Chef Missy Robbins on Her Life-Changing Breast Cancer Diagnosis — and Becoming Her Own Biggest Advocate

"With so much information out there, it can be really scary. Everyone has to find their own process. It's important to do what works for you."

Missy Robbins
Photo: Evan Sung/EH Management

Chef Missy Robbins tells editor in chief Laura Brown how an early breast cancer diagnosis saved her life and how she's living with the disease now.

LAURA BROWN: Let's go through everything from the beginning, when you were diagnosed. Where were you at the time?

MISSY ROBBINS: It was 2017. Lilia [Robbins's Italian restaurant in Williamsburg, Brooklyn] had been open for a year and half, and I was in the groove. I went in for a normal mammogram — I was 46 at the time — and they said, "There's something kind of weird. We're not really worried about it, but you should come back." A few weeks later my gynecologist called and asked if I had gone for my follow-up. I told her no, and she said, "You have to go." They did an ultrasound and kept going over the same spot. I could feel myself getting the sweats. They said, "Wait here. We need to go talk to the doctor." I was like, "What?"

LB: Oh, man.

MR: They're just very matter-of-fact. The doctor wanted to take a biopsy, so we did that the next week. My gynecologist called three days later, and when the phone rang, I thought, "I'm screwed." I just knew. She said, "I'm really surprised, but it's breast cancer. If it's OK with you, I already set in motion getting you a doctor for your surgery." Then it all starts going really fast.

LB: The pragmatics kick in.

MR: Yes. I called my parents, and they were amazing. No one in my family has had cancer. If you come from a family that has never dealt with cancer, you kind of have a movie impression of what it is. You think you're going into chemo the next day and that death is imminent. But no one mentioned death to me in this entire process. It wasn't an option. I had a very small tumor that was caught really early; it was Stage 1. I was lucky, and I realize that.

LB: Yes, you can have a cancer that you can recover from, and I think people sometimes forget that.

MR: I was in this aggressive headspace of, "I'm going to go through the process and do everything I need to get through it." There are moments when you're in your apartment by yourself in pain, and it sucks. Or you're so exhausted, you can't keep your eyes open. It's funny, the reason I always went for radiation at noon was because I thought I was going to keep my normal workout schedule. Then I went to Pilates and fell asleep on the reformer. I would come to work and sit on a stool where I'd normally stand. Some nights my eyes would be half shut. It wasn't a great look for me or the restaurant, so I'd leave. I didn't want to tell the customers. I wanted them to enjoy themselves.

Missy Robbins
"Don't know why I was smiling." Robbins on her first day of treatment. Courtesy Missy Robbins

LB: How long was your treatment?

MR: Thirty-three sessions over six and a half weeks, Monday through Friday. Once I was on the table, the actual radiation process took 10 minutes, but I would block out three hours. I didn't want to feel rushed. I'd be in the waiting room with women on their lunch breaks. They had hourly jobs and would panic if the machine was broken because someone was covering their shift. That impacted me a lot. I realized how fortunate I was.

LB: While you were lying there, what did you think about?

MR: My eyes would close, and I just wanted to be [at the restaurant]. I took selfies every day, and you can see my mood shift. My mom wanted to come with me, but I wanted to go on my own. It became part of my routine. I've heard that from other women too — it becomes your thing. You become friendly with people. I brought my cookbooks for all the technicians.

LB: You develop a closeness, but no one wants to be having radiation every day.

MR: Of course not. Two of my closest friends from high school have been diagnosed within the last six months. One just had surgery. She's going to Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, which is like the Four Seasons [of hospitals]. She sent me a selfie the other day, and I was like, "Wow, your robe is so much nicer than mine." You have to be able to laugh at yourself a little.

LB: Dark humor comes from those places.

MR: Exactly. I always say I was lucky, but there are two sides of it. It was very acutely a terrible eight-month period of my life. Once I finished radiation, people would be like, "Oh, cool, your cancer is done." But the unfortunate thing that I've learned since being finished with treatment is it's never really over. I'm on [hormonal-therapy drug] tamoxifen for 10 years. It's preventive, and it's specifically for hormone-positive breast cancer. It reduces my chance of recurrence by up to 30 percent, which is huge.

LB: Does it have any side effects?

MR: Oh, it's terrible. It's horrendous. I go to my oncologist every three months, and every time I say I don't want to be on this drug. I was nauseous for a month and then had a pretty bad bout of insomnia. I don't understand the point of being on something to prevent getting breast cancer and feeling miserable for 10 years. But the only other option would be to put me into early menopause and on another drug. So I'm really trying to take steps to give myself energy. I'm doing Peloton, eating better, and trying to take care of myself. I have to figure it out — the doctors won't figure it out for me. I've told both my regular physicians that I don't feel great, and they said, "We can put you on antidepressants." But I don't want to go on another drug, and I'm not depressed. I'm trying to look at it a little more comprehensively, and I'm not there yet.

LB: But you know where you need to go.

MR: Exercise is helping, and so is not staying late at the restaurant. It's tough. No one says, "You're in remission." I've never heard that. I'm technically fine, but it doesn't go away. I go to the doctor every three months; eventually I'll go every six months. I still go to three doctors: an oncologist, a radiation oncologist, and a surgeon. It puts me at ease because if something's wrong, someone will catch it. I used to get really anxious about going to the doctor — I hated it. Now it's just part of my routine. You don't just get cancer, get treatment, and it goes bye-bye. It will be part of my life for the rest of my life.

LB: You have to live in reality, though it may not be necessarily what you want to hear.

MR: I live in the reality that I can't prevent it. No one knows why you get breast cancer. I was on the pill for several years — maybe it was from that, or being overweight, or using the wrong deodorant. No one knows.

LB: What has been your greatest lesson from this?

MR: There are many! Before we opened Lilia, I was committed to living a healthy and balanced life — but by the time I got diagnosed, I'd fallen into old patterns and didn't necessarily care about that balance. Having cancer forced me to listen to my body. Every diagnosis is different, and it's important to educate yourself and understand what you have. With so much information out there, it can be really scary. Everyone has to find their own process. It's important to do what works for you.

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