Voice of Reason
She immediately began a grueling regimen of radiation and chemotherapy at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center. "It's strange," she says. "The banality of the treatment—you spend a huge amount of time sitting and waiting—is in direct contrast to the import of having a life-threatening illness. I just started questioning what I was doing." She realized she missed New York and her friends and that her job wasn't as fulfilling as she had hoped it would be. By mid-January of 1994, Darien was in remission; a year later, she loaded up her Toyota for the drive east. "I didn't have a job, but I didn't care," she recalls. "I figured I could create a life and do something that makes me happy."
Today, Darien, 42, is happier than she has ever been. As the editor and publisher of Mamm (from mammary and mammogram), she presides over a magazine for women with breast or reproductive cancer. The glossy is filled with medical reports, survivor profiles, news and policy analysis, but it is also, as its playful name suggests, more than a little cheeky. Features such as "Sex and the Single-Breasted Girl" tackle once-taboo subjects, and first-person columns range from the heartbreaking to the hilarious. ("The Dating Game" included one woman's "sneaky, underhanded tactics" to get some action.) "As sympathetic as others can be," says Darien, "there's something about them being in the land of the well while one is in the land of the sick that creates this divide. I want to show people they're not alone."
Says journalist Linda Ellerbee, who appeared on Mamm's first cover in October 1997: "No one else has put all this information together. When I lost my breasts to cancer in 1992, it became clear our silence was killing us. I wanted to add my voice to those of other women in the magazine. We made noise. We've changed the course of this disease."
Darien takes pride in being a bit of a renegade: "There are no sacred cows," she says. "You try to inject humor, reality, directness." That's especially important, she adds, when addressing quality-of-life issues, such as losing one's hair. "It signifies you're different than the rest of the world. I lost my hair, and believe me, it's a very vulnerable state." Darien's experience also drove home the need to talk about the emotions roiling inside. "When I was in treatment, my father called every day, but he'd always say he wasn't worried. Total b.s.! People, whether they're patients, caregivers or relatives, think sharing is unhelpful, but it's not."
That willingness to explore intimate subjects with depth and edge makes Mamm "an important part of a woman's arsenal," says Carol White, a cochair at Y-me, a national breast cancer information and support group. "I've seen people light up when they look at their first copy. The tone is empowering." Which is precisely why Elena Comendador, 41, a teacher with New York's Alvin Ailey dance company who had a mastectomy in 1998, agreed to appear topless in the March 2000 issue. "I wanted women to feel their bodies are still powerful, sensual and feminine," she says. "No one's going to tell me I'm abnormal."
Born in Milwaukee, Darien grew up the daughter of her doctor father, Gholi, 65, and her mother, Jacqueline, 64, a financial planner. Always keen on the arts, she studied art history and political science at Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville, N.Y., before working at the Hudson River Museum in 1980 and, later, as deputy director at the P.S. 1 art center in Long Island City. After her bout with lymphoma, she was an art consultant and now teaches at the School of Visual Arts in Manhattan. When Sean Strub, who founded Poz, a magazine for people who are HIV positive, started Mamm in 1997, he offered Darien the top job.
Currently nine Mamm staffers work in a cramped Greenwich Village office. Most are all too familiar with cancer. "Sure, we grumble about how much work we have, but we know it matters to someone out there," says editorial assistant Elsie Hsieh, 25, whose mother was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1998. "Helping others with what my mom went through is really important."
Darien suffered a loss of her own last spring, when her boyfriend died of a heart attack at age 56. "Extraordinary opportunities happen with the most crushing losses," she says. "It made me more committed." Though incorporated as a business, Mamm is largely distributed through nonprofit organizations and in doctors' offices, and more than half of its 91,000 copies are freebies. Advertisers and private investors (who contribute for the cause, not profits) account for most of its nearly $2 million annual budget. Darien wants to double that, triple the circulation and give away 200,000 copies a month. "Her strength in getting money together and getting the issues out speaks volumes about her determination and ability," says Ellerbee.
Symptom-free for six years, Darien lives in a book-filled, one-bedroom apartment with a galley kitchen, where she loves to cook Persian dishes for her mother, who moved to New York City in 1984; sister Lisa, 39, an English literature professor; and brother Jeff, 29, a rock musician. (After her parents divorced, her father remained in Milwaukee, and sister Suzanne Gabel, 37, teaches elementary school in Omaha.) She also enjoys yoga and classical music and admits to an Imelda Marcos-like obsession with shoes.
Daunting as her work can be, Darien can't imagine life without Mamm. She smiles ruefully at the recollection of a young woman in a photo essay about breast cancer patients in Long Island. "You look at her, and she's just beaming with a kind of energy and determination," says Darien. "But she died soon after. It is always bittersweet."
with Natasha Stoynoff and Debbie Seaman in New York City