Author Elin Hilderbrand Is Telling a New Story: Her Own

The breast cancer survivor is using her experience to help women everywhere.

Elin Hilderbrand

Hilderbrand, right, with her surgeon, MGH’s Michelle Specht, at the BCRF luncheon Thursday/Photo by Michael Blanchard

Bestselling author Elin Hilderbrand has been writing for and speaking to women for years. She’s still doing that today, but the topics have evolved just a bit.

The prolific novelist was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2014, and underwent a double mastectomy that year. But instead of fighting the disease in private, the Nantucket resident has shifted, full-force, into the role of breast cancer activist.

“I really feel like it’s my responsibility now to do whatever I can to promote awareness of the disease,” she says. “The world needs voices that are positive and grateful, and that can be me.”

In addition to speaking publicly about her cancer, which was treated at Massachusetts General Hospital, Hilderbrand runs an initiative called #MamaStrong, which invites women to share their own breast cancer experiences, or those of loved ones. Hilderbrand’s publisher sends a box of the author’s books to the cancer center of each woman who submits a story.

“I have met women who said, ‘I started reading you when I sat in the chemo chair, and it made me feel better,'” Hilderbrand says. “That is as humbling as it gets, to know that you, in some way, made the worst day of their life a little bit better.”

Beyond #MamaStrong, Hilderbrand has taken on a busy public speaking schedule, appearing most recently at the Breast Cancer Research Foundation’s Hot Pink Luncheon in Boston. While the decision wasn’t easy, she says she knew quickly that she had to take her battle public.

“I’m addressing crowds of women all the time. I didn’t feel like I could be going through treatment and not say anything,” she says. “The demographic of women who are affected with breast cancer and the women who are my readers is the exactly same, so in so many ways, I’m the perfect person to do it.”

After deciding to go public, she announced her diagnosis via the Huffington Post, then appeared on national television the day before her double mastectomy. Just 12 days later, she was back on the book tour circuit—a decision that cemented her path toward activism.

At an event, she spotted one woman with no hair, and another with very short hair. When they came through the line to have their books signed, the woman with short hair uttered two sentences that would change Hilderbrand’s life.

“She said, ‘Elin, we’ve both had double mastectomies. Together we’ve been through 36 rounds of chemo and 64 rounds of radiation, and we came today to tell you you’re going to be fine,'” Hilderbrand remembers. “They were handing me a baton. Go forth, do what you can once you’re healed for the women who come after you.”

She’s taken that duty in stride, and has no plans to slow down. While she’s unsure if breast cancer will ever find its way into one of her novels—”even now, two years later, it’s too soon”—Hilderbrand says the disease has given her new gratitude that has trickled down to her writing, and to her outlook on life.

“It’s given me the intangible—a profound appreciation of everything, and the fact that nothing bothers me. I’m laid back to a new level,” she says. “It’s only in facing that that threatens your very being that you learn what it means to be alive.”

Share your story with #MamaStrong here.