Samantha Harris is a proud advocate for the breast cancer community and for those who may need help steering through their recovery process.
As a breast cancer survivor herself, the Emmy-winning TV host, 49, has teamed up with Susan G. Komen and YogaWorks to lead their restorative fitness program, geared toward people affected by the disease.
Speaking exclusively to PEOPLE about her own 2014 breast cancer journey, the Your Healthiest Healthy best-selling author recalls the agony of being told for months that her lump was “nothing,” and then finally getting diagnosed with the disease at age 40.
“So I had a baseline mammogram. It came back clear, and then 11 days later I was changing after a workout and I found a lump,” the mom-of-two tells PEOPLE of her first-ever screening for breast cancer and how advocating for herself saved her life.
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Following her intuition, she thought, “you know, I’m gonna go see my OB/GYN,” she says. “She told me it was nothing. A month later, I went to see my internist, only because it supposedly wasn’t cancer. So I saw an internist who said it was nothing.”
When the former Dancing with the Stars host finally went to see an oncologist, they weren’t very alarmed by the lump either. After all, most breast lumps are indeed benign, or non-cancerous. Finally, after further testing, Harris received her diagnosis four months after her self-discovery.
“It was more palpable and you could literally see it sort of protruding,” she describes of the tumor. “It felt the size of, I don’t know, a quarter and a half? But I think the actual cancer itself was much, much smaller, but it was what allowed me to feel it,” she shares of the lump’s mixed make-up, being both benign and malignant.
After weighing her options with multiple doctors, which she highlights is extremely important when dealing with any potentially serious medical issue, Harris decided to have a double mastectomy.
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“I was diagnosed with stage one and didn’t get diagnosed with stage two until after my mastectomy when we found out it had gone to the lymph node,” she says of her devastating double whammy of delayed bad news.
“Throughout all of my meetings and appointments with an oncologist, everyone said, ‘we caught it so super early. The likelihood that it spread to a lymph node is very minimal.’ Right. And I remember the look on my surgeon’s face when I woke up from my mastectomy. They had to take out 11 lymph nodes.”
As Harris recovered in the hospital for five days, having thoughts of her two daughters and trying to fight off negative thoughts of her prognosis, she finally asked a technician on day three if they had gotten her lymph node results back yet.
“And thank goodness that technician was nice enough to say, oh yeah, the results came back the other day. You don’t have any other lymph nodes that had the cancer,” she recalls. “And the amount of relief that I was able to sort of exhale was tremendous.”
Harris says she declined on chemotherapy and radiation, which her health team okayed, given her mastectomy procedure, her specific type of cancer, and the fact that she came up negative on the extensive genetic testing she underwent.
“I’m very confident in my choices based on all the information and the education and the input I had from my doctors,” she explains.
“My oncologist told me, ‘You’re gonna live a long life. You’re not gonna die from this breast cancer.’ And I’m like, what the heck? This is three weeks in. How could not one person of the numerous doctors’ appointments I’ve had told me this? I’ve been panicked and worried and my kids are 3 and 6, my dad died at 50 of cancer,” she says.
“And I’m thinking, I’m never gonna see my kids grow up. I need this hope.”
Now cancer-free and celebrating her 8th “cancerversary” in May, Harris has made it her mission to share her story and advocate for early detection. Her daughters, Josselyn and Hillary, are now 12 and 15, and “breast health is really important for them to begin to have an understanding about and to know their bodies, which is a huge lesson we always talk about with them,” she says of she and her husband, financial advisor Michael Hess, and how open they are with their girls.
Nearly eight years later, the wife and mom has also been able to go off Tamoxifen, the hormone therapy treatment for her specific type of cancer (hormone receptor-positive breast cancer), which she was initially supposed to go on for 10 years.
Harris halted the treatment because it was causing her to have benign polyps on her ovaries, and her doctor told her she could stay off of the drug.
“So I went off of the estrogen blocker, with the permission I requested from my oncologist. And [the larger polyp] went away, thank goodness,” the Game Show Network host says of her years-later health scare. “My oncologist is very well aware of my healthy living choices and said I didn’t have to go back on.”
Harris has chosen to have animal protein only once a week and to regularly have oxidant-packed smoothes and greens. She says exercise, especially yoga, helps her manage stress and complements her health regime, which she says she developed gradually.
Emphasizing the importance of “starting small,” Harris says “your health is all about small manageable steps so you’re not overwhelmed. And so it’s sustainable because this is a lifestyle going forward. It isn’t a quick fix,” she adds.
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Expanding on her Yoga for a Cure collaboration, Harris says “I couldn’t be more proud and excited about this program that they have just launched called YogaWorks Pink, which is the first ever dedicated yoga and wellness program that has been created for and tailored to the needs of the entire breast cancer community.”
YogaWorks’ fitness program, which will provide the breast cancer community with direct access to beneficial yoga activities and resources for three months free, launched on Jan. 14. Pink program members will also have full access to YogaWorks’ regular collection of more than 1,300 on-demand classes and 25+ live classes each day.
After the complimentary three-month program, YogaWorks Pink users can subscribe for $29.99 per month, with 25 percent of the proceeds benefitting Susan G. Komen, a leading breast cancer organization.The program also welcomes caregivers and others affected by breast cancer.