Janet Sollod, 34, came to our San Francisco StoryBooth at the Contemporary Jewish Museum to talk about surviving breast cancer “for two reasons,” she explained. “First, to help other young women who have breast cancer. Second, for me as a personal catharsis. Telling my story helps me to deal with it and get on with my life as a survivor.” Her mother, Harriet Sollod, 68, sat across the table and listened.
Janet began her story before cancer with a question she was once asked during a job interview: What hardships have you had to overcome in your life? “I didn’t know what to say,” Janet recalled. “I’ve had a very fortunate life; nothing had gone wrong. I did well in school. I was an athlete. I went to MIT. I was captain of the gymnastics team. I had a great life. Until I put on a tank top one day and I saw a visible lump.”
When Janet found more lumps, she made an appointment with her gynecologist who told her it was probably nothing. Nevertheless, she received the standard mammogram and ultrasound, followed by a series of biopsies. Janet led a supremely healthy lifestyle and spent much of her time waiting for the biopsy results rock climbing or tending to the health of others as a pediatrician.
She received her diagnosis over the phone while boarding a plane to Seattle. It was infiltrative ductal carcinova, a common kind of breast cancer in women. “I was in shock,” Janet recalls, “but I was getting on a plane. I couldn’t break down and be a mess. So I just put sunglasses on and cried quietly.” Janet called everyone she could think of to tell them the news. “Somehow I felt like telling everybody would spread it around and I’d have less cancer by sharing it.”
When Janet returned to San Francisco, her news took a turn for the worse. A full-body PET scan showed not only lumps in both breasts, but something also lit up in her liver. Janet would have to wait the weekend, however, for definitive results. She remembered celebrating Yom Kippur that Saturday:
“Yom Kippur was really hard. It’s a Jewish holiday where you read about who shall live and who shall die and by what method and how you should make the next year better and how to become a better person and all I could think of is how bad is my next year going to be. I don’t want to die. Is this going to kill me? Is it too late? Did I wait too long to get this checked out?”
An ultrasound found Janet’s liver to be clear of cancer. “I was so happy. I felt like laughing and singing, even though I knew I still had breast cancer.” Soon after, she began four rounds of intensive chemotherapy. The chemo hit her hard. She lost her hair and her appetite, frequently fell into naps, often needed the assistance of friends to leave the house, and lost a lot of her physical strength. “I felt like I was being punished for something that wasn’t my fault,” she said.
But throughout, Janet kept her sharp sense of humor and, most importantly, her spirit. This strength came out of a very surreal feeling she felt while canceling a visit to her aunt’s house, canceling her monthly talks, and getting coverage for her work shifts. Suddenly she thought, “What am I doing? Why am I giving myself shots in the stomach? Why am I canceling my whole life? I feel like I’m going on vacation, but I’m staying home.”
So, during periods of strength, Janet seized the opportunity to have fun, including a trip to Las Vegas. “It was totally therapeutic,” Janet recalled. “It was fun to dress up and put on makeup and go out and dance. I felt good after 8 days of fatigue, nausea, acid reflux, depression. I was back to my usual self.”
During chemo, Janet also continued her usual snowboarding trips. The first time she hit the slopes again after chemo, however, was a struggle. “I was tired,” Janet said. “Normally I take no breaks and I ride all day. I don’t need lunch. But this time I took a break both days for lunch and I was done before the lifts closed.” But snowboarding was empowering too:
“While snowboarding, I pretty much forgot about cancer entirely. When you’re doing it, you can’t think of anything else. You’re focused, you’re concentrating. The only thing that matters is you and the hill and where you’re going. You forget about anything else that may be bothering you. Maybe that’s why it was so great during chemo. It was an escape.”
It’s been a year since Janet was diagnosed. She took a moment to reflect on her treatment and survival. “It’s hard remembering how bad I felt. And all the love and support from family and friends. It’s just overwhelming. I’ve had some old friends who live far away come and visit. It’s been so wonderful reconnecting. I value spending time with my friends and my family above all else. A big thank you to everyone who sent cards and flowers and sat with me during my ordeal.”
As 40 minutes in the StoryBooth came to an end, Harriet testified to her daughter’s endurance: “When the big thing came, she took it with aplomb. She was able to cope. It was scary, but since you were okay, I was okay. We love you and we’re so glad that we can still enjoy things together.”
“Thank you. I love you too,” Janet replied.