'Fox Business' Anchor Gerri Willis is Taking the Stigma Out of Breast Cancer
The Fox Business Network anchor and Hartsdale local talks her new mission, post-remission.
Courtesy FOX Business Network
Gerri Willis is having a good year. This month marks the tenth anniversary of Fox Business Network (FBN)’s television debut, and Willis is billed as anchor “across all shows.” This will also mark the fourth straight quarter — a full year — since FBN overtook CNBC as the top-rated business news leader last October. Also, she beat breast cancer.
Willis was diagnosed with stage-3 breast cancer in April of last year. She took six months off and returned to work a year ago, while still undergoing treatment at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in West Harrison. She underwent a mastectomy, four months of chemotherapy (including “the red devil” Doxorubicin and Taxol), and five weeks of daily radiation treatment. As of January 4, she has officially been in remission.
Willis was kind enough to sit down with us for a few minutes to talk about her experiences and some of the work she’s been doing to help fight breast cancer: her own, in others, and the stigma surrounding it.
Thanks for taking the time to talk with us. You’re still living in Hartsdale, correct?
Yeah, you know, we love that neighborhood and we love the house. It’s a great location because Westchester County is so big. And we’re actually pretty close to the city, so getting to work’s a breeze. It’s just very convenient.
Since diagnosis and through recovery, you’ve been very vocal about your treatment process and encouraging others to seek testing and treatment. Why do you think there is still such a fear around talking about cancer, especially breast cancer?
You know, it’s interesting. You would think we’d be long past that, right? But the reality is we aren’t and I think it has a lot to do with fear. Women in particular worry that the disease might hit them — one in eight women will have breast cancer in their lifetime, so you know the numbers are high; a lot of people are affected — and it’s one of those things that’s just easier to ignore or turn away from. What I try to encourage people to do is not do that, but pay attention, to get the tests, and to take care of themselves and their family and to recognize what this is. For me, it’s something I’ve survived. You can overcome this. The message is ultimately positive.
Is there anything we can do societally, on a larger scale, to assuage that fear?
I do this by talking about it all the time — on social media, in every venue possible, to organizations — about the disease and trying to raise awareness. What you find once you start talking to people is that everybody knows somebody with it. It’s not something that people have never heard of, they’re just afraid of it, I think.
It’s about talking about it. It’s about making it public, about seeing more stories and really lifting awareness and normalizing it to some extent, so people are saying, “Alright, yeah, I know what that is, we know how to fight that. We can fight that and we’re going to fight that and I’m going to fight that in my own life.” As long as it’s secret it’s much more difficult to accept and understand. That was my problem with having breast cancer. It took me a long time to actually embrace the diagnosis. Once I did, everything was much, much better.
I tend to be very blunt in describing what it is and how it affects me. In my first appearance talking about it on TV I describe what a mastectomy is. It ain’t pretty, friend. I said exactly what it meant: “Mastectomy” is a cover word. Normal people don’t talk like that; that’s how doctors talk. They remove your breast. That’s what happens. I try to talk in plain English so that people can understand what’s going on.
What events are you planning on taking part in this year to help raise funds and awareness of issues surrounding breast cancer?
Well we just got done with the Susan G. Komen race! That was so fabulous; that was my big thing this fall. We had a great team of FOX News and FOX Business Network folks that went out and we raised a lot of money for the event. It was so unbelievable how people here at FOX came together and got behind me and behind the team to do this. It was overwhelming, the flood of support we got for that event. For the rest of the year it’s mostly print stuff I’m doing, and a lot of interviews, and I’m writing columns about it.
You were actually one of the highest-funding groups at Susan G. Komen this year, both as a team and a corporation.
Yes! They have three categories. One is corporate. FOX was I think number six. Then they have another category for teams led by a person. We were number four, which was way exciting. We’re going to redouble our efforts next year. I just feel so grateful. It’s weird that I feel grateful that I’m in this position to help.
What would you say to someone who’s afraid of getting an irregularity tested? What would you like to say to anyone currently or soon to be undergoing treatment?
My message for people is the experience of having breast cancer is never what you think it’s going to be.…For me, yes, there are some awful days, but they were balanced by incredible positives including just spending more time with my family, beginning to understand my priorities in a way I don’t think I ever have, reconnecting with my brother … we spent time together in a way we haven’t since we were kids! And there’s a spiritual aspect to it. It’s an amazing journey and there are true positives that came out of it. Yes, it’s not a great thing, but believe me you’ll be surprised by what happens if you have to go on this road.
I said before I had a hard time accepting the diagnosis. I just … I never get sick, okay? I’ve never broken a bone, and now I have cancer? Are you kidding? It wasn’t until I was halfway through chemo that I sort of confronted this in a very real way.
At the end of the “red devil” treatments — which is the toughest chemotherapy — that last day they could not get any of my veins to stand up to the needle. The veins kept collapsing, which is very common, and I was so anxious my shoulders were at my ears. I was like a ball of anxiety. Suddenly it occurred to me, “This could be your best day of treatment or your worst. It’s really up to you.” I had to cooperate with these people; I couldn’t just show up. This wasn’t just a job of making sure you get to the appointment, you actually have to work with them and be present. From there on out I was able to really be a part of my own treatment and recovery.
The trick is breast cancer treatment can be a very long process. Some people are lucky and it’s not, but for me it was nine months. In your mind you have to celebrate every. Little. Win. Every chemo treatment, every surgery, every day of radiation, that’s a checkmark in your book. And you have to break it down in little pieces so you can actually get through it. You’re impulse is to look at it like, “Eight more months to go…” and you’ll never get through it like that. You need to be present right now. You’re faced with what could be a very negative consequence, so you gotta enjoy the right now.
With various attempts recently to replace the Affordable Care Act, a lot of talk has come up regarding pre-existing conditions and the high costs of treatment for life-threatening illnesses. As a personal finance professional, can you talk a little about the unexpected costs associated with cancer treatment an employed or self-employed individual might face with a cancer diagnosis?
Well it’s not inexpensive, that’s for darn sure. I haven’t really broken it down that far, I’ll be honest, but it is expensive. It can be a financial burden. My experience with FOX was that our coverage was terrific; I was very lucky. Not only was the coverage good, but the support I got from the company … I was frankly surprised by. The people who lead our network would check in with me monthly. Were they saying, “Gerri, when are you coming back to work?” No, they were not. They were saying, “How are you? Do you need anything?” That’s just the culture here.
You can catch Gerri Willis on television on FOX Business Network and follow her on Twitter at @GerriWillisFBN.