Ann Caruso: “This Is the Only Way I Can Live or Survive”


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Ann Caruso was busy. Her career in the fashion industry had taken off. She was a contributing fashion editor at Harper’s BAZAAR, a stylist doing ad campaigns and fashion shows and dressing celebrities, and a brand consultant. She didn’t have time for breast cancer.

“I was in a place in my life where I was very joyous and free,” Caruso says. “I was working a lot and I was very happy. And this matters, because things change after you have been diagnosed and you go through treatment.”

This was in 2007. Then Caruso found a lump in her breast while in the shower. At first she thought that it would go away. Then she felt it again. And then it started getting a little bit bigger and painful. This is when she made an appointment with her doctor, who then ordered a mammogram—which would take months to get, because her doctor insisted on a particular facility. Eventually, frustrated by her doctor’s inflexibility, she switched to a new one.

Five months after finding the lump, she was finally able to have a mammogram and sonogram, which resulting in a diagnosis of stage 1 breast cancer. “Anytime you hear the word cancer, it’s so scary,” Caruso says. “I thought, Am I going to die? Am I going to be OK? Who do I call? What am I going to do? What do I do with this? It’s just frightening.”

Her next step was to interview breast-cancer surgeons—several of them—“because when you get a diagnosis, you have to get it out,” she says. With breast cancer, surgeons often take out lymph nodes. Normally 10 to 40 are taken out, with the average being less than 20, according to the American Cancer Society. “I saw a doctor who was going to take out 48 and another who was gonna take out 18.”

Finally, one of her celebrity clients connected her with a surgeon she loved, who was the only one who did an MRI on her. “We found two more tumors,” Caruso says. “So I had four in one breast, and I ended up having to have a mastectomy.”

Taking doctor’s orders to have fun before her surgery, she went on photo shoots on the West Coast. When she returned, she had a single mastectomy, which was conservative at the time. She recalls that many women at the time were opting to have the aggressive double mastectomy, especially if they had the BRCA gene, which she didn’t. “I am happy with my decision,” she says. “I mean, that was 2008. Breast cancer has come a long way. And people don’t realize when you have a mastectomy, it’s an amputation—you’re removing a body part.”

Caruso’s mastectomy ended up taking her recovery in an unforeseen direction, as she had complications with her reconstruction, including an infection that nearly killed her and subjected her to five weeks of around-the-clock care.

“This could be why my cancer came back in three years.”

She also had a very difficult time healing. “It hasn’t been easy,” she says. “My life was very stressful, and I didn’t have a ton of help at home. I’m single and my family tried to come and help, but then they had to leave.” It didn’t help that she ended up with a lot of scar tissue that caused her pain. To make matters worse, she had a hard time with the popular treatment for breast cancer at the time and had to go off it after two years. “This could be why my cancer came back in three years.”

Her second bout wasn’t any easier. After finding a lump in the same place that she’d found the first one, she again had a difficult time being diagnosed. “No one believed I had cancer,” she says. “But I knew something was wrong with me. I really advise women to advocate for themselves. If you feel like something’s wrong, keep pushing it. No matter how amazing the doctor is, get first, second, and third opinion.”

While MRIs, sonograms, and X-rays didn’t detect the cancer this time, a biopsy of a lumpectomy did. “It was at a very early stage, but just because it’s an early stage doesn’t mean it’s going to be an easy ride,” Caruso says.

She endured more surgeries, radiation, hormonal treatments, and other shots—to prevent osteoporosis and the cancer from spreading to her bones. Part of her treatment was having her ovaries taken out, which induced her into menopause. (This has been shown to help halt breast cancer progression.) And while her first time around she had still been able to work, Caruso couldn’t really do that this go-around. “I had third-degree burns from radiation, because my skin was very thin from all my surgeries from that time and the time before,” she remembers.

In 2015, Caruso was named Fashion Daily’s Fashion Stylist of the Year and styled a high-profile celebrity wedding. She continued to have treatment until 2018, but she will be taking cancer meds for the rest of her life. She lives with the side effects (of which she minimizes the impact by taking the drugs at night), noting they’re far better than getting another diagnosis. “I’m just happy and grateful that I am here, so I’ll live with the aches and pains,” she says. “It’s just part of being, you know, you kind of just overlook it—and just stay happy.”

Today, Caruso continues to work as well as act as an advocate and role model for others. But sharing her breast-cancer journey wasn’t always natural for her. It was Glenda Bailey, then the editor in chief of Harper’s BAZAAR, who convinced her in 2008 that telling her story could help others. After the article was published, “a lot of women reached out and told me how helpful it was for them, and wanted to ask me so many questions,” she says. “I felt like it was a service to women—and I was already doing service in other areas of my life, by helping girls and women with other issues, so this was a natural progression for me.” She used the experience as a springboard to getting involved with multiple breast-cancer organizations.

a person sitting on a newspaper

The article that started Caruso’s journey as a breast-cancer activist and role model.

“It’s something that I really care about, because I know how much it’s changed my life and how important it is to women,” Caruso says. “And now I see all these women sharing their stories, and they help me. I get a lot out of other women sharing their stories. So I think it’s important.”

Caruso also offers support at a personal level, through social media. Many women who follow her will send a DM, and she spends time connecting with them. “​​I don’t even know what they look like,” she says, “and they’ll message me from the hospital and say, ‘I just had my mastectomy. This is how I’m feeling. I just wanted to let you know—you’ve helped me.’” While she can’t always follow up with everyone, if she can find a way, she does and will: “I do it because I actually care.”

She really does, as evidenced, for example, by the response she got from two breast-cancer survivors working at a resort in Dubai when they realized Caruso was there on business. “They told my friend that they never ask to meet anyone, but they had to meet me because of following me and my journey on social,” Caruso recalls. “I had a picture taken with them. I just could not believe, all the way in the Middle East … I don’t post all the time about [my breast cancer], because I don’t want people to think that’s all I know, but when I did, it impacted them so much, they said. It was mind-blowing. Sharing makes you feel like you’re not alone.”

As Caruso looks back at her journey, she finds it amazing, in more ways than one. It taught her how important her health is—“like, health is wealth,” she says, adding that she was also struck by how emotional the entire experience has been. “You really feel so much when you almost lose your life, and when you lose a lot. You learn to be so grateful, every day, for the small things, for the big things, for every relationship.”

“You really feel so much when you almost lose your life, and when you lose a lot.”

And there’s another thing she’s taken from her path: “just how important it is to tell someone that you love them, because you don’t know what tomorrow’s gonna bring,” Caruso says. “I called my mom today. She’s 91, and I just wanted to tell her, ‘I love you and miss you.’ And, you know, it just made her so happy. I think we need to do that with our friends, too. But a lot of people don’t live their life like that. So I’m trying to surround myself with people that understand that, because they also can give that back to you.”

Caruso is now in remission for the longest time since she was diagnosed. But she wants everyone to know that every breast-cancer story is different. “Someone might have it and go through it for a month, and then it’s over,” she says, “Or maybe it’s six months or a year or two years … or they struggle with it for the rest of their lives. I think it’s important not to judge it. And if you’re going through it, find ways to stay happy and positive, live with gratitude, stay present, and take things day by day. And be kind—not only to yourself but to others—and just work on staying healthy mentally and physically.

“This is a daily process,” she continues. “This is the only way I can live or survive, but remember, life is always in progress and not perfect.”

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