Darryle Pollack is an author, cancer survivor, mosaic artist, TEDx speaker, pioneer newscaster and last but certainly not least, a MOM. A stage III breast cancer survivor, she reminds us that, “we’re all survivors of something”.
Her book entitled, I Never Signed Up For This – Finding Power in Life’s Broken Pieces, is both a memoir and a self help guide. Through her personal experiences, she explores what happens when life takes twists and turns and how these led her to finding purpose and power. “Because what breaks can bring the breakthrough”.
“This is everything a satisfying memoir should be. It tells a very personal but universal story. The experiences are shared with honesty and insight. The prose is girl-friend casual and evocative at the same time. And, perhaps best of all, it is very funny.” — Suzanne Braun Levine, first editor of Ms. magazine, author of Inventing the Rest of Our Lives.
Darryle, can you tell us about your breast cancer diagnosis and the emotional impact it had on you at the time?
I had a clear mammogram 8 months before I felt a lump, so I was stunned and shocked to find out I had advanced cancer (Stage III ). I was completely devastated and my diagnosis was like a nuclear bomb blowing my life apart. My mom had died at 41 of malignant melanoma; I truly believed I would repeat her destiny and die young, leaving my children motherless.
I had just remarried and moved my two kids to a new area the year before, and my diagnosis came on my first anniversary with my new husband. This was 20 years ago, so there was no social media where today so many people with cancer can find incredible support. Back then I knew very few people in my new community and felt really alone and lost, and far from friends and family.
I had a very complicated pathology with several different types of cancer in the same breast. Even after my case was debated by the hospital tumor board, there was no clear cut answer for the right treatment. That added a huge amount of stress to my angst and fear—having to consult various doctors and consider various treatments and then make the best possible decision. I knew nothing about science and medicine and there was limited time; and all of this was way over my head. Since my mom had died of cancer, I had lived in fear of getting it myself, so all of this was my worst nightmare come true.
The idea of “chasing perfection” has been a big part of your life since childhood. Can you tell us about your father and how that mindset has impacted your life even through cancer treatment and recovery?
I was the oldest of 3 children and my dad loved me, but he was also very controlling and critical. Maturity taught me to appreciate that my harshest critic could also be my biggest fan. But in childhood, all I could see is how strict and tough he was on me. I got punished when I didn’t achieve or live up to what he wanted. This applied to my grades, my body, everything I did. I resented him, I was afraid of him, and yet I wanted to please him.
This became internalized later in life, when I was critical of myself, which I think many women do. I was never thin enough, smart enough, pretty enough, a good enough mother. I applied ridiculously high standards to myself and it was really hard if not impossible to ever feel satisfied.
When I had cancer my pursuit of perfection hit the wall. I was bald and one-breasted and scarred, I was so much less perfect-looking that I couldn’t accept myself and how I looked. I couldn’t even stand to look in the mirror unless I had a wig and was dressed. In terms of my appearance, this was rock bottom (although the “good news” was that I was skinnier than I had ever been!)
Cancer helped me break out of this cycle. At my lowest point ( I mean emotional low but actually I was also at my low weight, too) I promised myself I would never complain again about being too fat or having a bad hair day. And in 20 years since then, I never have. The biggest bonus is that I honestly came to appreciate my body and myself, and feel incredibly grateful for everything about myself.
Our ideas about perfection aren’t even our own. We absorb them from the culture we live in and from what other people think. I didn’t even know what I thought myself. So learning what that was, and then trusting myself and my opinions was a huge step that was very satisfying, empowering and my biggest lesson. That’s the only way we can become our authentic selves, by listening to our own hearts and minds and our own guts.
As author of “I Never Signed Up For This – Finding Power in Life’s Broken Pieces”, can you tell us about the message of “broken pieces” and how it leads you to a life’s purpose?
We all have broken pieces in our lives—things that don’t happen the way we expect, things that get messy or ruined or spoiled, like our relationships, our careers, our dreams. Through cancer I discovered art and then mosaics, which became the representation of resilience on a deeper level. Picking up broken pieces of tile and putting them together in mosaics –my art process was exactly what I was doing with my life.
I see mosaics as a wonderful metaphor for what we all do with our lives. We take our pieces and create something different from what we started with, learning that life can be just as beautiful in a different way. I created Boobalas to express the same message, through broken pieces, in a whimsical way about our breasts. With or without a breast (or two) women are still beautiful, because our breasts don’t define who we are.
You did a wonderful TEDx video based on your book. When you speak about your life to crowds of people, does that become a cathartic moment for you?
Thank you so much. Through all of my work, including television, writing, art and speaking, what’s always driven me and meant the most to me is touching people’s hearts and minds, to inspire or help them in some way. Speaking is the only one of those which allows me to experience the immediate reaction of an audience, and even meet some of the people whose lives you touch. That’ makes speaking different, very special and very satisfying.
Can you tell us what humor, heart and hope mean to you?
Those are core values that I try to live by and to put out into the world in everything I do.
How has your vision of chasing perfection changed? Is it OK to “stop chasing it”?
Wow, it’s better than ok to stop chasing perfection, especially since it’s a hopeless pursuit. Ending the chase is one of my favorite aspects of getting older, and I see the same thing in other people. You become more authentic, more accepting, of others and especially of yourself. So many women in later life remark on how they wish they could tell their younger selves to appreciate themselves and their bodies!
I stopped trying to chase perfection when I had cancer and it’s a huge relief, being kinder and appreciative of myself. I have to confess that once in awhile I get little wake up calls. Mostly this happens when I obsess over something I’m writing, feeling a push to keep editing endlessly, trying to make it closer to “perfect” (as if there’s such a thing!) I remind myself to let go, and I do. And that’s what I’m going to do right now before I read over this interview to try and make it more “perfect.” Thanks so much for the questions, and for sharing my book.
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