1.05 Mi-Jung Lee: Seeing Snowballs In A Snowstorm

“I felt like saying to God, ‘There’s been some mistake here – I report the bad news. I’m not supposed to be the subject of the bad news,’” muses CTV anchor Mi-Jung Lee on discovering she had breast cancer, who then went on to raise awareness about the double jeopardy of dense breast tissue. “Sharing one’s story allows someone to put their hand out and prevent us from drowning.”

Mi-Jung Lee - Leading Moms Podcast

Leading Moms Podcast Transcript: Mi-Jung Lee, Seeing Snowballs In a Snowstorm

I have two teenage boys aged 15 and 17 and everyone tells me, “You know what, it’s a lot easier raising boys as teenagers than girls.” I’m going, “Okay.”

With girls I’m told it’s the drama. It’s the emotional rollercoaster the emotional volatility but with boys it can be the opposite – inertia. Their days can be just all about monosyllabic answers to every question that you give them. Sometimes it’s not even words, it’s just two letters and a number like PS4. Sometimes they make me LOL. Other times they make me FOL. Yeah, that’s a new one, it’s freak out loud.

But, one day stands out in my mind when FOL was absolutely justified. Our oldest son left really early that morning on his bike, around 6:00am as he had an early class. We didn’t think too much about it, he was in high school at the time. We thought, “Oh, wow. Isn’t that great? He’s riding his bike to school.” At our kids’ school when a student is absent, they call home. We can retrieve our messages from work and there’s an automated voicemail message on our home machine that said, “A student in your household was absent for period one, period two, period three.” I’m thinking, “what is going on”. With both parents working, it can be a challenge to deal remotely with issues. You feel helpless, but there is one app that can help when you’re feeling helpless. It’s called Find My Friends.

It can ease some of the pain. If your kids have an iPhone you can use GPS to find out exactly where they are. So, we did that. We look him up and it says Sunshine Coast. I’m going, “What? The Sunshine Coast?” It’s a school day and my teenage son is in Gibsons?

No, he was not abducted. There was no need for an Amber Alert. He went on his own free will with a friend who was kind of a Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. You can imagine how furious we were. I thought how narcissistic of him but you know, teenagers are narcissistic – that’s why they drive around with cars that have N on them. I said, “How could we have raised such a self-centered teenager?”

Later that evening we sat and talked with him. Well, talked might be a bit of a euphemism. We punished him and knock on wood he hasn’t pulled that kind of stunt again.

But, the bigger issue is: parents, how are we going to raise a child who is not so self-focused, who is not so narcissistic and who thinks of the community?

Well, living by example is key. If I want my child to be aware of the community I have to behave that way. I have to lead by example. Let’s face it, as adults we’re pretty self-centered but we’ve replaced the self with family. We become family-centered and very few of us actually think of the wider community. Hitting a Like button on Facebook or Instagram does not count for being a agent of change. I mean, voter turnout in BC is 52%. In Vancouver’s Civic election, the voter turnout was 43%. We’re a pretty apathetic lot. For the average person, complacency only gets shoved aside when there’s a crisis.

My job is to interview or tell stories about people who have been shaken out of their normal routines; sometimes it’s a tragedy. One of the toughest things about being a journalist is to interview a grieving parent – I used to feel bad asking. I don’t feel so bad now because often in their darkest moments people want to tell their story.

Sometimes in our deepest personal crisis, we feel most connected with our community. When the storm is raging within, we reach out for that life preserver. And sharing one’s story allows someone to put their hand out and prevent us from drowning. That’s when we really understand community. When the community rallies around a grieving family, that family is lifted up and I’ve seen that many times as a reporter.

Why does a family who has lost a child talk to the media about their son’s overdose? Recently a 17-year-old Burnaby boy died after he took Fentanyl. His grief-stricken family went on the news to warn other people about the dangers of drug use. In the middle of their unspeakable pain, they spoke out. Friends of ours who live in Calgary also had a son, Anthony Hamptons, who took Fentanyl at 18 years old. His mother found him in his room turning blue. She had to do CPR to save his life, but he suffered brain damage and now he has to learn to walk again. They recently told their story on CTV. They said they wanted something positive to come out of something so terrible.

For years I interviewed people who were broken, but they spoke out so they could fix someone else. So they could save a life. I didn’t realize that one day I would also have that opportunity.

It was a sunny June afternoon two years ago at 4 o’clock. A busy CTV newsroom was getting noisier as reporters and writers were getting ready for the show and I was getting ready to anchor CTV News at 5pm that day. Makeup and hair all in place, ready to face the TV world, but then my cell phone rang.

It was my doctor confirming the biopsy results. The lump that I had found on my left breast was cancer.

I felt like saying to God, “There’s been some mistake here – I report the bad news. I’m not supposed to be the subject of the bad news. That’s not what I signed up for in journalism school.” I’m used to crafting others people’s stories in neat two-minute reports. I like being in control of the story. Suddenly, I was facing the start of my own story and I had no idea what the journey would be except that it wouldn’t be easy and it wouldn’t be just two minutes.

My first hurdle was the 5 o’clock show though – would I be able to get through anchoring? I managed to read the newscast, chit chat with the weatherman and not become a heap of tears on live television. I held it together and got through the show and later that evening at home came the tough part – telling our boys. There were 13 and 15 at the time. My husband told them at the dinner table trying to be as positive as possible. I didn’t want to have to tell them because I knew I’d start crying. I could see the boys were fighting back the tears. I tried putting my fear in an internal compartment and prayed to God to help me be strong.

Friends connected me with other women who had had similar experiences. They generously gave their time to talk to me and I was touched. I talked with a friend who had gone through breast cancer. She introduced me to another friend. We actually all lived on the same street.

I called it my cancer club. It’s not a club that anyone wants to join. It sounds pretty depressing but it was actually it’s such a great source of strength. We talked and walked for hours and we agreed on a few things. We agreed that doing searches on the internet late at night when you’re tired, bad idea. Don’t do it, okay? We agreed it was not a good idea to read obituaries. We shared funny books and encouraged each other with cup half full stories.

There are plenty of decisions to make – would I get a lumpectomy or mastectomy? I decided for the lumpectomy, removing the lump from your breast, and finally – hopefully – getting all the cancer out.

Lying on the hospital bed being wheeled into the operating room and I was terrified. I tried to channel my inner Angelina Jolie – how does she make it look so easy? She’s an actress, it’s her job to look glamorous – though what about us mere mortals? Looking at myself in the mirror, post-surgery covered in bandages… glamorous was not a word that came to mind.

I was relieved to hear it was stage one. The cancer had not spread to the lymph nodes. The bad news there were still some pre-cancer cells left in the breast tissue. I had another date with my surgeon, another lumpectomy. I’m thinking I can’t afford that much more shrinkage here. What am I going to be left with after this?

I was praying that this would be the end of my surgery. I didn’t want to rack up any more frequent flyer points at Mount Saint Joseph’s Hospital.

I had the next surgery, but unfortunately my pathology reports showed still some more cancerous cells left in the tissue. Okay, it was time to wave the white towel and go ahead with the mastectomy – removing all the breast tissue and then having reconstruction.

More decisions to make. What kind of reconstruction? My plastic surgeon said one option is you take fat from one part of your body like the abdomen and you rebuild your breast with that fat. What? Move fat from your belly and add it to your breast? Why had I not heard of this before? I mean I told my friends about this, they were all like clamoring to donate their fat. I said, “Think of the potential here. I could just see the headline: “Live fat transplant helps breast cancer patient.” The potential is huge here, but in the end that was not the option that was the best for me.

Getting an implant was the better option for me and a new lefty, as I call it. However, a question really bothered me. I was getting regular mammograms – why didn’t my cancer show up in the mammogram? Then I learned I was pretty dense. Some of my friends might agree with that. But no, my doctors were not trying to insult my mental sharpness. It was a fact about my breast tissue. Having dense tissue puts you at a greater risk for breast cancer. I didn’t know that.

Women with dense breast tissue have double jeopardy. They have a greater risk of having cancer and are less like to have the cancer show up on the mammogram. Dense boobs are dangerous boobs. A mammogram is not enough. The cancer shows up as white on the x-ray but so does dense tissue. So, hard to see a snowball in a snowstorm. 40% of women have dense tissue.

How many women know about the issue of dense breasts? Not that many. I didn’t really know about it until I had breast cancer. Why aren’t we told about dense breasts? This was my aha moment. I said: this is the story I need to tell. This is the message that could save lives.

Let me tell you about a Connecticut educator. Her name is Nancy Capello. She dutifully did her breast self-exams got her annual mammograms. They all came back normal but then six weeks after her mammogram, her doctor found a ridge on her breast. He said, “Get another mammogram but also get an ultrasound.” The mammogram didn’t show anything but the ultrasound did. She had stage 3C breast cancer. The cancer had spread to 13th lymph nodes.

Nancy Capello endured a mastectomy reconstruction, eight chemotherapy treatments, and 24 radiation treatments in 2004. Then she started asking questions, “Why had my mammogram failed me?” It was the first time that she was told that she had dense breast tissue and about how mammograms can miss the cancer. She asked her doctors, “Why are we not told about this?” They said, “It’s not standard protocol. Radiologists do write down whether you have dense breast tissue in the reports but it’s not standard protocol to tell patients.”

She started working towards changing that. Nancy launched a mission to educate women and also change the laws starting in Connecticut, her own state. She passed a law – first of its kind in the US that requires women to be notified if they have dense breast tissue. After their mammograms, they’re going to get a letter saying they have dense breast tissue and these reports letters will mention the potential benefits of MRI or ultrasound.

Now, 24 states have laws to inform women if they have dense breast tissue. Wow! Here is a woman who has turned her crisis into real change. She is definitely my hero.

So, what’s happening in Canada? Sadly, not very much. Patrick Brown, an Ontario MP, tried to start a private member’s bill but it got stuck in the Senate. I don’t think it’ll ever become law.

Mammograms can tell women if they have dense breast tissue. You can’t tell by the size or the texture. It’s something that an x-ray or mammogram will show. But in Canada there’s no policy of letting women know if they have dense breast tissue. Knowledge of your risk can be scary but it can be empowering.

I’d like to challenge you. If you do go for a mammogram, ask if you can find out if you have dense breast tissue and you could consider maybe getting an ultrasound. I did get my mammograms, but they didn’t show the cancer because of my dense tissue. If women knew they had dense tissue, they could look at other options like an ultrasound.

I wasn’t happy about having cancer but I was thankful that I could reach other women through my stories that aired on CTV. My story producer Laura Evans was instrumental for helping me just open up in that story. It was really hard and we wrote it together and I’m grateful for her help.

Of the thousands of stories I’ve done, none have garnered more reaction than my breast cancer story and my stories about breast density. I was even trending on Twitter that day. I will continue to give speeches and talk one-on-one with women who have been diagnosed and are scared like I was. I’ll never forget how my family and friends supported me when I really needed it.

Cancer is one of the more difficult ways of getting your friends to cook for you, but it did work for me in that time of need. I’m glad I can now return that favour to others. Cancer has given me more empathy. I hope that rubs off on my sons and it stays with them long after I’m no longer tracking them with GPS. It often takes a crisis to open our eyes. Some of us have to learn the hard way, but you don’t have to wait for a crisis to stick your neck out and tell your story and hopefully make a stronger community.

About Mi-Jung Lee

Mi-Jung Lee is a veteran investigative journalist and co-anchors CTV News at Six with Scott Roberts.

Before this role, her reporting won numerous awards for excellence. In 2017, she won a RTDNA award for her coverage of the opioid crisis in Vancouver.

In 2016, Lee broke stories on Sexual Harassment Claims at WestJet – stories that earned her a Webster Award for best TV reporting.

Her investigative reports have also won numerous RTDNA awards for excellence in journalism. The hidden camera investigations included stories on the underground world of massage parlours that sell sex, a “natural health doctor” claiming to cure cancer and how casinos fail to protect problem gamblers.

Lee is a trail blazer. When she began her career in 1990 as a reporter and part-time anchor at Victoria’s CHEK-TV, Lee was the first Korean-Canadian newscaster in BC and one of only a few Asian-Canadians on the air in Canada.

She joined BCTV in 1992 where she reported and anchored.

In 1998, she joined Vancouver Television as the co-anchor of VTV Live at 6. In 2008, she hosted CanadaAM: Western edition. Lee was the anchor and producer of CTV News at 11:30 p.m. from 2001 to 2010.

Born in South Korea, she has lived in Vancouver since she was four. She graduated from the University of British Columbia with an English Literature degree and Ryerson University with a degree in Journalism.

In 2008, Lee travelled to Brazil as an ambassador for World Vision’s Vancouver Campaign for Children. She continues to volunteer with several local charities and organizations.

Lee is a cancer survivor and has spoken numerous times for charities raising money to fund cancer research. She also is a member of CTV’s Ride to Conquer Cancer team and trained for the epic 250 km bike journey in August 2017.

Lee lives in Vancouver with her husband and two sons.

About the Leading Moms Podcast

Welcome to the Leading Moms podcast, where every mom has a story. Launched in 2012, Leading Moms started as an annual one-day event in Vancouver, BC, with an aim for each mom to recognize her significance and belonging, gain a sense of mastery and be impactful in her business, community – or the simple everyday of her family. Now these thought-provoking, inspirational talks are available on this podcast. Join your host Christine Pilkington, entrepreneur, publisher and TV mom expert, every other week as she shares the best talks from the past six years and more.

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