Finding Humor During a Cancer Journey
- After comedian Wanda Sykes, 58, was diagnosed with very early stage 0 breast cancer in 2011, she had a double mastectomy, an aggressive approach to reduce her risk that is not that standard of care for that type of breast cancer.
- Stage 0 breast cancer is also called ductal carcinoma in situ (DCIS), which starts in the milk ducts. With a double mastectomy, both breasts are removed to get rid of cancer.
- Sykes did not let the cancer stop her, and she has found the humor in her journey (like being able to run without a bra because of her implants).
- Her story highlights the importance of early detection, and Sykes has encouraged women to perform self exams and keep up with their regular screenings.
Sykes has been keeping the laughs going on social media, sharing hilarious clips from her new Hulu series “The History of the World, Part 2.” It’s the long-anticipated follow-up to Mel Brooks’ “History of the World, Part 1” from 1981. The eight-episode series premieres March 6 on Hulu.
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Sykes has had a long and successful career as a comedian, actress, and writer. She got her start in the late 1990s with “The Chris Rock Show” and went on to make her mark with her sharp wit and willingness to tackle controversial topics. Throughout her career, Sykes has shown has shown her talent for making audiences laugh while also using her platform to make a difference in the world.
One way she makes that difference is being open and honest about her experience with breast cancer.
Wanda Sykes’ Breast Cancer Journey
In 2011, Wanda Sykes was diagnosed with stage zero breast cancer, or ductal carcinoma in situ (DCIS). This type of breast cancer that starts in the milk ducts. She underwent a double mastectomy to remove both of her breasts, as well as reconstruction. She then took some time off to focus on her recovery.
DCIS has two important factors to note: It hasn’t spread to other parts of the body, and the risk of death is essentially zero.
READ MORE: An Introduction to Breast Cancer Symptoms & Diagnosis
There is some debate among breast cancer doctors about how to treat DCIS. Some doctors don’t consider it a cancer, but rather a collection of abnormal cells (or a pre-cancer). That’s why some women decide to take a “wait and see” approach. The current standard of care usually involves a lumpectomy and potentially radiation as well, which does have side effects, and potentially, long term effects.
Less commonly, doctors and their patients may decide on more aggressive approaches depending on the amount of DCIS in the breast and a woman’s specific risk factors for a future breast cancer. For Sykes, she chose to remove her risk with a double mastectomy, which may not be recommended for others. Choosing the treatment that’s right for you is a very personal decision, and you should discuss your options with your doctor.
Like many women who have gone through breast cancer, Sykes’ journey was not without challenges. She described the experience as “scary” to Ellen DeGeneres in 2011. Sykes also spoke about the emotional toll the diagnosis took on her, saying that she initially kept the news to herself and didn’t tell anyone until after she had the surgery.
Sykes is not alone in her grapple with telling people. psychiatrist Dr. Lori Plutchik told SurvivorNet that some share the information widely with family, friends, and beyond — and feel comfortable doing so. “Other people are much more private about it,” she says, “And there is no one right way to handle this diagnosis.
“People should do what feels right to them,” she said.
Considering a Double Mastectomy
With a double mastectomy, both breasts are removed to get rid of cancer. The procedure may also be performed as a preventative measure for women who are at a very high risk of developing breast cancer. Afterward, some women decide to have their breasts reconstructed and have implants put in, while others don’t have reconstruction at all.
“A double mastectomy typically takes about two hours for the cancer part of the operation, the removing of the tissue,” Dr. Elisa Port, Chief of Breast Surgery at Mount Sinai Health System, tells SurvivorNet. “The real length, the total length of the surgery, can often depend on what type of reconstruction [a patient] has.”
READ MORE: An Overview of Breast Cancer Treatment
If you’re considering a doule mastectomy, these may be questions you ask your doctor ahead of time:
- What can I do to prepare for a double mastectomy?
- What happens before and after the procedure?
- What are the benefits of using implants over my own tissue and vice versa?
- What will recovery look like after the procedure?
Helping Others With Breast Cancer
After her recovery, Sykes decided to use her experience to raise awareness about breast cancer and the importance of early detection. She has been an advocate for regular mammograms and self-exams.
A key to treating breast cancer is to get memmograms regularly at the recommended intervals, says Dr. Connie Lehman, Chief of the Breast Imaging Clinic at Massachusetts General Hospital and professor of Radiology at Harvard Medical School. This can help spot early signs of anything that may be potentially harmful. This way, you and your doctor can address them right away.
One of the things that makes Sykes so inspiring is her resilience and her ability to find humor in even the most challenging situations. Over the years she has made jokes about the ups and downs of her cancer experience. In her 2019 Comedy Central special “Bustin’ Loose,” she joked about her ability to have “Baywatch” moments and run effortlessly with no bra because of the implants she received after the mastectomy.
Through her advocacy, humor, and courage, Sykes’ willingness to share her experience with the world has helped to break down stigmas and raise awareness about the disease.
Today, Sykes is cancer-free, and her story highlights the importance of early detection, self-care, and finding humor in even the darkest of moments.
(Editor’s Note: The medical information and original sourcing in this article have been done exclusively by SurvivorNet staff. All content has been fact checked exhaustively. Some artificial intelligence tools have been used in the creation of this piece.)
Learn more about SurvivorNet's rigorous medical review process.