“We’re in this fight together!”

Former CNN anchor Zoraida Sambolin opens up about her courageous breast cancer battle— and how she drew strength from her children.

Deborah Pike Olsen
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Zoraida Sambolin, Breast Cancer

When former CNN Early Start anchor Zoraida Sambolin was diagnosed with breast cancer in April 2013, she wasn’t especially worried about the treatment. Instead, she feared breaking the news to her children, Nico, 14, and Sofia, 10. “The first thought I had was, How will I tell my kids?” recalls Zoraida, 48.

Indeed, she was on the way to pick up Nico at school when she learned she had the disease. “I felt like I’d been punched in the gut,” she says. Zoraida’s cancer, which was discovered after a routine 
mammogram, was early-stage, but she was devastated. “I wondered, What does this mean? What is 
wrong with my body? I eat right and I exercise, and my kids need me. 
This is the wrong time [for me to have cancer],” recalls Zoraida.

Zoraida waited three weeks to tell her children. “I needed to give a lot of thought to how my kids would digest the info,” she says. She decided to share the book Breast Cancer for Dummies with Nico. “There’s humor in it,” she says. In an emotional interview with her son on CNN, she asked, “Do you remember how I told you about the cancer?”

“You asked me what I thought of when I thought about breast cancer,” Nico recalled, starting to cry.

“You said, ‘I think of a fight,’ ” Zoraida reminded him. “That was a great answer. I said, ‘We’ll fight this.’ ”

Although it was difficult for Zoraida to have this conversation with Nico, she says she agonized over how to tell Sofia. “She looks a lot like me and identifies with me,” says Zoraida. “I asked her, ‘What comes to mind when you think of breast cancer?’ She said, ‘People lose their hair and get sick.’ I said, ‘I have breast cancer, but I’m not going to lose my hair or get sick.’ Then the conversation was over…she asked me a question about something else. I let it go.”

“My kids give me strength”
In May, Zoraida—who has fibrocystic breast tissue and a history of suspicious mammogram results—had a double mastectomy on the recommendation of her radiologists. The surgery went well. Doctors discovered Zoraida had Stage I cancer in her left breast and lobular carcinoma in situ (LCIS)—a condition in which abnormal cells form in the milk glands—in the right breast. While LCIS isn’t cancer, it means you’re at increased risk of developing the disease.

Nico was there for Zoraida throughout her hospital stay. “Nico’s was the last familiar face I saw before surgery and the first when I came out,” says Zoraida. “Even as he was there for me, I couldn’t always be there for him. I missed his [8th grade] graduation, but…it helps that we’re in this fight together. I need [my children’s] strength.”

Today, Zoraida is cancer-free and has left CNN to spend more time with Nico, Sofia and her fiancé, Kenny Williams. “My prognosis is excellent,” she says. Looking back, she’s amazed by her children’s support. “I was used to caring for my kids, not the other way around,” she says. “You never know what your children are capable of.”  

Zoraida’s top 4 
coping tips

  1. Let people help. “Allow people 
to do as much as they want to do for you,” 
advises Zoraida. “Loving support is key.” Zoraida’s fiancé, White Sox executive vice president Kenny Williams, emptied her drains for her after her surgery. “He was skittish about it, but he insisted on doing it,” she recalls. He even wore scrubs and a lab coat to make her laugh.

    Why it’s a good idea: Women who have large social networks have a higher quality of life after diagnosis, found a study of 3,000 breast cancer patients in Breast Cancer Research and Treatment. And a study in the Journal of Psychosomatic Research showed that cancer survivors who receive social support are better able to do everyday activities.

  2. Make sure you 
understand your cancer. 
“My breast surgeon drew me a diagram with grapes and trees to explain where the cancer was,” she says. “It helped.”

    Why it’s a good idea: Cancer patients who better understand their cancer are more likely to pursue treatment that extends their prognosis than those who don’t, according to a study in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

  3. Meet fellow survivors. Breast cancer survivors who underwent mastectomies visited the CNN office in New York City, and Zoraida interviewed them. They joked about their experiences. “I thought, If they can laugh about it, it will be okay,” she recalls.

    Why it’s a good idea: [Seeing other women who have gone through the process] “is healing and gives you hope,” says Zoraida. In fact, a study in the Archives of General Psychiatry showed that cancer patients who attend support groups are better able to cope.

  4. Reach out online. Zoraida used her Facebook fan page to post updates about her journey—including photos of herself after surgery. “Whenever I learned something new, I’d pass it on,” she says.

    Why it’s a good idea: In a recent study published in the Journal of Medical Internet Research, researchers found that breast cancer patients who post about their experiences receive more benefits—including emotional support—from online communities than those who simply lurk.
September 2014