth called. I found it possibly telling that Elizabeth had something to tell me.
"I resigned from my position at [XYZ company]. I was treated so poorly there as a single woman without children. I thought you'd want to know my story."
I looked at the clock. I had time before my appointment. I was happy for another well-timed diversion.
"My position entailed global responsibilities that, similar to previous roles, sometimes required accommodating conference calls on nights or weekends. I was familiar with the drill, however, and previous employers, knowing the hours I was putting in, had always been flexible when it came to my leaving a bit earlier or coming in a little later when I needed to. I was comfortable with this routine, but I was hired eight weeks later than we had originally agreed to and by then, I had breast reconstruction surgery scheduled for November."
I felt my left breast, wondering how I would feel if it ever had to be removed. Would I ever feel comfortable being intimate again? I would hope a husband would still want me no matter what, but a new man? What would he think? I let go of my breast, along with that thought, and continued to listen to Elizabeth.
"Since I had scheduled the next phase of my reconstructive surgery six months earlier, well before undergoing an extensive interview process, I was in workout-mode, knowing I would be unable to exercise for four to six weeks after the procedure. One evening I left the office at 5:30 p.m. to take to a spin class, then have enough time to pick up dinner and still be home in time for an 8:30 p.m. call with the overseas team.
"The next day, my boss casually passed a comment that left me cold. Essentially I was told that just because she sometimes left work early in order to relieve her nanny, it didn't give me the right to leave at the same time as well. Not only was I blindsided by such a blatant double standard, but that this could occur within an organizational culture dominated by women completely blew my mind. As a single and committed professional over forty without children, it was deemed unacceptable for me to have commitments or responsibilities outside of work. It was then that I decided to reveal the nature of my upcoming surgery scheduled for later that fall so that she might understand the reasons behind my early departure and that I was in fact dedicated to my job.
"Needless to say, my boss, a married woman with children, was unimpressed with my need to take any time for myself, much less taking two full weeks off for surgery. From that day forward, she showed her lack of respect for me and following my surgery, she began imposing unrealistic and unreasonable deadlines on me. I did my best to meet the ever-changing expectations, but eventually I decided I could no longer work there and fortunately, I found a part time job to keep me going."
I was shocked. How could an American company with a female consumer base, steeped in supporting women's health, not support a breast cancer survivor? Why is motherhood the only acceptable reason for leaving the office before 6:00 P.M.? If Elizabeth had been a mother with breast cancer, would the company have been more sympathetic?
Elizabeth will never have children of her own. Upon diagnoses of breast cancer at age 42, her doctor asked Elizabeth if she wanted to freeze her eggs. Her doctor was clear. Because her cancer had been estrogen-positive, there could be risks associated with a pregnancy. Elizabeth told me that she immediately laughed at the question. She had decided in her 30s that being a single parent was not the right option for her, not to mention being a single parent who had a short period of time in which to rid herself of cancer and then find the time (and money) it would take to have a baby by surrogacy. She responded no, immediately and emphatically. She had always wanted children. But not alone. Not like this.
Thankfully I do not have to make that decision. Three hours after my call with Elizabeth, the radiologist walked into my examination room, shook my hand and said "Your breasts are fine." And I went home. I went back to working on my business. I went back to my life as I knew it.
Elizabeth has a new job. She's working for a boss who has no issue that she'll take off two weeks this month for her final surgery which should make her look and feel like the woman she was before her mastectomy. By Thanksgiving, Elizabeth told me, she'll be ready to get back to work, back to dating and back to spinning. She knows that as a single woman without children, her life outside of work will not always be considered as important as those of women who are mothers.
And yet, she's proven that her life is worth fighting for. She's a survivor. In more ways than one. And that, in my opinion, is what truly singles her out.