One month before her wedding, Kristen Berset-Harris felt a hard lump in her breast and thought “not again.” Instead of retreating to fight cancer alone, Berset-Harris, a TV anchor in Washington, D.C., announced to viewers that she would be taking a leave of absence to fight her second bout of breast cancer.
But Berset-Harris didn’t retreat to the shadows. As she spent time recovering with her husband and two stepdaughters, she had a chance to reflect on who she was and what she wanted to be in life. While recovering, she interviewed and accepted her dream job–hosting Great Day Washington on WUSA 9 in August 2017.
This year, we are proud to welcome her as the evening’s host for The Hair Affair on Thursday, May 3, 2018 at The Carnegie Institution for Science from 7:00pm to 11:00pm. A lightly edited Q&A follows.
You’ve fought cancer twice. Even after undergoing a double mastectomy, the disease came back. How are you feeling now?
Kristen Berset-Harris: I am feeling great. I’m a year out from surgery and treatment, so I am still getting back to full strength. But that’s the thing with cancer treatment: you realize what you’re physically able to do. Things change. You have to relearn what your strengths are.
I’m married now with two amazing stepdaughters. Going through treatment again gave me a renewed spirit and the courage to audition for the role I have now with WUSA 9. I am more confident of myself and my skills and I know what I want in life. My family is incredible, my new role is incredible, and honestly I am probably happier than I have been in a long time.
What is something people should know about women and men who are facing cancer?
KBH: That you’re not alone going through this. With any kind of major medical issue, you feel like you’re the only one going through it, even though there are thousands of stories out there. As strong as you are through your treatment and diagnosis, it makes you an even stronger person to ask for help.
It’s nothing to be ashamed of. Having a cancer diagnosis, a bilateral mastectomy, losing your hair, remember that it’s nothing to be ashamed of.
There are so many organizations willing to help, both financially and with everyday tasks to make things easier for you and for your family.
When I was in recovery, someone from my [TV] station set up a meal train and there were people who brought me food who I didn’t know well. It was so humbling to see the outpouring of support from people. Just know you’re not alone and it’s okay to ask for help, and you’re stronger than you think you are.
So many people who receive a cancer diagnosis seek privacy, or withdraw from public life. You were willing to share your story with millions of viewers. How did you make the decision to do so, and what has the response been like?
KBH: The first time I was diagnosed, I was working in Baltimore. It was 2009 and I’d only been on the air for 6 months. Social media wasn’t what it was now. If I could impart what I learned to others, even to help one person, I would do it.
The second time around, I went on air and shared my story. The outpouring of support from viewers, from strangers, from colleagues at other stations, was so incredible. Everybody knows somebody who had something, especially breast cancer. There was no question. The ability to help somebody else and provide support for anyone else outweighs any fear that comes from telling my story.
Part of Lolly’s Locks’ mission is to give women an additional level of dignity when undergoing cancer treatments. Drastic changes in appearance can be jarring. What was it like for you, someone in the public eye, to go through cancer treatment?
KBH: The physical changes are tough. I can understand how a woman may feel insecure, whether it’s hair loss or having her breast removed. I get hot flashes and hormonal changes from the medicine I am on. At first I felt like I had to hide it or apologize. Yes, that stuff stinks, but it doesn’t change the fact that you’re a woman, a brave woman, and you’re a fighter. If anything, it serves as encouragement for others, to see that you are confident going through the changes you are going through.
People want to jump right back in to the person they were before the diagnosis, and it’s not really possible. It’s all about learning the new you. I tried to go back and play tennis after radiation, and I couldn’t lift my arm above my head to serve. My husband and I are golfers and I still have pain when I play. I still learn what I can and cannot do.
You’re a former Miss Florida and now the host of a news show in a major media market — huge successes by any measure. How has the cancer diagnosis and recurrence altered your career trajectory? What advice would you give someone going through cancer while still trying to hold on to that aspect of their life?
KBH: Take the time to reflect on your life and really think hard about what you want out of life.
Obviously, not everyone has the opportunity to make a career change or change locations. But you do have the opportunity to know what makes you happy. You deserve to be surrounded by people who support you and love you, and people who challenge you creatively and emotionally. Whether its a career change, a relationship change, a hobby change or a health change, you are a fighter and you are stronger than you were before, and you deserve to go after what you want.