Nina Garcia on life post-mastectomy: 'I've learned to be thankful' for every new day

The "Project Runway" judge and editor-in-chief of Elle wants women to know that being diagnosed with breast cancer isn’t “a death sentence and a diagnosis is nothing to be ashamed of."
Nina Garcia, "Project Runway" judge and editor-in-chief of Elle magazine.
Nina Garcia, "Project Runway" judge and editor-in-chief of Elle magazine.Courtesy of Nina Garcia.

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By Julianne Pepitone

Choosing a preventive double mastectomy wasn’t easy for Nina Garcia. But after years of internal debate and genetic testing that revealed a likely higher risk for breast cancer, the “Project Runway” judge and editor-in-chief of Elle magazine got the surgery earlier this year. And now she says she’s stronger and more grateful than ever before.

Garcia, who spoke to Know Your Value during October’s Breast Cancer Awareness Month, said she questioned several times whether she was making the right decision to get the surgery.

“It’s such a difficult, personal choice, but I know I made the right call for me,” said Garcia, who also wrote an essay about her journey for Elle in February.

“I am proud of being proactive about my health, and the constant anxiety of ‘will it be cancer this time?’ is gone,” Garcia added. “I also feel immensely grateful that I was able to take my health into my own hands.”

Garcia spent years wrestling with the decision, however. Spurred by family history of breast cancer, she underwent genetic testing in 2015, which revealed she had a mutation to the BARD1 gene, which interacts with the more well-known BRCA1 gene.

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Doctors believe the mutation increases cancer risk too, but data are scant so Garcia had no clear direction for her particular case. For three years, she was monitored and received additional tests. Results from January led Garcia and her doctors to move ahead with the preventive mastectomy.

Since the surgery, “I’ve learned to be thankful,” Garcia said, “for my own health, my family, my work, my friends. Every morning I remind myself of all the things I’m thankful for. That morning list is helping me become stronger and a better person.”

Garcia, a Colombian immigrant, is also grateful to have insurance that provided her with excellent care, as she knows many women around the world don’t have that luxury. She is also hosting this year’s symposium and luncheon for the Breast Cancer Research Foundation, a charity that is the world’s largest private funder of breast cancer research.

She’s active in spreading in story because she learned that transparency is “powerful.” Garcia wants other women who may want to share their health struggles to know they don’t have to be scared to appear vulnerable.

RELATED: How I learned to face my biggest fear and get genetic testing for breast cancer

“I received more emails, texts, calls, and notes than I ever have in my life” after announcing publicly, Garcia said. “I thought I was inundated with support when I started as editor-in-chief of Elle, but the outpouring of love I received after announcing my decision to undergo surgery was simply unmatched.”

Garcia added that she wants women to know that being diagnosed with breast cancer isn’t “a death sentence and a diagnosis is nothing to be ashamed of. We always need to remind ourselves that prevention is key. There is also a beautiful community of women out there, a community I could not be prouder to be part of."

Garcia found that community during her own health journey, which she said was invaluable—and that’s the approach she takes in her career, too.

“I like to think that you are as good as your team,” she said about her workplace management style. “I’ve learned to surround myself with people that I can trust, who will always tell me truth. I can count on them to be honest and transparent. I know that we will always be rowing in the same direction.”