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Sally Yates learned she had breast cancer days before Russia investigation testimony

Exclusive: Sally Yates on her cancer diagnosis
Exclusive: Sally Yates on her cancer diagnosi... 03:08

Less than a week before Sally Yates was set to testify to Congress about Russian interference in the 2016 election, the former acting attorney general was diagnosed with a rare breast cancer

"This was one of those times where the personal and the professional collided. And so it was, I think, just about five days before I was to testify in the Senate Judiciary Committee about the Russia investigation that I got the final diagnosis that it was invasive cancer," Yates told "CBS Evening News" anchor and managing editor Norah O'Donnell. 

Yates thought about postponing her testimony but, she said, it would have further fueled conspiracies about the Russia investigation. 

Days before President Trump was inaugurated, Yates, who spent decades at the Justice Department, met with President Obama and Vice President Biden in the Oval Office. Republicans zeroed in on the meeting, accusing the Obama administration of targeting Michael Flynn, who would become Mr. Trump's national security adviser and would be fired days into the job for lying to the FBI about his contacts with Russia. But Yates testified that neither Mr. Obama nor Mr. Biden pushed for Flynn to be prosecuted and instead warned about sharing information with Flynn during the transition. 

"There also was this false narrative out there called Obamagate, that President Obama and then-Vice President Biden had directed the Russia investigation and directed us to investigate Mike Flynn. And they specifically pointed to a meeting in the Oval Office where people were alleging this had happened. Well, I had been in that meeting and I knew that didn't happen. So I did also want to be able to get the truth out there," Yates told O'Donnell. 

She called the experience of testifying after having just received the news of her diagnosis "a challenge." 

"You're trying to stay focused on the task that's ahead of you, but it was just a few days since I'd gotten the diagnosis. And I would find, as I'm trying to get ready for this testimony, I'd find myself Googling the survival rates for papillary cancer or different treatments. I couldn't help but be very distracted by that," she said. 

A couple of weeks after testifying, Yates spoke at the National Democratic Convention, then had a double mastectomy two days later. 

Yates urged women, especially those who have put off testing during the pandemic, to go "get a mammogram." 

"It may very well be a looming health crisis that we haven't even really fully begun to comprehend yet," she said. "People can try to do something about it by getting in now. You may've missed those tests during the pandemic time, but it's not too late to go in for those tests now."

Yates, who was abruptly fired by President Trump for refusing to defend his executive order banning new arrivals from several Muslim-majority countries, is now in private practice. She was recently hired by U.S. Soccer to investigate allegations of sexual abuse in the National Women's Soccer League.

Yates opened up about her experience battling breast cancer in an essay for CBSNews.com ahead of her interview with Norah O'Donnell. Read her essay here.

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