Editor’s Note: This piece was originally published in the Chicago Tribune May 18, 2011. In light of Oprah’s speech at the Golden Globes last night, and with Susan’s permission, we have republished it here.
I love Oprah Winfrey. OK. There. I said it.
While Oprah’s star was rising, I was a mother of three daughters all under 6 years old. I loved her shows for the entertainment, the honesty and for her ability to have her finger on the pulse of America. It meant something to have her say that mothers have the toughest job in the world, particularly when my girls were up all night throwing up. If I didn’t feel appreciated for running my house, making meals and being the loving wife … well, at least at 9 a.m. Oprah would remind me that being a mom ain’t easy.
Oprah was a constant in my life when so much else changed. While I divorced a husband, re-entered the workforce, battled breast cancer and endured a six-month regimen of chemotherapy and radiation, she was there. She was there as I became a single, working mother and when I started dating and eventually remarried. She cheered me along with her inspirational guests, everyday struggles and words of wisdom.
I went back to the only job I had known after my divorce — retail — even though journalism was my true love. I worked at Saks Fifth Avenue as a personal shopper. And with Oprah’s be-the-best-that-you-can-be as my mantra, I developed some high-profile clients, including Oprah. I even ended up doing a makeover on her show in 1996.
Diagnosed with breast cancer in 1997, I left Saks to undergo treatment. Four months into chemotherapy, I saw an ad in the Chicago Tribune. It was looking for freelancers. I applied and got a job. In the next six months, I had 25 pieces published, ranging from breast cancer to President Bill Clinton’s visit to my neighborhood. I would practically wait in the dark for my paper to be delivered. The thrill of seeing my byline offset how horrible I felt from the effects of chemo.
For those of us who survive cancer or who have undergone traumatic, life-changing effects, we get it. There is no time like today. Today is all we really have. Most of the survivors I know recognize how cancer changed their lives. For me, I got rid of the negative people in my life, appreciated every moment with my three beautiful girls and dove right into my new career. I got hired full-time as a reporter at a local paper and for the last 14 years have had freelance pieces published by the Chicago Tribune, The New York Times and magazines. Life is good.
Which gets me back to Oprah. Those of us diagnosed with a life-threatening illness know that it comes with life-changing lessons. And for me, along with millions of other “tele-classmates,” 25 years of Oprah’s curriculum rivaled that of any university. Her most meaningful lessons were thought-provoking — how to keep our kids safe, our bodies healthy, our country safer. Some were shocking — white supremacists, child predators and victims of incest. She brought discussions of our nation’s most horrific moments — Sept. 11 and Hurricane Katrina — into our homes. She addressed head-on issues that divided us, scared us, thrilled us. And she always left us with an “aha moment.”
Chicago has been blessed with one great teacher. We will miss her.
Susan Berger is a freelance journalist focused on health issues, breaking news, and criminal court and is a frequent contributor to the Washington Post and Chicago Tribune. You can follow her on twitter at msjournalist.