When Giuliana Rancic was diagnosed with breast cancer, she was 36 years old, had no family history of the illness and regularly did self breast exams.
She had absolutely no reason to believe she was at risk for the disease.
The only reason the TV personality even had a mammogram four years earlier than recommended for most women is that it was a requirement of fertility treatments she was receiving at the time. Even when the mammogram showed an abnormality, she was so sure it was a mistake that she encouraged her husband, Bill Rancic, to go on a trip for charity while she waited to hear the results of a biopsy. Thus, she was all alone when she learned she had cancer.
"I became hysterical," Rancic said. "I felt like I was falling through darkness."
The Rancics recounted their breast cancer experience Friday afternoon at the annual Rose of Hope luncheon in Fairfield to benefit Bridgeport Hospital's Norma F. Pfriem Breast Cancer Center. The lunch, which took place at the home of Patti and Tom Keegan, is the Pfriem center's biggest fundraiser and mainly benefits its programs for women in need, including the Medically Underserved Initiative, which provides financial assistance to uninsured and underinsured women.
The keynote speaker for the luncheon is typically a famous woman, and the Rancics are the first celebrity couple to serve as speakers. The pair have their own reality show on E! and Giuliana Rancic is the anchor of E! News, and co-star of E!'s Fashion Police team. Bill Rancic is probably best known for winning the first season of the reality TV series "The Apprentice."
The couple has had a difficult few years, beginning with their struggles with infertility. When Giuliana couldn't conceive, she tried two rounds of in vitro fertilization. The first resulted in a pregnancy, but Giuliana had a miscarriage. The second round wasn't successful. The couple then went to a clinic in Denver, which is where Giuliana was told she'd need the mammogram that eventually led to her cancer diagnosis.
After receiving the devastating news, Giuliana called her husband, who rushed home. As soon as they were reunited, "I fell into his arms," she said. "I didn't know what to do."
Bill Rancic said he knew it was his job as a husband to be supportive of what Giuliana was going through. He worried that Giuliana would be reluctant to have a mastectomy and quickly did what he could to remove any doubts she might have. "I said `I don't care what you look like. I just need you around for the next 50 years,' " he said.
Giuliana had a double mastectomy in 2011, and said Bill's support got her through ordeal -- along with two goals they set around the time of the surgery. One is that they would host a New Year's Eve TV special in New York's Times Square, which took place only two weeks after the surgery. The second was that they would try to get pregnant again. Eventually, they conceived their son Duke via a surrogate, which Giuliana said was "a beautiful light at the end of the tunnel."
Sadly, the couple recently had more tragic news, as their surrogate miscarried this year while pregnant with their second child.
But, at Friday's lunch, they only talked about how their breast cancer experience changed their perspective on life. Giuliana said she's always been religious, and feels as though her cancer was God's way of telling her she was supposed to encourage people to get tested and take care of themselves.
"God knew I was a loud-mouthed Italian girl," she said. "He must have said `Hey, if I give it to her, she can help a lot of people.' "
Between 500 and 600 people attended the event, and several said they much preferred the Rancics to last year's speaker, actress Katie Holmes. Holmes spoke briefly and offered few personal details. The Rancics were much more candid, said Heidi Taylor of Trumbull, a three-year breast cancer survivor. "They were amazing," she said. "I like the relaxed format they used."
The event also included a speech by Pfriem Center patient Karen O'Neil of Milford. O'Neil said the day of the lunch was actually the 18-month anniversary of her breast cancer diagnosis. Like Rancic, she was diagnosed young (at 38) and ended up getting a double mastectomy. She said the Pfriem Center was a light during a difficult time. "They are compassionate, talented, dedicated professionals who give women like me and their families the feeling that we're going to be OK," she said.