"It is a good thing," says Ellen Kingsley, with a small smile, "that Bob is not a breast man."
Ellen Kingsley, 34-year-old award-winning consumer reporter for Channel 9 (WDVM-TV), says this on camera of her psychiatrist-husband. In fact, when she says it, she is still in bed, recovering from the modified radical mastectomy that took her left breast only a few months before.
Today, after the mastectomy and the subsequent six-month course of chemotherapy, and almost on the eve of the broadcast of a documentary of her continuing battle against breast cancer -- "A Portrait of Hope" -- Ellen Kingsley can laugh. (The five-part series begins tonight on Channel 9's 6 p.m. newscast and repeats each night at 11. A half-hour documentary will air later this month.)
"I never had very much there to begin with, and in this newsroom I always was the butt of newsroom jokes about flat-chestedness. Now you can just imagine I got some truly tasteless letters at the hospital from people in this newsroom. Really tasteless. I loved them."
These days, Ellen Kingsley fairly glows with enthusiasm and energy. Her hazel eyes shine. The consumer-reporter personality that projected sincerity and concern and the image of a young woman on the verge of making it big is all back -- she is strong, vibrant, feminine, smart, competent. And in control.
"I feel very well put together now," Kingsley says confidently, sitting at a desk that has been made, she admits, uncharacteristically neat because of the expected presence of a photographer. She is wearing a wig, but it is only because she identifies it as such that anyone could tell.
But when the documentary begins today, all those viewers out there are going to see a different Ellen Kingsley. An Ellen Kingsley who is sick, depressed, afraid to die and yet certain she will.
Ellen Kingsley and her breast cancer. Ellen Kingsley and her mastectomy and her breast reconstruction. Ellen Kinglsey and her chemotherapy. Ellen Kingsley with almost all her hair gone. Ellen Kingsley, no more the confident television presence, now only the frightened, vulnerable young woman confronted with her own mortality. Then they will see her as she is today. Healthy. Not yet certain she is cured, but optimistic.
It was last February that Kingsley found a lump in her breast -- found it doing the routine self-examination she had often recommended to others and practiced routinely herself. Her husband, Dr. Robert Hirschfeld, psychiatrist at the National Institute of Mental Health, didn't like the feel of it -- one can almost feel his despair as he says this on-camera -- and indeed, his concern was justified.
Kingsley didn't smoke. She worked out regularly. She knew and practiced the elements of good nutrition fairly well. But there were two risk factors beyond her control. She had begun menstruating early -- at age 11. And, probably more important, her father's mother and sister both had gotten (and died from) breast cancer when they were young. Her father died at an early age of pancreatic cancer and although doctors assured her his cancer had no relation to hers, his death enhanced her fears.
Kingsley's colleague Jane Van Ryan interviewed her, her doctors, her husband, her mother and her therapists at intervals during the ordeal.
"I've been thinking a lot about why I'm doing this," Kingsley says now. "Because it's really very unlike me to do something like this. I mean my husband is floored, because I'm very protective of my private life, and here I am really letting it all hang out.
"I think there were two things. First of all, it's the reporter's instinct -- 'wow,' I said to myself, 'what a great story.' " She grins.
"But the second thing is that there really wasn't any other way to make this into a positive experience. Having a mastectomy and going through chemotherapy and having cancer is not a positive life experience. It [the documentary] helped me to distance myself from what I was experiencing -- sort of like the wallflower at the orgy."
Kingsley's cancer had spread to at least three underarm lymph nodes, suggesting to her doctors the need for an aggressive course of chemotherapy. "We felt we had a very good chance to get on top of it right away and we might as well really zap it," says Kingsley, "because I'm young enough and strong enough to really take it. But boy, you know, they used to give chemotherapy for a year, and I was just saying to Bob, I don't know how women went through this for a year."
Chemotherapy drugs are potent poisons designed to kill or block cancer cells wherever they may be. However, they also act on healthy cells and often, although not always, cause unpleasant side effects, ranging from relentless nausea to hair loss to fatigue to depression. The more "aggressive" the chemotherapy, the more likely the side effects.
For Kingsley, the worst side effect was depression. Some of it became focused on her hair. "Get a wig," the cancer specialists suggested when the chemotherapy began, so she'd have it if she needed it.
They recommended a place to buy one. "It was a mistake," says Kingsley. "I won't tell you the name of it, but it was just the sleaziest unisex place you can imagine, wallpaper from the '60s peeling off the walls and they had these books with all these wigs. I remember sitting there and weeping. I'd been through all this, I thought, and now to add insult to injury, I was in this awful, sleazy place because my hair was going to fall out.
"And I really liked my hair."
The depression -- a genuine, clinical depression -- curiously peaked after the chemotherapy was finished. "I thought I would feel better and I dove into my work and made myself sick," she said. "We went on a trip and I couldn't keep up. I think what happened is I let down my guard and maybe made myself more vulnerable to be taken over by depression. I had never been really depressed, and nobody knows what that's like until it happens to them. There was one week when I just didn't sleep. I slept maybe one hour or two a night. I'd be exhausted, try to get back to sleep and just toss and turn.
"Then when we were in California I had this custom-made wig and that was a big mistake. It was terrible. I looked like Bozo the Clown. I looked like I had a hat made out of hair. And I'd look into the mirror and I'd start to cry. Here I'd had this reconstruction so that no one has to know I've had cancer, but everybody will know because of this wig that something weird was going on . . . In some ways it was worse than the mastectomy."
Kingsley feels that although there was an element of therapy in documenting her experience, there is much of value to women who might have breast cancer now or might be at risk. Partly because she discovered the lump herself, underscoring the value of self-examination.
"Yes," she says, "I have this specter of cancer hanging over my head, but my chances of surviving are much better than if it hadn't been discovered for another 10 months."
And partly, she says, "because it is important to show that although it is no bed of roses, you do emerge eventually."
Kingsley's hair is growing back, and the bald patches are covered over. The other night, she and her husband went out to dinner. She decided to leave the wig at home, successful as this final "off-the-rack" version was. They met a friend who complimented Kingsley on her "nice haircut."
"I don't know about nice," says Kingsley, "but at least, at last, it is a haircut."