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Facing A Legacy

Former CBS anchor René Syler educated & inspired thousands when she went public with her decision to have a bilateral prophylactic mastectomy. 

BY KATHY LATOUR
PUBLISHED MONDAY, SEPTEMBER 8, 2008
René Syler moves easily through the New York City luncheon crowd before taking her place at the front table in the newly renovated ballroom of the Plaza Hotel. In a moment, the nationally known anchor and breast cancer advocate will be introduced as the host for the 2008 American Cancer Society Mother of the Year luncheon honoring Cynthia Lufkin, a friend of Syler’s who has been active in breast cancer initiatives in New York City since her breast cancer diagnosis in 2005.

In her bright pink jacket, Syler is stunning, with a presence both practiced and inborn. The crowd listens intently as Syler talks about breast cancer’s impact on her life, beginning with her father’s breast cancer diagnosis some 35 years ago, her mother’s breast cancer diagnosis in 1997, and her own endless cycle of mammography and biopsy that began in 2003 and ended in 2007 when, after numerous biopsies had left her soul and her breasts “shredded,” Syler decided to have a bilateral prophylactic mastectomy and immediate reconstruction.

Syler adopted breast cancer as a cause early in her broadcast career, becoming a familiar face in Dallas, not only anchoring the local news but also at breast cancer events where she served as the mistress of ceremonies. She became the recognized emcee for what were then the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation annual luncheons in the ’90s—and often her mother, Anne Syler, would attend.

Then Anne was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1997, and René jumped in to manage her mother’s diagnosis and treatment while her sister, Tracy Syler-Jones, lent long-distance support from her home in Alabama. It was clear to all in the community that from the moment her mother was diagnosed, René’s commitment to the cause elevated. Now it was personal.

Anne Syler lives in Fort Worth, Texas, where her second daughter, Tracy, serves as an associate vice chancellor for marketing and communication at Texas Christian University after moving from Alabama to be closer to her mother and sister. One has only to meet Anne to see where her daughters get their independence, beauty, and determination.

Anne Syler’s distinctive beauty comes from her parents, a mother who was French Canadian and Native American and a father who was African-American and Irish. Her independence also came from her parents, she says, but it was honed by the military. Indeed, now a retired Air Force master sergeant, Anne earned her wings in the mid-’50s while still in her early 20s as a military flight attendant on Air Force transatlantic flights.

When Anne married Bill Syler in her late 20s, she left the military, earned her college degree, and taught school while raising René and Tracy, who is two years younger. When René was 10, her father was diagnosed with breast cancer and underwent a mastectomy. René doesn’t recall much about his diagnosis since it was not discussed in the family. Her father died of heart disease 13 years later.

When René was 17, her parents separated and her mother decided to return to the Air Force to pick up where she left off, ultimately retiring when she completed 20 years. Anne says both her daughters supported her decision to return to the military, recalling that René told her how proud she was of her. She said, “ ‘All these women, when their husbands leave, they sit around and do a pity party thing, and here you are in a career. You’re getting ready to go places and do things. I am so proud of you.’ ”

When Anne learned she had early-stage breast cancer, she was living in San Antonio, and René became her “mother,” Anne says, despite a busy on-air schedule and being very pregnant with her second child, Cole. Anne says René called her contacts for information to be sure her mother was making the right choice in choosing a lumpectomy. In other interviews, René has said that when her mother told her she had breast cancer, “it took the wind from my lungs, because if there were ever an unlikely candidate for breast cancer, it would be Mom.

“She ate well and exercised long before it was fashionable to do so, didn’t drink excessively. At the time, she was the picture of health,” René says.

Still independent, Anne’s only concession to her cancer and her age has been to hire someone to clean her house and tend to her yard. She recently finished a nutrition course offered by the state and will soon teach nutrition at health fairs. Anne says her commitment to exercise and good nutrition was also something René inherited, writing to her mother after her daughter, Casey, was born to thank her for being adamant about healthy living—and eager to share the information with others.

It came as no surprise to either Anne or Tracy that René would choose to go public with her mammograms, biopsies, and ultimate choice for prophylactic mastectomy.

“That is René,” says Tracy. “Her whole life has been about helping people and offering information so people can live their lives better. And it was therapeutic for her having people go through this with her. After she went public, there seemed to be lots of other women who also came forward.”

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