Danielle Wiggins met up with writer Regina Brett at The Gathering Place to talk about how to turn a difficult experience into a gift that helps others.
BEACHWOOD, Ohio — We are launching a new initiative here at 3News that we’re calling “Do it for Danielle” in the hopes of continuing to raise awareness around breast cancer, encourage self-checks and screenings, and open up the conversation so those affected by cancer know they are not alone.
Danielle’s journey connects back to someone who helped her. Before joining 3News, Danielle worked with writer Regina Brett as a producer on her radio show. Regina is a breast cancer survivor who has been an outspoken advocate for the cause — even writing several books about her own cancer journey. Danielle credits Regina with making her aware of the importance of self-checks, which led her to catch her own cancer at an early stage.
Danielle and Regina recently met up at The Gathering Place in Beachwood to talk about how to turn those difficult cards we have been dealt into a gift to help others. Below is a transcript of their conversation.
But first… Here are multiple resources you can use for your own health:
DANIELLE: Regina, this week has been the first time we’ve seen each other in nine years, and I owe you so much, but before we start, I wanted to give you this [card].
REGINA: Thank you. Gosh, so sweet.
DANIELLE: And if you could read it…
REGINA: Life is crammed with things to take care of and still you made time to show you care. [Pulls out lottery tickets] Oh, I won the lottery when I met you, girl! All right. So whatever I win, we split.
DANIELLE: Can you explain a little bit [of what you have written about] unwanted lottery tickets that we get?
REGINA: Well, you know, so often in life we want everything to be perfect. What we think is perfect. And then life throws us something we don’t want. And for me, you know, at 21, I got pregnant, was an unwed mother and I felt all the shame. And then I realized that was a lottery ticket. I got this amazing daughter, like what a gift, but I wouldn’t have picked it. You know? And then when I got cancer at 41, like nobody wants to get cancer, but then you turn it into a gift for others and it becomes your lottery ticket so that when somebody else says, ‘Hey, I just got diagnosed.’ I can say, ‘Hey, that’s me. I got that ticket. I can help you.’ So I feel like in life, whether you’re going through a child with autism or a diagnosis of bipolar disorder, depression or whatever life hands you, sometimes it’s not what we think we want, but it can be our greatest gift when we use it and then help other people with that same lottery ticket.
Watch their extended 19-minute discussion in the player below:
DANIELLE: And that gift was a gift for me clearly, because you were the one who I remember being that breast cancer advocate. Why were you so open about your diagnosis? I know you told me that [growing up, cancer] was really hush hush in your family.
REGINA: My dad had come from a big family. They had 10 kids and three of his sisters died of cancer. My aunt, Veronica, died at 44. Her sister died at 42. Another sister died at 58. Back then we didn’t have the science to tell us it was all connected. And I was the first of the next generation to get cancer. And I got it young at 41. Once I was going through all my treatment, my aunt Veronica’s daughters entered a study, thank goodness for clinical trials and studies. And they had just discovered the BRCA-1 gene in the ’90s. And they found out they had it. Then I got tested and found out I had it. My daughter got tested and found out she had it. And it became this ripple effect of helping each other.
And all of my cousins are alive because of that research, because we got tested, because we had surgery and got rid of it. And I found it was important to tell that story because growing up cancer was whispered about, it was kind of like, not that people were ashamed of it, [but] I think they were so afraid of it. It’s almost like, you know, in Harry Potter, he who shall not be named. Don’t say the C word, almost like you’re gonna get it if you talk about it. But I really believe if you talk about it, then you can do a breast self-exam. You can get your mammogram, you can get tested if you have a genetic history of cancer and then we can save each other’s lives, you know? And you told me that I had talked about doing a breast self-exam and I’m kind of like the preacher people get sick of, but every so often somebody finds that lump and it saves their lives. So that’s why I don’t shut up about it. You know, I think we gotta save each other.
DANIELLE: And I appreciate that because I believe you wrote about it all in your book. And when you were a columnist for the Akron Beacon Journal, that’s when you were diagnosed and you wrote columns about it.
REGINA: And I was so scared, you know, I got diagnosed at 41. I just was married one whole year. You know, you take those vows for better, for worse. And all of a sudden, I’m walking out on the vows already, you know, and I was scared, but, um, I wrote the columns like at 3 in the morning, because I almost had to do it when the world wasn’t awake. Because I was scared to kind of go public. And especially with breast cancer. When you tell people about breast cancer, they automatically look at your breast. It’s a weird thing.
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REGINA: When people have brain cancer they don’t go, ‘Which lobe?’ It’s just sort of personal to have breast cancer. But now thank goodness places like The Gathering Place, The Race for the Cures, people have come out. Now when I first got cancer, it was still kind of not secretive, but people didn’t go out there too much. My aunt said, there were no Races for the Cure, there were no pink ribbons. You know, sometimes people say I’m tired of all the pink stuff. I’m not, because my aunts were alone when they had cancer. When I go to the Race for the Cure, when they go to the Race for the Place, people with cancer are together now saying, ‘Hey, I’ve survived.’ We need to see the face of survival.
DANIELLE: I appreciate that because you were the person that I turned to when I was diagnosed. I thought about you and I started doing self-exams because of you. I was your producer [at one time], and so I think, you know, God, of course, and you, really helped to save my life so that I can catch it early. And I’m very thankful for that. You said something [and] I had to write it down because it was so powerful to me. It was on a day that I was really fearful. And you said, as for all that fear stay put in today, just take the one clear step you need to take. Don’t awfulize it with fear of the future. God is present. Now the great I am, now I was or will be. Break this into doable pieces. You can handle an hour of having cancer. You can handle a day of it. So breaking into small pieces.
REGINA: Oh, that helped me so much. When I had cancer it was stage two. It was like as big as a grape. I had surgery and then I had chemotherapy, my hair fell out. And thank goodness, The Gathering Place now has the Regina Brett wig salon. So if you go through that, you’re not alone. There’s places to get help. But it was hard to think that it wasn’t going to last forever because I was sick a lot from the chemo. And then I had radiation six weeks every day. And so what I did was this thing that I still do today: I would go to bed and in the morning I’d wake up and I’d say, ‘I’m not looking at tomorrow and I’m not looking at yesterday – like a horse with blinders. I am staying in the lane. I’m in focused straight ahead.’ Because looking at the future is scary when you wonder like, how long do I get? People say, what’s your prognosis?
Like, I don’t know. I hope I get to live a long, long life and I don’t want to look at yesterday because I’ve been sick from chemo. And I thought if I just stay put in today, I can handle having cancer. One day. I can handle being bald one day. I can handle being sick one day. Some people have a hard time with chemo. They’ve made it a lot better over the years, but it made me sick and I remember being sick and I thought, you know, as hard as this is, I used to get sick in college from drinking. And I didn’t do that to save my life. The things you do to save your life are worth it. Every bit of pain, every bit of discomfort, you’re paying into a bank account that you get to use.
Now I have grandkids. My daughter was 19 at the time. So all those things you do that are uncomfortable and hard, you can do hard for a day. I’d look at the clock sometimes and go, ‘I can handle one more hour, and that’s about it.’ And then all of a sudden two hours went by. I’m like, I think I’m good. I think I got through another day. So breaking in into little pieces — anything. A divorce, the death of somebody you love, you can handle being a widow for an hour. You can handle losing your son for an hour. You can handle having cancer for an hour. You know, it’s when you think the pain’s going to go on forever or the fear or whatever. But if you break it up in the doable parts, like you said, God is in the moment you’re in for me.
DANIELLE: And that really stuck with me because the next day I had four hours of constant doctor’s appointments, prodding, picking and everything. And it was before my surgery and I go, oh my gosh. So there you were like your lottery ticket and I’m wanting the jackpot. You’re helping me and then turning around and we’re being open to help others.
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REGINA: And look what you’re doing now. Some people say to me, ‘Why do you keep talking about cancer? It was a 1998 that you got diagnosed.’ And I say, ‘Because people are still getting diagnosed every day.’ Somebody hears the cancer verdict, they get that C word. And when you hear it the first time and somebody says, ‘You have cancer,’ it feels like that board of the game of life. When you play as a kid, it feels like somebody threw it in the air and all the pieces are flying and you don’t know where they’re going to land and you get a new board and you get new pieces, your life’s different. But somebody else got that diagnosis today. And so you’re their gift today. Everybody who’s watching this, they know somebody that has cancer. They know somebody that’s going to get diagnosed. We talk about being the sorority nobody wanted to join. There’s more people coming up to join, you know, and don’t know they’re going to get it. And it’s nice to know you’re not alone.
DANIELLE: And how long have you been a cancer survivor?
REGINA: Well, [since] ‘98 and I call myself a survivor from the moment they said that cancer word, you know? Cause it’s not about ever being cured, because I don’t know if there’s still cancer somewhere. I’m no longer am afraid of it. I just feel like I’m living the hell out of today. That’s what I tell people every day: I’m gonna live. I’m gonna come to the end of that day and be exhausted because I live so hard, you know? That’s my goal — to pack as much living into every day, not worrying about how long do I get? When you first get diagnosed, you think, what’s my prognosis? What’s the survival rate? And to be honest, nobody knows your survival rate. They can do statistics, but I made a deal with God: You keep me alive today, and I’m going to be my best Regina today. And at the end of the day, I’m going to say thank you. And then the next day we start all over again. And I break it into that day. I get today. I don’t know if I get tomorrow, but I get today, man. I’m not wasting today.
DANIELLE: Yes. And looking at you for survivorship, I’m like, I want to get to that age now.
REGINA: You know, when I turned 45, I outlived two of my aunts. They died at 42 to 44. I got to get to be older than them. And I wrote those 45 life lessons. And then when I turned 50, I wrote 50 life lessons. I turned them into books but I turned them into a gift for others. Because people [complain about] getting old. I’m like, that’s a gift, man. I didn’t think I’d get to be old. I let my hair turn gray during COVID, which was the best time because nobody could see it happen. And then I thought, I’m looking like a badass, girl! I get to be old. What a gift.
DANIELLE: And I think that’s what hit me as well. When it was, ‘you have cancer,’ I didn’t know the stage. And I look at like 60, 70 [years old]. Oh my gosh, that is going to be a gift for me to be able to get that old.
REGINA: And that’s why I think it’s important. You know, The Gathering Place has The Race for the Place. They have the Race for the Cure. It’s important for survivors to gather because there is this thing called survivorship. It isn’t just survival. It’s survivorship that goes on and enhances the lives of others. We don’t just survive for ourselves. We survive so that people at that Race for the Place can go, ‘Oh my gosh, you had cancer 20 years ago. Whew. I could live 20 years. Wow.’
DANIELLE: Right, but unfortunately cancer does take certain lives people’s lives. And you’ve experienced that with your aunts.
REGINA: Yeah. I’ve been to so many funerals of people I love that had cancer. And I’ve had great friends who have had cancer — since I had it — and died. And you know what? All I know is that they were the gift they were supposed to be for as long as they were here. And I don’t know how long any of us are given, but I think that you make everyday count. You infuse every encounter you have with the joy who you are and the gifts you have. And it’s a mystery. Nobody knows how long you get. You know, when I had cancer, this is terrible, but I used to read obituaries [of people] who died from cancer.
And what I noticed was people were dying from other things. Somebody died in a car accident. I don’t worry about driving on the highway. Even though people get hit by cars. I don’t worry about getting on an airplane. Even though sometimes they crash, but cancer felt like it was there all the time. It’s just one of the things in life that can take your life. But there are so many things that I don’t want to spend my whole life focusing on how I’m going to die because I’m going to miss out on life.
DANIELLE: Right. That is so powerful. And I’m learning from you. Hopefully we can teach everybody else as well that it doesn’t. You said something powerful to me once. I said, ‘I don’t want cancer to define me. And you said what? Whoa, wait a minute.’ Explain that for me.
REGINA: OK. So, you know, you got that lottery ticket. I love my lottery tickets. Oh, these are so fun. So I got cancer at 41. Breast cancer, stage two. Had to do the chemo, had to go bald. I could tuck that away and never tell anybody. But when I got that out there and you e-mail and say, ‘I got diagnosed.’ I’m like, that’s my card. I can be of service. Maybe, you know, we can do something with it to enhance the lives of other people. So to me, it’s a part of who I am. It’s a part of defining me. Like I was an unwed mother at 21 and I could have just never told anybody because it felt very shameful at the time. And I told people, it became a gift for others who said, ‘Oh, my daughter just got, or I just got pregnant. What do I do?’ I’m like, you can handle it. She can handle it. You know how to be there for others. That was a great gift.
You know, my daughter, she has the gene, the BRCA-1 gene. And she had surgery at 29, had both breasts removed and now she’s got three kids and she just turned 44. My daughter gets to be 44 and she’s got three kids. She’s got friends who found out they have the gene. She can be there for them. People she knew had to have a double mastectomy to prevent having cancer. She’s their spokesperson. Her lottery ticket is she didn’t get cancer, but she got the gene. And I used to feel bad like, oh, I gave her this terrible gene. You get what you get… it’s between me and God, I think. And that’s the ticket I got. But it’s kind of like in the Bible, it says you could hide your talents and bury them or you could use them for good. You know, I’m not gonna bury him.
DANIELLE: Nobody will want to think that cancer is a gift.
REGINA: You know what, they don’t. But I look at every life experience makes you stronger for somebody else. And that’s how it becomes your gift. Every experience makes you a stronger, greater person. Because if I got cancer, I’m talking to people that had cancer. They can help me. If you never had it, you can’t be on my cancer team. I created team Brett when I had cancer. I got 54 cousins, man, we went to that Race for the Cure years ago. And so many of us showed up. I swear, we took over the whole thing and you know what? We were together in it. My aunt Veronica who died, her kids got to live and they get to talk about cancer so that their grandkids and their grandkids know that we have this team.
DANIELLE: That’s true. What’s the importance of self checks?
REGINA: We’ve gotten so much information over the years. Years ago, I was a reporter at the Beacon Journal in Akron and I went to some educational thing about cancer and they had this little fake breast, and it had a little lump in it and they wanted you to kind of examine it, to find the lump to practice. So I did, I’m like, oh, that’s what a lump feels like. Thank goodness they put that out there. And they had these little cards that put in your shower to do a breast self-exam, you know, every so often, to know your breasts. And so I would do it, you know, I never really paid that much attention, but one day. I’m like, it doesn’t feel right. So I was laying in bed and I said to my husband, ‘What does that feel like?’ He goes, ‘I think it feels fine.’ But I thought, something’s wrong. And if I had not done that self-exam, I don’t think I’d be alive today. I went and had an mammogram, at the time I was 41. I had dense breast tissue, it didn’t show up on the mammogram. It was too dense to tell. It was all kind of blurry. So my doctor said, ‘Get a needle biopsy.’ They took a little needle, shot it in there, took it out and said, ‘We still don’t know.’ Because cancer can kind of grow like a little spider and they might have missed it. So we ended up having a needle biopsy or then we had the biopsy surgery. When he came out, he said it’s cancer. And I got to tell you, doing that breast exam is what started everything. And people need to know that the cancer in your breast doesn’t kill you. It’s if it leaves your breast. That’s why it’s important to find it early. Because if they find it early, it’s not going to go somewhere else. When people get breast cancer, they don’t really die from breast cancer. They die from breast cancer that spread. I think that’s important to say because… I’ve lived without breasts. I had a double mastectomy. But when the cancer leaves and goes through your lymph system or your blood stream, then it goes through your liver or your brain, your bones or whatever. So if you catch it early, man, your chances are so much better.
DANIELLE: Me. That’s me. And I appreciate that because that was you. And it was because of you and it’s amazing because you probably would’ve went and got a mammogram [and they would have told you,] everything’s fine. OK. And keep going on with your life. But you did that self-check and you knew something was off. And the same for me, I did. I said, this doesn’t feel right.
REGINA: You got that gut feeling, that little — I call like holy spirit intuition — whatever, something inside kind of tells you not. Right. So when I first found that lump and the hard part is waiting that first week is the hardest of all. When you don’t know all that, not knowing.
DANIELLE: Well, I told myself it was going to be benign, of course. That’s what you want.
REGINA: Well, I was laying in bed and I remember praying and saying, ‘I really don’t want this to be cancer.’ God, because in my mind, cancer was deadly. Because my aunts died of cancer. It’s not deadly. Some people die, but many don’t. But I was laying in bed and I wanted to pray like the Santa Claus, prayer, like God don’t let be cancer, give me a healthy body for the rest of my life. Let me die at a hundred in my sleep, you know.
And I felt all stirred up and troubled and I, and I grew up Catholic and you know, we did a lot of Bible stuff and I thought of Jesus’ prayer in the garden. I don’t want this cup to drink. And I felt that moment of like, I don’t know if I’m supposed to have this or not. ‘God, I don’t want it. I want to make sure hear my plan A is not cancer, not cancer. God, did you hear that?’
DANIELLE: Thank you so much for using your lottery tickets so that I can still have life.
REGINA: It’s a great life, too. Danielle, you got a great life.
DANIELLE: I hope I get a lot more of it.
REGINA: I think you will, I do. God’s not done with you yet.