Sabrina Skiles wasn’t sad when she was diagnosed with breast cancer in August 2019; she was livid.

“I was super angry at first,” she says. “Everybody kept [saying] ‘Oh my god, I’m so sorry. You must be so sad.’ No, I’m pissed.”

It was a surprising emotion for the 35-year-old freelance writer, but then again, Skiles had no inclination as to what emotions were “normal” in the wake of a breast cancer diagnosis. There was no manual to consult. The mother of two found herself desperate for information. What will help me through chemo? Are there any organizations that assist with childcare? How can I find a therapist?

Sabrina Skiles. Photo by Chris Skiles

As Skiles began amassing a list of resources and sharing her cancer journey online, she found countless other women battling breast cancer who had the same questions. Realizing a broader need, Skiles decided to compile it all into a book about her personal cancer journey. Read That Again: Surviving Breast Cancer with Courage, Candor, and Community, which was published on August 28, is filled with all the wisdom and wit Skiles longed to hear at the beginning of her own battle. It’s a practical guide to navigating every aspect of breast cancer, from chemotherapy and insurance claims to discussing a diagnosis with children, all told with humor and vulnerability.

In honor of Breast Cancer Awareness Month, 5280 sat down with Skiles to talk about her advice for women battling this disease, developing a survivor’s mindset, and the mental aspect of breast cancer.

Editor’s note: The following conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

5280: Your active treatment is finished, but you mention in the book that you’re still learning to navigate life post-cancer. How are you doing?
Sabrina Skiles: Yeah, I have to say I’m doing great. It’s been a long experience but I’ve been doing really, really good, and this experience has taught me so much about how to advocate for myself and other women with breast cancer. Its been an informative experience, but it’s also exciting now that I am where I’m at.

You strike such a delicate balance between levity and grief in your memoir. How did you manage that?
It just comes with how we experience hard things in life. If we don’t find a balance of sitting in those hard moments and the grief and the trauma, then we’re going to stay in that really hard place, and I knew I didn’t want to do that. So, for me, it was sharing those dark moments, but also sharing, Hey, I got my appetite back, let’s go get a donut or My kids are having a great morning, let’s celebrate. It’s finding joy in those small moments that make the harder moments easier to process.

Obviously cancer is a physical battle, but tell me about the mental battle you endured during treatment?
I’m getting goosebumps just thinking about it, because nobody likes to talk about mental health, and there’s such a stigma attached to it. But there are so many things and pills and hydration stuff that they give you for the physical aspects of cancer, chemo and radiation, but then there’s nothing really that they give you for the mental game of it all. And I was sitting there in the chair every other week like, What’s going on? I am dealing with all these thoughts in my head, and I need to talk to somebody. I need therapy. And after my research, most major insurances have a cancer support program, and a lot of people don’t know that. My insurance helped me find a therapist that specialized in cancer survivorship, cancer trauma, and grief.

You talk about the importance of developing a survivor’s mindset from the onset of treatment. How did you do that?
I was asking people, “When did you feel like a survivor?” and there were so many different answers. As I started writing about it, I’m like, You can feel like a survivor in any part of your journey. And then it was a conversation that I had with my oncologist at the end of radiation. She said, “Well at this point, you’re cancer free. You’re considered a survivor.” And I was like, “Well when am I really a survivor?” She said technically you’re a survivor at diagnosis. So it was then that I was like, Look, if the medical community thinks we’re survivors from the beginning, then why are we not thinking about ourselves as survivors?

Sabrina Skiles after losing her hair during treatment for breast cancer. Photo courtesy of Sabrina Skiles

What advice do you have for women who struggle with embracing the word “survivor”?
I know that so many people have a hard time with that word, and it can be triggering, and some people don’t even like to use that word “survivor.” So I say, replace that with whatever makes you feel like you will be a survivor, because that’s what you are. You’ve survived a major health diagnosis. I think coming to terms with the word “survivor” is really, really important to grasp for everybody, but also saying the word “cancer.” I had a very hard time with that word in the beginning. These words hold so much power over us. We have to sit with that. But then we have to say the words “breast cancer” and “survivor” just so that they don’t hold that much power over us.

What was the most difficult part of this memoir to write?
Honestly, it was my narrative. The first section of the book was really hard to write because it was me reliving it all over again. But it was another part of my healing journey that helped me. Some people just want to get through it. They want to get through the diagnosis, treatment, and then they’re done. And that’s what works for them, and that’s great. But for me, it wasn’t. I needed to process it again.

The whole second half of your book is full of resources for women diagnosed with breast cancer and their loved ones. Why did you decide to incorporate those?
That was my goal from the beginning, because when I was diagnosed people kept sending me all the books, and they were great. But it was just peoples’ stories, and that’s amazing. But what I also needed was advice; I needed tips. What helped them through chemo? What products helped them through radiation? What organizations were out there? Because as helpful as it is to read somebody else’s story, the resources are what helped me. And I wrote it, hopefully, in a way that it’s not just for the woman who’s diagnosed, but also for their caregivers and support network.

If you could say one thing to someone newly diagnosed with breast cancer, what would it be?
It sucks right now, but it will get easier. I don’t want people to tell me, “Oh my god, I’m so sorry.” Yes, I know people are sorry, but I want you to tell me, “God, that fucking sucks. That sucks, but you are going to get through it. It’s going to get easier.”

Jessica Giles
Jessica Giles
Jessica is a senior associate editor on 5280's digital team.