Behind Closed Doors with Rene Syler

Rene Syler
Rene Syler

The former CBS co-anchor talks about her life-changing decision — choosing a double mastectomy over the possibility of breast cancer. Also, in her new book she confronts America's obsession with perfect parenthood.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin. This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Coming up, the last day of a long war marks the beginning of a new life.

But first, White House Press Secretary Tony Snow returns to work today after a month of treatment for cancerous tumors in his stomach. Snow is one of many high-profile people who have had to deal with their illness in public. But for most people, illness is an intensely private matter. We're going to spend sometime shedding light on perceptions and issues that may not be talked about openly in all communities. We're calling that segment Behind Closed Doors.

Today, we talk with Rene Syler, former CBS "The Early Show" co-anchor, mom and author who made a difficult decision about her health.

Welcome, Rene. We're so happy to talk to you.

Ms. RENE SYLER (Former CBS Anchor): Good to talk to you.

MARTIN: You recently decided to have a double mastectomy, even though you did not have a breast cancer diagnosis.

Ms. SYLER: Right.

MARTIN: Why did you do that?

Ms. SYLER: Well, I think that's an important distinction. You know, it in a lot of ways made the decision very, very difficult. I have a mother who had breast cancer. She was diagnosed post-menopausely at 64, and I had a father with breast cancer. He was one of the 1,500 men in the country that are diagnosed each and every year. And it was a very difficult decision for me, because while I didn't have cancer, I was having to go and have a regular routine mammograms, which, of course, you're supposed to do after you're 40. And those mammograms would be followed by a biopsy, followed by three days of waiting and wondering whether I had cancer.

The other thing was I was diagnosed in 2003 with hyperplasia atypia, which is in many circles thought of as the stage right before a breast cancer. It's that all of these sort of things working in this breast cancer cauldron, if you will, and I just thought I would rather be proactive than reactive.

MARTIN: You've been vigilant about the issue for years, I guess, just because of your parents I assume.

Ms. SYLER: Yeah. I mean, when I was…

MARTIN: Really proactive about your health…

Ms. SYLER: Absolutely.

MARTIN: …getting the mammograms and stuff like that.

Ms. SYLER: Well, I mean, like any cancer, the earlier it's caught, the better the prognosis. And so I was, because of my family history, hypervigilant about my screening. I had doctors that wouldn't let me not be hypervigilant. So - but it was important to me. I had - obviously, I have a family, I have two children and a husband. And it was important not only to me to be healthy, but, you know, I'm the linchpin of my family, and I had to be there for them.

MARTIN: You were very public about it. Did you feel you had to be public about it, or did you want to be?

Ms. SYLER: Well, I wanted to be public about it because I feel like it's about educating people. With regard to what I had done - the prophylactic mastectomy - it's not the choice and decision for everyone, but it was the right choice for me given my family history. I just wanted people to know that they had options. And this is a decision that wasn't made overnight. I'd been thinking about it for a number of years. It wasn't made in a vacuum. I was talking to my doctors about it.

But it was the decision that was - after years and years of painful biopsies -and I really just felt like, am I waiting for the time that I'm diagnosed with breast cancer? You know, years and years go by, and every year you feel like you dodged a bullet. How did I know the next year I wasn't going to go in and they said, okay, now you have breast cancer? And now we have to fight really aggressively.

MARTIN: Cancer's very much in the news these days, with some very high-profile people talking about their struggles and discussions on this issue - Elizabeth Edwards, the wife of presidential candidate John Edwards, Tony Snow, the White House press secretary. But we were observing that very few celebrities of color who are addressing these issues seem to be doing that publicly, which is one reason we wanted to talk to you, frankly. We wanted to talk to you about, you know, first of all, why do you think that is? Do you - and I must tell you, my parents still don't use the word cancer when talking about friends or family.

Ms. SYLER: Wow.

MARTIN: They still use words like the big C.

Ms. SYLER: Really?

MARTIN: And I just wondered, what do you think? Why do you think that is?

Ms. SYLER: I'm not sure why that is. I feel like the best way to confront your fears or to deal with your fears is to confront them. I mean, listen, it was a scary time for me - a very frightening time. But I got through it by talking to family and friends about it, making sure I had adequate care and great doctors. And it was my, sort of, hope that in doing what I was doing that I would - I guess, it sounds kind of corny - but to blaze a trail or to at least open up a little bit of a pathway for someone who might be facing some of same issues.

MARTIN: Help us talk about this, if you would. How did you go home that day, when you - you know, you've obviously been getting mammograms for years, you've been aggressive about this for years. But when you first started thinking about - how did you talk about it?

Ms. SYLER: Well, I mean, this really was a process. I had been talking to my husband about it. You know, year after year - when we'd have these mammograms and they'll be followed by the three days of watchful worry. And I've got to talk to my doctor about it. And he said, you know, there's always this option. And I went home - this is couple of years ago - and I said, you know, this is, kind of, maybe not now, certainly, maybe not now is the time, but maybe down the line we should be thinking about this.

Well, down the line happened in July of last year. I had my last biopsy, and when I was recovering from that and the swelling went down and I felt what was left in my breast and it was like, my breast was really deformed. It was missing - it was probably half a cup size smaller than the other breast. And it was such a disheartening thing to think about it and to see.

So I went back to my doctor and I said, how can we fix this? And he said, well, we can use an implant to fix it. But if you use an implant, then you know you're never going to be able to have a less invasive type of biopsy again, and given your history and your pattern, you're probably going to be back here next year for another biopsy.

MARTIN: So they're going to keep cutting on you.

Ms. SYLER: Right. And the futility of it all just hit me then. It just - what was I doing? What was I waiting for? And that's when I said to my husband, well, what do you think about this? And he said, you know, well, it seems kind of, like a no brainer. Because what happens, Michel, as you bring your breast cancer risk way down. Now, I had a procedure that's called a nipple-sparing areola - a nipple-sparing mastectomy. So you keep your own nipple and areola, they take out are the breast tissue.

MARTIN: And you had reconstructive surgery?

Ms. SYLER: And I have had - three weeks ago, I had reconstructive surgery. So I asked my husband, what do you think? And he says, well, it seems like a no brainer to me. And I'm, like, well, yeah, because they are not your breasts that are being cut off. It really wasn't a no brainer, but actually, it was. It was actually - once I had made the decision and I was 99 percent there -because I can't say that I was ever 100 percent there until after the fact. Even when I lay my head on the table the morning of surgery, I still wasn't 100 percent sure.

MARTIN: Were you worried that your husband might not find you as attractive?

Ms. SYLER: No. No. We've been married for 13 years. And I wasn't worried about that because my breasts were just a part of who I was. I felt like they would want me and my family needed me to be there for them, even it meant a part of me was missing. And that was the attitude I adopted.

MARTIN: What about the kids? Did you talk to your kids about what you were doing?

Ms. SYLER: Yeah. You know, my kids - KC(ph) who's 10, my daughter and my son, Cole(ph) who's eight - I did talk to them about what I was doing. It was important that they also be in on it - certainly not in the decision-making capacity, but that they knew what was happening. We've been - they'd been following mommy and her breast issues, you know, from the first biopsy, because they - I would come home from these biopsies, and they would want to give me a hug, and I would be sore and recovering. So they knew from the beginning what was going on.

MARTIN: Sometimes when folk are very open about things that they're going through, other people don't appreciate it. Did you ever have somebody say, girl, why - putting your business in the street?

Ms. SYLER: No. And I - luckily, right now, I have not. So far it's just only been positive. I guess I would question, you know, why someone would feel the need to say that to me when really, what it was about was presenting people with options and women with options about what they could do.

MARTIN: Some people also - I think, positing a theory here - might not be so open about their health issues because they feel that their job situation or their standing is already precarious and they feel, that, you know, perhaps I might not get the support that I would hope for.

Ms. SYLER: And, you know, and what a sad thing, right?

MARTIN: But what if that is the case? I mean, and forgive me for, you know, I hope this isn't painful to bring up, but you, in the middle of all this…

Ms. SYLER: Yeah.

MARTIN: …when you'd plan the surgery, you lost your job.

Ms. SYLER: Yeah, I got fired by CBS, sure. No. It's not painful. I mean, listen, after you've gone through what - listen. I mean, I went to hell and back in December and January. It was not easy, because five weeks after I was fired, I, you know, I had my breast removed. So, yeah, it was a very difficult time.

MARTIN: I'm just saying that I think for some, culturally, it's considered not - it's considered important not to show weakness, and that if you talk about your health, you're showing weakness. And I'm just saying for people who have that attitude, what would you say?

Ms. SYLER: Well, I mean, I think you certainly you have to be true to yourself. And for me to be true to myself, it's about, you know, being open and honest about what I was going through and drawing support from the people around me. But I feel like for me and for - my mother's always been open with her battle with breast cancer, so has my father - it's about education. And that's why I decided to speak out about it, because I feel like if you, sort of, de-stigmatize it, people will be more, obviously, willing to talk about it, obviously, more willing to get proper treatment and care for it. And that's the way you beat cancer, is through an early diagnosis, and therefore the prognosis is better.

MARTIN: I wonder if some of it has to do with continued suspicion of the medical establishment…

Ms. SYLER: You know…

MARTIN: …that for some reason that legacy of mistrust…

Ms. SYLER: Yes.

MARTIN: …continues…

Ms. SYLER: Sure.

MARTIN: …in a way that makes people not as aggressive about pursuing information. Or perhaps a relationship with authority that suggests that, you know, I can't ask questions.

Ms. SYLER: Well, I think perhaps that might be part of it. It might also be the fact that - like you said - it might be about trust, maybe not trusting, or maybe they just haven't - if they don't have the proper care to get a regular family doctor, you don't feel like telling your life history and story to somebody new every time you go in to the doctor.

MARTIN: Do you think it's important to get along with your doctor or to feel a connection or simpatico with your doctor?

Ms. SYLER: Well, I think you…

MARTIN: Is that important to you?

Ms. SYLER: …certainly have to feel like they're on your team. I mean, I went through a situation in - early on in one of my biopsies where I'm - here I am, wearing this flimsy paper gown, and I'm scared to death and this doctor comes in, and I started crying. And he said, well, what are you crying about? We don't even know what we have here.

And you know what? I have to tell you - this is where it's important to be empowered. I went through the rest of that exam, I got dressed, I went right away and said I want my films. I'm out of here. I'm not going to ever come back here again. I'm going to find a doctor who listens to me and who understands me and my fears.

And they - see, the thing is, for him, I was just another patient. But for me, I was - this is my first brush with a breast cancer scare. He sees it 20 times a day, so he was not what I needed. He was not the person that was going to be on what I called Team Syler. And I found a great and wonderful doctor who'd been caring for me for the last four years.

MARTIN: Good for you.

Ms. SYLER: Yeah.

MARTIN: Good for you. That's a great story.

Ms. SYLER: But you know what? You really have to - if you feel in your gut that this is the wrong person, then you should listen to that. You should heed that small warning and go find someone that you think will listen to you and take adequate care of you and appropriate care.

MARTIN: And the final question I have for you - in terms of difficult conversations - what common sense advice would you give to people who are struggling with, you know, health issues that they think other people might not understand and perhaps feel alone in? What would you say?

Ms. SYLER: Well, I think now, in the Internet age, there's so much information out there. There are so many support groups and Web sites that you can go to. I would try to get hooked up with whatever organization or issue you were having and find an organization from which you could get some good, sound advice.

The other thing is, you've got to go to your doctor. When you go to your doctor, you have to be honest with your doctor. You can't lie to your doctor, because they can't help you if they don't have all the information.

And the third thing I would say is, illness is nothing to be embarrassed by. Ask for help. If you can't - you know, when I was in the middle of my reconstruction, I had to have neighbors come over and take care of me and take my children for a couple of days because I was physically unable to care for them. Don't be afraid to ask for help.

MARTIN: Rene, thank you so much for talking with us.

Ms. SYLER: Good to see you. Bye.

MARTIN: Rene Syler is the former co-anchor of CBS' "The Early Show." She joined us from our studios in New York.

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Excerpt: 'Good Enough Mother: The Perfectly Imperfect Book of Parenting'

Casey and Cole: The Rose and the Thorn

TO HELP YOU UNDERSTAND ME AND MY PARENTING style (and I do think of it as a "style"), allow me to reintroduce the people who've helped me hone it. Though I crave peace and the occasional week-long vacation alone so that I can escape the role of referee for the fights over who ate the last Pop-Tart, I simply cannot imagine my life without my husband, Buff, and my children, Casey and Cole.

I look back on my life pre-children, and I realize that nothing I thought I understood intellectually about raising kids compares with the reality of just doing it. The sheer gravity and magnitude of the responsibility, the fears, the joys — which never go away — can leave you breathless with anxiety, consumed by what-ifs and worst-case scenarios. If you let them.

How is it that Casey and Cole, the pilot and copilot of the bus driving me straight to the funny farm, can also make my heart strain at the seams when I catch a glimpse of them from across the room? Can I keep up with them? They're each so much their own person, a melding of genes from my husband and me, coupled with their unique personalities, likes, and dislikes. Sometimes I look at them and marvel at who they are, where they came from, and what's shaping them as they learn and grow. Casey, my sweet rosebud. Cole, my sweet thorn, who should have been named Get Down From There.

And then, sometimes, I want to wring both of their necks. Like the time they spray-painted a long white streak down the middle of the brown garage.

But that's how life is, isn't it? The very thing that scares the hell out of you is the same thing you want to do, again and again and again. Like jumping out of a moving plane at thirty-three thousand feet, or running to the drugstore for a pregnancy test, hoping against hope the stick will turn pink.

During my first pregnancy my obstetrician said Casey's due date was August 28. The problem was, no one informed her, and as the day came and went, my cervix stayed closed tighter than a Ziploc freezer bag. When in the beginning I got a glimpse of Casey, on the first of many ultrasounds I had during her time in utero, I was fascinated. Completely, totally, hopelessly in love with someone who, save the occasional jab in the ribs, I hadn't yet met.

Still, Casey wasn't exactly an ideal tenant, because her idea of fun was partying all night and kicking all day, and I gotta tell you, after forty-two weeks, I weighed more than my husband and I'd had enough. Yes, she was late, and I was cranky. Fast-forward a few days to when I thought I was in labor and the doctor breezily informed me I was not, but said that I should expect all systems to be go within twenty-four hours or so. Buff's response was to go play golf, and mine was to promptly lock myself out of the house. Off I waddled to the neighbor's house to put my feet up and sip on my first glass of chardonnay in nine-and-a-half months. I knew it probably wasn't going to make a dent in Casey's development at forty-two weeks, but it was certainly going to improve my disposition.

Naturally, even though I already felt like a water buffalo, after drinking the chardonnay was when I started to feel truly peculiar. But I couldn't get into the house and I couldn't find Buff, who was busy merrily whacking a few balls. After only a mild bout of freaking-out, I finally reached him, and he came home only to ask me (while I was panting away and nearly ready to keel over because I was so out of breath with the one breathing technique I could remember) if I was really in labor, because, after all, the doctor had said I wasn't.

I still made him drive me to the hospital, where I spent the next twenty-seven nonproductive hours in labor. Remarkably, after the resulting C-section from a doctor I'd never seen before but whom I was willing to kiss on the lips after he finally got that kid out of me, my heart, ever-so-Grinch-like, instantly expanded by three sizes the minute I laid eyes on Casey, my sweet-as-spun- sugar angel from on high.

I vividly remember when Casey and I were first introduced. After the nurses cleaned her up and handed my delicious baby burrito (which is what I've always thought swaddled babies look like) to me, I marveled that I had played any role whatsoever in her making. And then a shudder gripped me from the tip of my sweaty, matted hair to my thankfully pristine pedicure.

I thought: NOW WHAT?

Because here's the thing: Unlike for your car or microwave or computer, there is no owner's manual provided! Those munchkins come out hollering with it all hanging out — and the nurses hand them to you and leave you to your own devices.

Of all the nerve!

I expect you were a lot like me and read all of the books that tell you what to expect during pregnancy and what newborns will be like. But for me Casey's birth was much like exam week at college, when I crammed all night, consuming nothing but black coffee and NoDoz, gripped by the irrational fear that, as soon as I took my seat in the classroom, clutching my number-two pencil, all those answers would instantly fall right through the trapdoor of my cerebral cortex when I needed them most.

So there I lay with my baby burrito in my arms looking up at me as if she were as terrified of this new arrangement as I was.

Naturally, I panicked.

But Casey was such a delightful baby, with such a lovely, easygoing, nondemanding, sunshiny disposition, that Buff and I quickly fell into a regular schedule, and, minus a few toddler moments, it was all fairly smooth sailing. Basking in our success — thinking, ridiculously enough in retrospect, that her nature had something to do with our nascent but clearly already formidable parenting ability — Buff and I decided that we weren't going to have this baby dictate to us. Oh, no. We were already a family unit, and she had joined our family, and nothing was gonna change. We were going to do whatever we wanted, when we wanted to, and Casey was just gonna tag along and be happy about it.

So we took Casey with us everywhere — on trips, to restaurants, shopping, to parties, out with friends. She almost never cried and was good as gold.

Casey was as a baby all those years ago as she is as a tween now: quiet, sensitive, quick to smile, fairly easygoing, with a wonderful disposition. (Of course, by the time she hits adolescence, I'll be waiting, cringing with despair, for the first time my wonderful daughter will look me full in the eyes and say, "I hate your guts!")

In fact, I should blame her for tricking Buff and me into having another child. She was such a good baby, we thought (mistakenly so), Oh, what the heck, we are just amazingly great parents. Why not go to the well one more time? Why, this is a snap! In fact, we're almost perfect as parents. Who needs all that gobbledygook you find in baby books? Not us! Why, we should write our own!

Just as we were busy patting ourselves on the back, the stick turned pink, and life was never ever the same again.

You know, I've faced and conquered many challenges in my life. But that was BC — as in, Before Cole.

Cole Arthur Parham. Little did I know that even though he freeloaded in my womb for thirty-eight weeks, the real work would begin just about the minute he got out. When that boy was snatched from the comfy confines of the womb — he, like his sister, the prior tenant, deigned to move out of his rent-controlled district only because the digs got too small for him — he was a take-no-prisoners kind of baby. In fact, his mantra was "I'm gonna get my way, so don't get in my way."

One of the few problems I'd had with Casey was that she had had trouble suckling, and I'd had to work with a lactation consultant, who had hovered over my breast, cooing and squeezing, trying to entice Casey to latch on.

Cole, on the other hand, never wanted to latch off.

The lactation consultant and all those baby books I'd devoured told me that I should brace myself for the every-two-hours onslaught, as breast milk flies right through babies. So here I was, a scant hour and thirty minutes after feeding Cole, nipples sore, bags bulging under my eyes from no sleep, my hair closely resembling a rat's nest, a toddler clutching one leg, with a kid whose mouth was wide open at every turn and who was gearing up for more. At an hour and forty-five minutes, that boy was ready for food! His stomach would start growling and he would begin to cry. It took only a minute of crying before the battalion was fully engaged and the full-on screaming started. There was no consoling him. So I threw the baby books out the window and shoved the teat into his mouth because I couldn't take it anymore.

Three months later, when I had to go back to work, I cold-turkeyed the daytime milk-fest because I had to be able to fit into my suits (fervently praying every day that the binding I'd wound around myself like a mummy would prevent me from leaking on the five o'clock news). But I still kept up the nighttime feeding for a long time, as I'd done with Casey, because it was such a wonderful way to connect with my babies at the end of the day. I always felt like the minute you stopped nursing, any old fool could take care of your baby.

Speaking of fools, that was me, wondering just what the heck was going on with Cole. Not to say that the boy was difficult (ha!)—he was just so markedly different from Casey. Even when she was only a few months old, we could pretty much keep up our regular routines as a family, because she was such a well-behaved dream in public. As she got older, whenever we went out to eat, she'd sit calmly and quietly in her high chair, coloring and waiting patiently for her food.

Once the food arrived, it would miraculously move from the plate to her mouth without any stops at the floor or my lap. Cole, on the other hand, would squirm in his seat the entire time, spilling salt and sugar everywhere before grabbing a fork or a knife and merrily playing games you rushed to stop before anyone got hurt.

Nearly nine years later not much has changed. I was talking to one of the counselors at Cole's camp last summer — not even one of his own counselors, mind you — and once she realized who I was, all she could say was, "Yeah, that Cole is a wild man."

Take teeth, for example. Casey, being the responsible child, has lost all her teeth in the house, and has come to me for comfort and in happy anticipation of a visit from the tooth fairy andthe five bucks she'll discover under her pillow in the morning.

Cole has lost maybe one tooth in the house. The others have literally been lost. Somewhere. Anywhere. Just lost.

Last time that happened, he wrote a note to the tooth fairy:

Dear Tooth Fairy,

I lost my tooth AGAIN, and when I find it, it's going to be your lucky day.

Cole is the child my mother warned me about when she was trying to put the fear of God into me. He's the child you'll urge your daughters to steer clear of. Once, when he was

about four, he was busy putting on a "show" for us when Casey ran in and announced that she wanted to be in it too.

"Casey," he breezily informed her, "there's only room for one star in this show!"

Actually, Cole is an adorable boy with a bright smile, dreamy dimples, and huge brown eyes. Buff and I used to joke with each other that he looked like a Volkswagen when he was born, because his eyes literally took up a third of his face! He will, no doubt, charm his way into public office sooner than we all think. He's energetic, headstrong, single-minded — all quantities you want in a world leader.

But not a third grader.

In fact, just the other night he informed me that he wanted

to be president.

So I said, "You do?"

"Yep." Then he frowned. "Does the president have to

make speeches?"

"Why, yes, he does," I replied.

He shrugged. "Well, I don't really have anything to say."

That's the first and only time he'll ever say that! I know I can't control what he's thinking about or what's going to come out of his mouth, any more than I can control Casey's tendency to shy away from the spotlight.

The fact that my children are such polar opposites has taught me a priceless lesson in managing my expectations and minimizing comparisons. Casey's and Cole's personalities are now as they were the minute they emerged from the womb. Casey is quiet, shy, and demure. Cole entered screaming.

And I wouldn't have it any other way.

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