belinda-stronach-cp-152042

Belinda Stronach poses for a photograph in front of construction on the new Breast Cancer Research Centre at Sunnybrook Hospital in Toronto on Wednesday. ((Darren Calabrese/Canadian Press))

Belinda Stronach has had her share of being in the public eye, but it wasn't the most comfortable place to be when she learned she had breast cancer and decided not to seek re-election as a member of Parliament.

Now, two years later, the auto parts executive is opening up about her diagnosis and treatment to help raise funds for a new centre at a Toronto hospital that will be dedicated to preventing and fighting the disease.

"I figure if it can be beneficial to other women, families and partners, etcetera, to hear about my experience, and some of them can relate to them, then I don't mind talking about it publicly," Stronach told the Canadian Press on Wednesday.

"At the time I didn't say much. When I first was diagnosed, my focus was really learning about what course of action I wanted to take and then communicating to family and friends."

In spring 2007, the high-flying MP — known as much for her romantic entanglements as her political savvy — went to her doctor after finding a large lump in her right breast.

She was diagnosed with a form of cancer called ductal carcinoma in situ and had surgery to remove the lump. And although the cancer hadn't spread, the margins of the area where the tumour had occurred weren't "clean," she said, raising concern about recurrence.

"It's strange because one day you're healthy and you feel good and you're going about your daily activities — and the next you're told you have cancer," recalled Stronach, a divorced mother of two teenagers.

"So it does change the direction, your priorities change — major."

Breast reconstruction

Stronach, vice-chairman of her father Frank's Magna International Inc., opted for a mastectomy and breast reconstruction, which allowed her to avoid radiation and virtually eliminated the chance of recurrence.

Her decision to travel to California for the surgery, instead of having it performed in Canada, garnered some criticism. But Stronach stands by her decision.

"It was important to me at the time that I wanted to preserve my nipple, and that wasn't at the time an option that I was given here."

Without the technique to preserve the nipple, women who have breast reconstruction can opt for a nipple tattoo, but that's not what she wanted.

"When you're faced with those pretty difficult decisions, you make the choices that you feel are best for you at that time. I'm not apologizing for it … I don't view it as a cosmetic surgery. I think it's part of the healing process."

Sheryl Crow to appear at fundraiser

Since her own operation, Stronach has raised more than $1 million for the Belinda Stronach chair in breast cancer reconstructive surgery at the University of Toronto, so Canadian women will have access to nipple-saving surgery.

Her latest philanthropic venture is fundraising for Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre.

Stronach will host an event May 20 featuring singer and breast cancer survivor Sheryl Crow, with proceeds from 800 tickets going toward construction of the breast centre at the Toronto hospital.

Those wishing to attend the evening event can register online at livetotell.ca. Participants pay $75 and then raise another $425 to pay for a $500 ticket.

As for Stronach, she plans to continue at Magna and to expand her philanthropy work through her charitable foundation.

"I feel good, I feel strong, I'm doing everything I can to lead a good, healthy lifestyle and have a strong immune system," said Stronach, who has taken up yoga as a mainstay of her exercise routine.

And does she have a new romantic partner in her life?

"No, I'm single. Do you have a hot prospect?" she asked, laughing.

Some women might worry about how a potential mate might react to breast cancer and reconstruction, but Stronach waves away that notion.

"That's part of who I am. Take it or leave it."