The 46-year-old tells PEOPLE about her shocking diagnosis and how she is dealing with her rare form of breast cancer
Nichole Berlie didn’t know it, but her life was about to change forever.
After a routine mammogram last fall, the NewsNation anchor decided to get additional screening recommended by her doctor due to her dense breast tissue. She got an ultrasound, even though she didn't think it was necessary. But when a few days passed and her results didn't appear in the online portal, she grew concerned.
While preparing for a live television segment in Chicago, Berlie, 46, received a devastating phone call from her primary care physician. On October 4, Berlie was diagnosed with a rare form of breast cancer. “This cannot be real,” she thought at the time, stunned by the reality of her new life during Breast Cancer Awareness Month.
Even after replaying those shocking words in her mind, she didn’t fully comprehend the news. “I’ve been healthy my whole life,” she kept thinking. “I had no pain, no lumps and no signs of anything being wrong.” In fact, she says, the only ailment she'd felt was plantar fasciitis in her foot. “I just remember being in shock because my mammogram was fine,” she tells PEOPLE for the first time since going public with her health update last year. "I almost cancelled the ultrasound, which is even crazier. But they found cancer in one breast.”
Still in disbelief, she called her mother and a close friend from her car. “It doesn’t matter if you are surrounded by loved ones, I felt so alone. You feel like nobody can understand what you are going through. They love you, care about you, but you are the one who has cancer,” she says. “You are scared to death.”
Despite having excellent care and a wonderful support network, she felt overwhelmed by her sudden diagnosis and the myriad of quick decisions she had to make and tests she had to undergo — all while trying to balance her busy life and career.
While Berlie often reports about health scares and cancer diagnoses for work, she never considered it would touch her personally. “I just never thought that it would impact me, ever, ever, ever” she admits, exhaling. “I couldn’t even come to terms with what my doctor was saying,” she says. “You think you are going to die. I thought my life was ending. That was my biggest struggle.”
Since her diagnosis, not a day has gone by without cancer on her mind. It's not so much that she lives in fear, she says, but rather with a sense of the unknown about what is going on inside her body. She has completed her third chemotherapy session and has five more until surgery, which will remove the cancer and ultimately determine her current stage and further prognosis. Afterward, she’ll begin radiation and medication.
“Today I feel pretty good. It’s definitely a change,” she admits. “Yesterday, I didn’t feel good. It’s just kind of feeling nauseous after chemo. I’ve never felt anything like it. Hopefully, I never will again. But I’m definitely on the upswing, which I’m so, so thankful for.”
Berlie first revealed her breast cancer diagnosis last month with an emotional announcement while live on air for NewsNation. “It did come as a shock — I’m still in disbelief in many ways,” she admitted on air on December 20. “I didn’t have any signs, I didn’t have any symptoms, I still don’t, and I still feel great," she said at the time.
Although Berlie still works in the office five days a week, exercises at the gym and grocery shops for healthy food items, she's put her social life on pause while she goes through chemo. “But I think it helps to work,” she adds. “It is a little stressful, but it really is a good thing for me because it gives me something to focus on that is not this devastating thing. There are days that I don't feel as good, and I think that even now, I probably do push myself more than I need to, but it’s been such a great thing for me not to only focus on the cancer.”
It's also helped maintain her confidence after her hair loss. “I had read that for women, the hardest thing was losing your hair, even harder than the treatment,” she shares now. “I’ve always had long, natural hair, so when I read that I thought, ‘Okay, this might be hard for me.'”
The first step was having her hair cut short so she could get used to it. By the second week of treatment, her hair was thinning ever so slightly. But when the third week hit, her hair was falling out and she couldn’t salvage it anymore.
On Jan. 12, she woke up in the morning feeling depressed. “It was just sad because I didn't feel good about myself. I didn't feel like I looked good,” she says, holding back tears. “I was barely trying to touch my hair. I hadn't washed it, at that point, all week, because I was scared to touch it. I would try to wet it in the morning and hair would just be all over my fingers. It was bad,” she continues. “I knew I was going to shave it. I couldn’t hold onto the past.”
When she came home from work later that night, she took a shower and was covered in hair. “It was like a bloodbath,” she says, describing that moment after washing it. The back of her head still had some locks, but she could see her scalp poking through on the top. “I was standing in two inches of water full of my hair,” she says. “The drain was clogged. It was so traumatizing. It was one of the worst things, honestly, that I’ve experienced.”
The next day, she decided to shave her head. “But when I tell you there was not a single teardrop, there was no sadness — I was so excited to shave my head,” she says. “So I haven't regretted that at all. I have little stubbles all over. But Gosh, it is weird to see it," she says, patting her head. "And just seeing a woman being bald is pretty significant.”
On Jan. 15, Berlie posted a video on Instagram revealing her new look.
She was inspired to go public because she didn’t want her physical appearance to shock viewers. After her next treatment, she says she will likely lose her eyebrows and lashes. But most importantly, she wants to share her story to help others.
“I am not the person that puts their life on display for social media. That is not me and not a decision I came to easily,” she admits. “This is a big change. I hope it's making a difference. I just hope I’m helping someone. I wanted to show women it’s okay and it’s nothing to be ashamed of," she says, pausing a moment.
"I hope that when people see me doing it gives them encouragement — to know that you can be diagnosed, and it does not mean that your life must come to an end or even come to a halt. I hope people see that I went through it and I’m okay, and hopefully, they can too.”
On a bureau in her bedroom, she has a box that contains the rest of her hair. Although it's been a traumatic process, she filled out the paperwork and plans to donate it to the Locks of Love charity. After getting support from her boss and NewsNation President of News Michael Corn, she also decided she wasn’t going to wear a wig on air, choosing instead to embrace her baldness. “He could not have handled it better, reacted better,” she says of Corn. “It was nice to know that I was able to do whatever I chose. I wasn’t pressured to wear a wig.”
After shaving her head, Berlie says she still gets anxiety when passing people in the hall at work. "With the bald head, I’m always thinking, ‘How are people going to react to me?’" she says. “Even today, I was at work and I’m like, ‘I cannot believe this is my life.’ I still can’t believe it. It’s still so surreal.”
Berlie found two cancer support groups and goes to therapy, and she says that faith and her internal voice keep her strong and positive. “I went through so much testing, just like weeks of constant turmoil and just mental chaos and just this voice or this feeling just came over me like, 'It's going to be okay.' It changed everything for me," she says, "And I do feel like it's going to be okay. I know that I have the strength from within. And I think for me, that has been the biggest change. I’m a lot stronger than I thought.”
“I'm now part of this group that I didn't ever want to be part of and never knew I would be a part of —and it's like suddenly, I’m forced into this sisterhood, which is a good thing,” she says. “It’s difficult at first, but I want to hear about people who've gone through this and survived. That's what is motivating me.”
And although cancer has forced her to look differently at like, she says she’s grateful and hopeful for the future. “As horrible as this diagnosis is and as horrible as it is to go through the treatment, I want it to be something good and not the worst thing that's ever happened to me,” she admits. “I want to make it bring out the best in me.”
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