Fashion Designer Liz Lange goes public with her story of overcoming cervical cancer

October 19th, 2007

How I Beat Cancer – My Way

By Liz Lange

Many cancer survivors say to focus on wellness, make your life Zen and tell everyone you know so they can help you through it. Designer Liz Lange did none of that. Six years after being diagnosed with cervical cancer, she's finally sharing her story. As told to Shaun Dreisbach.

Before you and millions of other women opened this magazine, only a handful of people knew that I was diagnosed with cervical cancer at age 35. Keeping it a secret might sound crazy to you. After all, people blog about their experiences with cancer, join support groups – every week, it seems, a celebrity comes forward with her incredible cancer story, sharing the details as she lives through it. I know many women find great solace in airing their fears and feeling like they have a huge base of sympathy and support. But for me, not talking about my cancer turned out to be what saved me. So this is how I took things – one step at a time.

STEP 1 : Don't put off that Pap

It was the summer of 2001 and things could not have been crazier. I had a new baby – eight-month-old Alice – and a two-and-a-half-year-old son, Gus, and my four-year-old business designing clothes for pregnant women was taking off in a big way. I had earned a spot at New York's fashion week in the fall (which would make me the first-ever maternity designer to show there) and was in the midst of putting together my collection. I was also debuting a brand-new line of pregnancy workout clothes for Nike.

So the last thing I had time for was a trip to the gynecologist. But I was due for a checkup, and for some reason I decided I shouldn't put it off. A week after the test, I got a call from my Doctor: “The results of your Pap smear were funny,” he said. A follow-up biopsy found that I had dysplasia – abnormal tissue that, left untreated, can be a precursor to cervical cancer A simple procedure removed it, and I was assured it wasn't a huge deal. I was literally breezing out the door after the procedure when my doctor called out after me, “It's standard practice to test the actual dysplasia. We'll have the results in about a week.” To me, the problem had already been taken care of.

Step 2: Imagine the Worst

I was in the car with my mother more than a week later coming back from a wedding in East Hampton, when my cell phone buzzed with a message from my doctor, I checked my voice mail at work; he had tried to reach me there, too.

And that's when I knew I had cancer.

My face flushed and I felt as if I was going to throw up. I dialed the doctor and he immediately came to the phone. “Well, I don't have good news…” he began. I couldn't hear anymore. “I'm sorry, I can't talk about this!” I said, and handed the phone to my mother even though she was at the wheel. He didn't want to discuss something so upsetting while she was driving, so he quickly relayed just two things: I had cervical cancer, and he'd made an appointment for me with a gynecologic oncologist first thing the next morning.

For two hours I imagined myself getting sick, losing my hair and dying. Cancer has always been my worst fear. Even as a child I was terrified of it. I remember getting marker on my hand once and running to my mom, panicked, saying I'd found a spot; I must have heard something about skin cancer. At one point, my parents had to ask my pediatrician to explain to me how rare cancer is in kids.

My mother and I were nearly silent for the rest of the drive, except every few minutes she would say, in a stunned, far-off way, “We are going to get all the best doctors.”

That night I couldn't bear walking into my apartment and having to face my husband and, especially, my kids. I was overwhelmed, and the thought of seeing them – and knowing that their lives hinged on the outcome – was more than I could emotionally handle. So instead I went to my mother's house. We called the doctor again and got more details, which were somewhat reassuring: My cancer was treatable. Only then did I call my husband; I sobbed hysterically as I told him the news.

STEP 3: Find a kind doctor

Another silent car ride. This time it was with my husband, who was coming with me to meet the oncologist. When the doctor walked in to see us, I blurted out, “Am I going to die?”

Die? Of course you're not going to die!” he said. He recommended a radical hysterectomy to remove the cancer on my cervix and any abnormal cells that may have spread, but he also encouraged me to get more opinions. What a nightmare that was. One doctor assaulted me with survival statistics and then had his staff give us literature on the hospital's chapel services. Another, who was supposed to be brilliant, treated me like Cancer Patient Number 607. I felt so vulnerable that any insensitivity seemed like cruelty. After two weeks of doctor shopping, I went back to my original oncologist. He had great credentials, but most of all, he had heart.

His optimism helped whenever I found myself having melodramatic but very real thoughts. I'd look at my kids and think, They're so innocent; they don't know. I'd wander into their rooms in the middle of the night to be close to them, and I'd just stand there thinking, They need me.

STEP 4: Keep the news a secret

By the time I scheduled the surgery, I had told my sister, my husband, my parents, two friends and my cousin abut my illness. Before the operation I also told two key business associates, who would have to handle things for me while I recovered. But most people in my life – other friends, my employees – had no idea. Why did I decide to keep quiet? The most honest answer I can give is that it was simply too painful for me to talk about. Every time I tried, my face would turn bright red, I'd break down in tears and I wouldn't be able to get the word cancer out of my mouth.

It was hard for me even to admit to myself that I had cancer. I made sure I did everything I could to get better physically, yet emotionally I was practically not dealing with it. Some of that was denial, I'm sure, but mainly it helped me function. If a lot of people had known about my condition, I constantly would have been peppered with questions about how the treatment was going, or how I was holding up – and that would have just mired me in the problem, when I wanted to concentrate on beating my cancer.

I also worried about what the news could do to my company. I thought, I'm supposed to be the queen of maternity chic, and here I am about to have a hysterectomy! I feared it would be bad for the brand that I had worked so hard to create. I like being seen as a strong, successful woman. I couldn't bear people thinking of me as anything but that.

STEP 5: Have chemo while landing a huge business deal

It took two weeks to recover from the hysterectomy, but it appeared that the cancer had not spread. Still, my oncologist recommended a five-week course of chemotherapy, and my radiologist advised eight weeks of radiation. It was aggressive, but it would dramatically reduce the risk of recurrence. I was ready to do whatever it took. Thankfully, the chemo wouldn't cause my hair to fall out. Outwardly, at least, I would be the same old Liz.

Not having my employees know about my diagnosis and treatment helped keep life normal, which was a huge comfort to me. I could go into the office and not worry that they weren't telling me things or not giving me work because they didn't want to stress me out. In fact, I went for radiation treatment at the hospital every morning before work, and no one in the office found out. Hiding it did get stressful sometimes. Once I bumped into a friend of my mother's in the hospital lobby, “Oh, Liz, what are you doing here?” she asked. I stumbled and made up a lie about visiting a friend who had just had a baby. But I was panicked that I almost had been exposed.

Once a week I also had chemotherapy; I'd have an IV put in my arm and then sit for two to three hours while the medicine dripped into me. My sister came with me every time. We'd sit and chat and she'd bring fashion magazines for us to flip through. But we never, ever discussed cancer.

In the middle of my treatment, I had a launch party to present my Liz Lange for Nike maternity activewear line to a select group of New York editors. It was a huge moment in my career, but I was exhausted and weak from having chemo and radiation that morning. I remember sitting on the floor of my shower, too tired to stand, and being unable to lift my arms to shampoo my hair. I have no idea how, but I managed to do my hair, put on my makeup and get through the event. To cover the fact that I wasn't as energetic as usual, I told colleagues that I was getting over the flu. But no one could tell how sick I really was.

A few weeks later I got a call from Target. They wanted me to fly to Minneapolis to discuss launching a new maternity line. I was beyond excited, but I couldn't take a day off from radiation, so I invented an excuse to put them off until I had a weeklong break in my treatment. When I finally negotiated the deal, I thought, I never knew I had it in me to do something like this – let alone with cancer.

STEP 6: Finally Tell the World

I just passed the six-year mark of being cancer free, and I'm as close to feeling like it's behind me as I will ever get. Now seems like the right time to go public. A million times over the past six years I was asked, “When are you going to have another baby? You're the poster child for your brand.” I'd say, “I don't have time – my business is my third child.” But that's not the whole truth. I've realized that being completely open can help people – and that's the most important thing. I'm inspired by strong women who are talking about cancer, like Katie Couric, who lost her husband to colon cancer. If I can raise awareness about cervical cancer, I should. In all my years of going to the ob-gyn, it never occurred to me how crucial regular Pap smears are. I have to confess that before my diagnosis, I wasn't even sure what the test screened for – ovarian or cervical cancer. I don't want you, or any other woman who reads this story, to put that test off. It literally saved my life. And I would feel guilty if I didn't do all I could to save someone else's.

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