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Running for office is exhausting. Breast cancer doesn’t care

Going public isn’t easy, a new book from Ali Rogin reveals

Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz plays in last year’s Congressional Women's Softball Game to benefit breast cancer research. She’s one of several public figures featured in a new book who sought privacy while fighting breast cancer.
Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz plays in last year’s Congressional Women's Softball Game to benefit breast cancer research. She’s one of several public figures featured in a new book who sought privacy while fighting breast cancer. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call file photo)

When Christine Gregoire got her diagnosis back in 2003, she called up two women who could definitely relate: Janet Napolitano and Heidi Heitkamp. 

“I need to talk to you privately, and you can’t share what I’m going to share with anybody,” she told the fellow politicians.

“You have cancer,” they guessed, and they were right. Gregoire was running for governor while serving as Washington state attorney general, and she was trying to decide when to tell the voters about her mastectomy. 

“Could I — should I — not disclose?” she wondered.  

“If I was just forthright and honest, maybe I would influence people to get a regular exam,” she says in “Beat Breast Cancer Like a Boss,” a new book by journalist Ali Rogin.

October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month, but Rogin has been thinking about the disease for a long time. In college, she discovered she had the BRCA1 gene and got a preventive double mastectomy. That made her a “previvor,” a term that was hard to explain until a famous actress spoke out about her own surgery. Soon Rogin could simply say, “I have the Angelina Jolie gene.”

As celebrities came forward and started to break the stigma, “I felt a sense of camaraderie,” Rogin explains. It’s part of why she decided to write her book, which features interviews with 30 women in the public eye.

“All of the women in the book have amassed some degree of power in their professional lives,” Rogin tells me. “Breast cancer doesn’t care.”

Ali Rogin, a producer for PBS NewsHour, interviewed 30 women for her new book, “Beat Breast Cancer Like a Boss.” (Courtesy Diversion Books)

As a patient, controlling your own narrative is key to staying positive and feeling strong, but it’s not always that simple. 

Four of her subjects come from the world of politics, which Rogin knows well after covering Congress as a journalist in Washington. For women like these, breast cancer can start to feel like a comms nightmare, on top of everything else. 

While politicians owe voters a clear picture of their fitness for office, the backlash can be cruel. Take Heitkamp, who learned she had stage 3 breast cancer during her run for North Dakota governor in 2000. The news leaked.

People were already wondering if a woman could do the job, she told Rogin. “And then you add in, ‘She’s a mom. Can she do this and still raise her kids?’ And then you put cancer on top of it. A lot of people wrote letters saying, ‘You should stay home and take care of yourself.’” 

She may have lost the election in the end, but she didn’t stay home. “I had a guy from the Democratic Governors Association come out, and his job was to go behind me and take the hair that was falling off my jacket,” she said of campaigning during chemo.

In some ways, the lessons of the book apply to anyone. Fighting cancer involves a lot of messaging, from breaking the news to your coworkers to choosing the mantras you repeat inside your head. So why not learn from the savviest communicators out there?  

Yet for elected officials, the balance between transparency and privacy is especially hard to get right. 

When Pamela Carter was attorney general of Indiana, she thought she “could get through it without letting anyone know, which was naive.” Instead, a newspaper got word of her diagnosis, and she had to rush to tell her kids. “Our daughter, her class did government affairs on Monday, and I was the story,” she told Rogin.

Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz got “lucky,” as Rogin puts it, since she was able to keep her diagnosis under wraps until she was ready to talk. She had her surgeries during recess weeks in Washington, and went public the next year.

“I didn’t want a well-meaning reporter, every time they referenced me in a story, to write my name as ‘Debbie Wasserman Schultz who’s currently battling breast cancer,’” she told Rogin.

Among the non-politicians profiled in the book are “Nurse Jackie” actress Edie Falco and rocker Sheryl Crow, along with several journalists. Rogin devotes the introduction to the late Cokie Roberts, her onetime colleague and mentor at ABC News. 

The broadcast legend didn’t share everything. When Roberts sat down for the interview three years ago, she talked largely in the past tense, describing how her 2002 diagnosis hit a family already familiar with tragedy, starting with the plane crash in the 1970s that killed her father, House Majority Leader Hale Boggs. 

“She never mentioned — never even alluded to — the fact that she was actively in the fight again,” Rogin writes in the book. 

Roberts’ cancer had returned after 14 years in the clear, but she wasn’t going public.

“There I was, asking her about what it was like to ‘beat’ this disease, as if it had come and gone,” Rogin writes of the 40-minute interview.

Still, looking back, she doesn’t mind that Roberts kept her in the dark. The title of the book may be “Beat Breast Cancer Like a Boss,” but “everyone ‘beats’ cancer in their own way.”

As Rogin tells me, “It doesn’t matter if you’re in the public eye or not. … When we go through something like this, we want ownership of it. We all want control over our story.”

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