News correspondent: Surviving cancer yields wisdom on life

Sign up for Weekday J and get the latest on what's happening in the Jewish Bay Area.

NBC News correspondent Betty Rollin has survived breast cancer to discover a lesson about life and death.

"A little bit of fear about the end of your life can be very useful…It just makes you pay attention to the good things in life," she said.

Rollin, an award-winning television reporter and author of "First You Cry," a moving account of her first bout with breast cancer 21 years ago, was the keynote speaker April 28 at Hadassah's Women of the West conference in Burlingame.

Some 400 participants from five Western Hadassah chapters attended the three-day gathering, which focused on women's changing roles in relation to religion and health care.

Rollin, who had a breast cancer recurrence 11 years ago, emphasized that her message to other women is primarily "upbeat."

Breast cancer survivors may find their view of life forever changed — for the better, said Rollin, in a telephone interview last week from her office at NBC in New York.

"When you find you're still breathing, you kind of notice it," said Rollin, who is Jewish. "When you survive, you're grateful for the rest of your life."

The ability to detect breast cancer earlier means that "many more of us who get this disease will live," she said. "And it's really important to know that you live."

Not only can women who develop breast cancer believe they are "going to be OK," she said, but the quality of their lives can also improve.

"`First You Cry' is about a woman who loses a breast and then has a major love affair," she said, referring to how she walked out of a bad marriage and into a tender and close relationship with another man.

Rollin wrote"First You Cry" in 1976, five years after she joined NBC as a reporter, moving on to create and anchor a series of special programs for and about women titled "Women Like Us." In 1973, she became a correspondent for NBC News and currently serves as a human interest reporter and contributing correspondent for the "NBC Nightly News" with Tom Brokaw.

Rollin's groundbreaking 1976 book dealt frankly with how breast cancer and a mastectomy changed her life. She was equally forthright in her 1985 book "Last Wish," which tells of the assisted suicide of her mother, Ida, who was dying of ovarian cancer.

At the Hadassah event, Rollin joined a half-dozen medical experts from the M.D. Anderson Cancer Clinic in Houston and Seattle Jewish scholar-educator Rivy Poupko Kletenik for a panel on women's health care concerns, particularly breast and ovarian cancer.

Last year, a cooperative study by Hadassah physicians in Israel and scientists at the U.S. National Cancer Institute discovered a gene mutation that puts Jews of Ashkenazi descent at greater risk of hereditary breast and ovarian cancers.

Kletenik, who is director of professional development and Israel resources at the Jewish Education Council of the Seattle Jewish Federation — and the wife of a rabbi — offered a Jewish perspective on surviving cancer.

Her view on women and cancer is especially perceptive; Kletenik lost her mother, grandmother and aunt to ovarian cancer. All died before reaching the age of 60.

Focusing on women's role in creating ritual, education and spirituality, and on the healing powers of Judaism, Kletenik said she has a "sense of inner strength."

As Jews, "we do believe in the eternity of the soul. We value human life, and we dedicate much of our time and energy to preserving human life, and that's good."

Kletenik, 37, who also teaches at the Seattle Hebrew Academy and the Community Hebrew High School, jokingly described herself as "the good student" when it comes to health concerns. Referring to the sonograms and doctor's examinations she regularly undergoes, she said, "I get all the tests."

Unfortunately, ovarian cancer is difficult to detect in its early stages. Many women don't feel or notice any symptoms until the cancer has metastasized, when cure rates are low.

Despite her family's history, Kletenik maintains a positive outlook on life.

"None of us is here forever," she said.

Liz Harris

Liz Harris is a J. contributor. She was J.'s culture editor from 2012-2018.