My life as I had known it came to a pause on December 3, 2018. It was the day I was told by a doctor I'd just met that I had breast cancer.
A month before, I had been lying in bed on a Saturday morning and, for some reason, I decided to do a breast self-exam. I had done them from time to time, starting in my early 20s when I learned the importance of breast self-exams during medical school.
As I examined my right breast, I felt a lump. It was small, not movable, but there nonetheless. My husband examined the lump as well, and we agreed I should make an appointment with my gynecologist. Monday morning came and my husband reminded me to make the appointment, knowing that I would delay it given my busy schedule.
To give you an idea of my life at the time: I was 43 years old and had been getting yearly mammograms since the age of 40. My last mammogram almost exactly a year earlier had been normal. I had regular checkups and had seen my gynecologist six months prior, so I was not expecting anything concerning.
I also was working toward an executive MBA degree and working full time as an associate professor. My husband and I had just celebrated our 20-year anniversary in Jamaica, the beautiful island of my parents' birth. I was in the process of starting my own business and had just located a building with my real estate agent. Life was not just good, it was great — until that moment in the doctor's office.
I was sitting half naked with a gown on after my mammogram when the breast surgeon walked into the room. She made a quick introduction, examined me, and told me to get dressed and meet her in her office. There she told me the unexpected, devastating news: "You have cancer."
I remember being stunned, thinking I had misheard her. She showed me the images of my breasts and pointed out that the area was easy to miss given my breast density. I could hardly see where she was indicating as she explained her diagnosis.
I don't know which was harder, receiving the news or telling my husband. We prayed that the results of the biopsy would put everything back on track. We tried to convince ourselves that it all was a mistake, but the reality was that I had triple negative breast cancer (TNBC), an aggressive type of cancer that is more commonly seen in women of color (Blacks and Hispanics). I also understood that the prognosis was not as favorable with TNBC as it is in some other types of breast cancer.
But in studying God's word, the truth is that I was already healed. This belief is what kept me positive and even joyful through the next steps, which I anticipated would not be pleasant. I am a woman of faith who accepted Jesus as my savior when I was a little girl. Growing up in church, I really didn't have a testimony of being delivered from so-called "extreme circumstantial situations," such as substance or physical abuse. Somehow, I knew this was an attack and test of my faith.
My family was scheduled to be in town for Christmas and my MBA graduation, and I recall thinking, "This is supposed to be a joyous time. But every time I look in someone's face, there is no joy." Instead of celebrations, I was planning biopsies and surgeries, discussing staging and port placement, and scheduling imaging to assess spread of disease and an echocardiogram to get a baseline before starting the toxic treatments. The devastation was unending, but I had to face it. I am blessed to have had my family around who could offer support to my husband.
I started chemotherapy on January 14, 2019, and continued treatment for five months. The side effects were not pleasant, but I was glad that I was not vomiting. I took an anti-nausea regimen that made treatments more tolerable, and I took medication to rebuild my immune system.
I was grateful to have a husband who could advocate for my needs. When my hair started coming out, a friend shaved it all off, as I was tired of looking at the patchy mess. I had to stay away from anyone who was sick. (So if you think that wearing a mask and social distancing is an inconvenience, think again!)
After completing chemotherapy, I had a few weeks to let my body recover, and then I underwent six weeks of radiation, five days a week. My skin became painful and raw. But I stuck with it, knowing that I wanted everything thrown at this cancer and that the body God gave me was tough enough to beat it.
After it was all over, I hardly recognized myself. I was bald, 35 pounds heavier, and had burn patches across my chest, underarm and back. My skin and nails had darkened too. What kept me sane was having the support of friends, family and coworkers (especially those who had been through what I was going through), the encouraging words from church messages, daily scripture reading, and prayer. I can't imagine how things would have been had I not done a self-exam. It reminds me that we are our own best advocates.
I must address faith and religion as it is of high importance, particularly within the African American community. I have seen, experienced and been told of the behaviors that have led to the mistrust of the medical profession. As a Christian who happens to be Black, a woman and a physician, I have a unique perspective on the matter. There is a pervasive message that faith in God negates faith in the medical profession. Or that if one seeks medical attention, it must be because they lack faith in God.
The truth is, God has given us the knowledge, wisdom and tools within the medical profession to carry out his plan for healing. That's not to say that healing can't exist without medical intervention, but one should not feel condemned or judged because they listened to a doctor's advice.
My faith was my weapon to get me through the most difficult time of my life. Yes, I had trust in my doctors and the treatments, but I had faith in God as the one in control of it all.
I want to leave you with three points:
1. Early detection and cancer screening saved my life and can save yours.
2. No one can advocate for your health care better than you. Find a doctor or health care provider you trust who will advocate with you.
3. As a woman of color, I am underrepresented as both patient and provider. Some of this stems from a culture of mistrust. But working together, we can make a difference in improving health care disparities.
This resource was created with support from Merck.