She Is Not Alone

Alright. I’ve hemmed and hawed and dropped hints that something major is affecting my life for long enough. Time to come clean, kind of. I’m not going to get into details until she allows me to, but I will say this. October is Breast Cancer Awareness month, and I’ve never before been so aware of breast cancer in my life. A very, very close and beloved relative of mine was just diagnosed with it.

We got the preliminary news in late September. The month of October thus far has been a series of tests, culminating in a surgical procedure that took place just last Friday. This relative of mine is by nature a reticent person, shy and sweet and very religious. The news hit us all pretty hard, especially because there is no history of cancer in our family.

Over the past month and a half or thereabouts, we’ve had some very long and serious talks on the phone. She promises that sometime soon, she will allow me to tell her story in her words. But she’s not quite ready yet. For now, she’s fine with me disclosing the basic facts, and I hope she’ll forgive me for reiterating the things I’ve been preaching to her.

Breast Cancer Awareness has become such a big, significant movement in America. Everyone here knows what the pink ribbon means. Every October a slew of fabulous new pink-beribboned products hit the shelves and we can all support the cause while pampering ourselves. Celebrities such as Melissa Etheridge have put a proud and brave face on the disease and proved that stars indeed are just like us.

Everyone knows someone who has had it — to quote the American Cancer Society’s key statistics, “the chance of developing invasive breast cancer at some time in a woman’s life is about 1 in 8 (12%). It is estimated that in 2007 about 178,480 new cases of invasive breast cancer will be diagnosed among women in the United States. Women living in North America have the highest rate of breast cancer in the world. At this time there are about 2.5 million breast cancer survivors in the United States.” Some of these women might reveal their experience by wearing pink ribbons on their shirts, and buying a pink ribbon magnet for their car. Some might go the extra step, and participate in breast cancer events throughout this month, for example the Race for the Cure, which drew huge crowds in Dallas this year. Breast cancer brings out the shero in some survivors. Some proudly go bald, or choose to get amazing tattoos where their breasts used to be, as a testimony to their experience. But there are many other women who don’t speak loudly, who retreat into themselves, and shy away from support groups. My relative is one of them. So far, her family and her religion have been her chief support system. I worry that we are not enough.

I think she could really benefit from making some new friends through this adversity, hearing the stories of other women who are fighting the same fight. I’ve always been the black sheep, super outgoing one in my family, and I encourage my relatives to be the same. But despite my most passionate exhortations, this relative just gives me a hesitant “I’ll think about it” when I press the issue.

There have been times where she confides dark feelings she’s had, or thoughts that have floated across her mind like morbid clouds, and I have no option but to remain silent and let her talk it out. Not knowing what to say makes me feel powerless. Inadequate. The futility that bubbles inside me makes me cry. I want to help so much, but I don’t know how, other than by changing the subject and trying to make her laugh.

So she won’t join a support group yet. I’ve also been a pest about her diet — I want her to eat healthier than she has been, cut back on the biscuits and pastries and buck up on the protein and vegetables. But hearing this from a family member who you might still think of as a little girl, a relative like me, who has struggled with weight her whole life, hasn’t yet made an impact on her. The American Cancer Society has tons of food and fitness tips. I’ve been offering them to her — giving her suggestions on adding fruits and veggies to her diet. Easier said than done, especially if she doesn’t feel like eating much.

Sometimes I think if she lived here, her views might be different. Throughout October, the pink ribbon is in your face wherever you look. At the grocery store you can buy salad for the cure. You can go crazy at Sephora on pink products. I mean, damn — look at the current list of partners for Susan G. Komen! Everything from American Airlines to Serta Mattresses are down with the pink ribbon. With so much overwhelming support, it is easy to see breast cancer as something that can be easily overcome if you live in the USA. But I believe living in a country like my homeland — where the quality of her health care has been beyond questionable (I will tell you stories that will make your blood boil on her behalf, as soon as she allows me to), it’s still an illness many women seem to suffer quietly. Her experience has shaped her views, and her experiences thus far have not been as encouraging as they could be.

The hardest part for me, is not being at home to help. Not being available in person to hug her, to spend the night at the hospital with her, or to sit and have a cup of tea and chat about whatever comes to mind. I can’t be there in person if she needs me. All I’ve been able to do is call often, and try to offer her my two cents on everything she’s going through. The point of me writing this is to let her know she’s not the only one out there dealing with the weight of this illness. This is my way of bringing a support group to her, proving to her that women all over the world know the feelings of depression and loss that she has expressed to me. I need her to know that she is not alone.

If you or a loved one has dealt with breast cancer, please share your story with me and my relative. Please let us know what helped you the most in the darkest moments. And if breast cancer isn’t in your family, if you have small boobs and some douchebag idiot doctor tells you you’re not at risk because of that (yes, this happened), if you have never had a mammogram, or you just don’t even really think about it at all, I implore you to educate yourself. Breast cancer affects the African American community in unique ways. Think about those statistics I quoted earlier — one in EIGHT women.

Go get tested. You just never, never know.

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Comments

  1. My mother was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1984 – shortly after the birth of my youngest brother. I have never asked her how she discovered that she had cancer, but she was 36 years old – young for a breast cancer diagnosis. She had a mastectomy and underwent chemotherapy. I was 11. At the time I didn’t realize just how fierce a woman my mother was, but as I reflect back, I realize that my mother continued to take care of 4 children, work, drove herself to chemotheraphy appointments and held the house down. I don’t know how she did it. My mother is a success story – she has been cancer free for 23 years and the doctors have indicated that she should live a long, healthy life. My mother smoked when she was younger, I believe that may have played a part in her developing the cancer, but that’s just speculation on my part. However, she’s always been healthy – excercises consistently, vegetarian for the last 37 or 38 years, etc. I honestly don’t know how my mother coped, though I know that she must’ve leaned heavily on her faith. I will keep your family in my prayers. Oh – I’ve gotten a yearly mammogram since I turned 30 and encourage your readers to stay on top of their screenings! They’re not that bad, and a whole lot better than hearing “if you’d only come in last year for a moammogram . . . ” I would think.

  2. I had my first mammogram this past summer. It took me two years to work up the nerve to get it because of all the rumors about how painful they. I just want to tell anyone who is fearful don’t be. They are not bad at all and it is such a load off the mind to get the first one out the way. No more procrastination for me.

  3. I’m so sorry to hear about your relative’s diagnosis–you both will be in my thoughts.

    Most of the women in my family have battled with breast cancer and they are doing fine now (knock wood). All of the things you are telling her to do have, I think, been critical for my family members in dealing with breast cancer: joining a support group, eating right, etc. I’d also throw in *supplemental* alternative therapies–nothing off the wall,nothing that would take the place of her course of treatment, but maybe she and her oncologist could discuss things like accupuncture, massage, and yoga. I really believe those things help a great deal.

    Keep being a “pest!” I think it’s a good thing. And, although I know nothing is a real comfort right now, never before has breast cancer been so treatable. Even compared to just 5-10 years ago, the mortality rate has dropped dramatically and there is amazing care available.

    Hang in there–she will get through this!

  4. My prayers are with you. My mother was diagnosed over a year ago. She is strong-willed and full of faith so she never ALLOWED us to get down (even though she was the one who went through the masectomy, chemo and reconstructive surgery). She has been given the Cancer free dianosis for more than 6 months now. Her hair is back and she has decided to maintain her “natural” as she calls it. She says cancer released her from the bondage of weekly salon trips for the rest of her life!!

    I say all of this to you to let you know it is not over. Encourage your family memebr and encourage yourself (cause sometimes it is hard being a care giver). Know that it can and will get better.

    God Bless!
    MBA Mama

  5. My prayers are with her, you and your family at this time. Stay strong diva!

  6. Patrice, wow your family is my prayers, I especially no what you mean about healthcare system, coming from a country with poor a poor health care system, I can totally relate.
    You all are in my prayers.
    :(

  7. Trinichica says:

    I prayed for you and your family this weekend…..for some reason you were heavy on my mind…..I will continue to do so….keep strong for her and encourage her to be strong for herself. Much love!

  8. *Sigh*
    Where do I begin?
    Last year, around August, I was taking a shower and while soaping my breasts, I felt a small lump on my left breast, near my underarm area. My initial reaction, this is nothing to be alarmed about, it’s time for my period and “they say” don’t check your breasts when that time comes. So I put off doing something about until October, when it never went away. I didn’t know what to do. Who to call. So, I called the Mammography Department at the Austin Diagnostic Clinic and told them that I would like to be scheduled for a mammogram. After pulling my patient records and verifying my age, the lady on the phone goes, “We don’t do mammograms on 29 year olds..” I asked her what I was supposed to do and she told me to contact my gynecologist. I scheduled an appointment with her for the end of October. The day that I got to the appt, a baby decided to be born and I was unable to see her. Imagine my frenzy. I had finally made the decision to see what was wrong and couldn’t. I started crying right there in the lobby of the doctor’s office. My appointment was rescheduled for the next day. Upon meeting with my doctor, she felt my right breast and then felt my left breast for comparison. Then she said, “LaTanya, can you show me where you felt the lump because I don’t feel anything.” So, I guide her fingers and she feels it and says, “Hmm, this doesn’t feel like anything to be alarmed about, but I will send you for an ultrasound if you want me too.” (If I want you to?????). So I tell her of course. The ultrasound was scheduled for Tuesday, November 7 (Election Day). At the ultrasound, the technician saw the mass and scheduled me for a biopsy the next day. On Thursday, November 9, I received a phone call from a doctor, confirming that I had breast cancer that needed to be treated “as soon as possible.” I was mortified. I was in shock, in so much shock that I couldn’t even cry. The next day, I met with a surgeon who gave me my options: Lumpectomy (removal of the lump) and Lymph node dissection or Mastectomy. I was still unable to grasp the fact that I had breast cancer. I opted for the lumpectomy, which was scheduled on 12/15/06. The surgeon thought that it would be good for me to go ahead and meet with an oncologist on that day. The guy that I met with was COLD and HARSH. Immediately he starts rattling off statistics and tells me medications that I will be taking. I told him of my desire to have children and he goes, “Well LaTanya, you have to decide what’s more important, having kids or staying alive.” OH MY FREAKING GOODNESS. I wanted to punch him. He was so cold. I hated him. I only went back to him for one more appointment and then changed over to my current oncologist. The first day I met with her, I told her that I wasn’t looking for a best friend, but for a more comopassionate doctor and she understood.
    On January 24, 2007, I had my first chemotherapy session. I can remember being on the phone with my best friend and the nurse telling me that she was hanging the bag for the Adriamycin, which is the drug that takes your hair out. It’s red and watching it come down through the line, I told my friend, “I really feel like ripping this IV out.” I didn’t though, and as promised, my hair started falling out in exactly 2 weeks. The hardest part was the falling out. Everytime I ran my fingers through my hair, there were long strands. I decided to take the control back and on February 13, I shaved my head. Whew. It was a relief! In order to make myself feel better, I purchased a different wig for every week, before I settled on my “favorite” style.
    I wore a wig until May when it just got too darn hot to wear one. Looking back on the events of the past year, I am thankful for many things. 1. A strong support system, in my friends and church members; 2. Having a positive spirit! I had my ups and downs, but remaining calm and soliciting prayers from those that loved me, sustained me. 3. That I had a job that allowed me to take off when needed for therapy. 4. Never getting sick. (I can shout off of that right now!).
    Bella, I already emailed you, but I wanted to tell you that the medical advances of today are AWESOME, and more people are living full lives past the diagnosis. I will pray for you and for your friend, and please have her to contact me if she ever needs a listening ear, has questions, or just wants to talk.

  9. Mrs. Mckinzie says:

    This is happening to so many woman in there 20′s. I was 27 when i felt my first lump that i ignored.I was 28 when i felt the second lump ,and decided to do something about it.There was a lump on the side of my breast that i had removed,but i am afraid to have the second one removed ,because the surgeon said that it will disfigure my breast because it is close to my chest cavity.Please do not worry about vanity like me if you feel a lump do something about it.I am still trying to work up the nerve to have the second lump removed,but because the biopsy was negative for the first one i am not in a rush.

  10. My heart goes out to you and your family. I just lost a dear friend and neighbor of mine a month ago today. I’m having a moment right now just thinking about it. My friend was a fighter, and I know your relative is even a bigger one.

  11. Also T.T. thanks for sharing your story, especially since you are so young, You are a few years older than me. My friend was so young and she lost the battle. More and More young people need to understand that breast cancer strikes at any age.

  12. InnerDiva says:

    Good afternoon–I have been a reader for some time now, but never commented. My great aunt was diagnosed with breast cancer in its later stages. She was a proud Trini woman until she was diagnosed. She became withdrawn and sad. She was very involved in the church, but she couldn’t find the strength to go as much. I urge the family members of those diagnosed with breast cancer to be as supportive as possible–talk when she needs to talk, bring whatever little things she needs when you visit, be understanding when she doesn’t want company because she’s lost her hair to the chemo. We lost my aunt in February of this year, but we will all keep her memory close to our hearts.

  13. Hmmm…. it seems like all of us have had cancer’s unrelenting hand touch us. All of the stories have been very moving and I think it shows a lot about this site that people are willing to share such intimate stories. Personally, my family has been ripped open by cancer. My aunt in particular had breast cancer, but the story I want to share is from my mother’s coworker. Sandy, a wonderful woman in her late 30′s felt no lumps and was getting a mammogram once a year. Suddenly, her breasts became sore so she went to the gynecologist and one lump was found. Well by the time all the tests were finished, they discovered that the cancer (stage 4) had spread to the majority of BOTH her breasts and she needed to have both of them removed and start a rigourous treatment routine. Unfortunately because of the way our health care system works, Sandy was solely dependant on her hmo coverage through her employer to cover her treatments and medicine. A week before Sandy was due to have her double masectomy, a union meeting was called and a corporate supervisor told the employees that the contract negotiations did go in their favor, and that they would receive a 20% pay cut and reduced health care coverage. Sandy objected that the reducton wouldn’t cover the cost of radiation only chemo. Outraged, she continued and said that she could die as a result of these changes in covered health expenses. The supervisors answer: “There’s nothing tha can be done. Yoy will have to figure something else out.” I say all of this, not to make a said for better health insurance, but instead to comment on how amazing the human spirit can be in the face of adversity. Sandy has been a brave and strong person and I have watched my mother struggle to help her friend knowing there was nothing she could do but try to support her. Since that time, Sandy found a new job, has had surgery to replace what the cancer took(bigger and better ones too!) and feels ready to take on anything. Bella, my thoughts are with you and your family. People survive crazy circumstances everyday. I have no doubt that your relative can push through and celebrate with you.

  14. Bella,

    My thoughts and prayers go out to you and your loved ones. T.T., thank you for sharing your story.

  15. T.T., your story was very moving, and it called to mind the story of my friend. I think about her every day, actually. She was like my sister…we didn’t always like each other, our personalities were so different, but we always loved each other, and when the chips were down, she knew I had her back. Like sisters, you know?

    About 20 years ago, when my friend was around 19, she was combing her little sister’s hair when her sister bopped her head back and hit her in the chest. That’s when she discovered she had a lump in the inner quadrant of her right breast. She thought it was from her sister hitting her…but then it didn’t go away. It became more and more painful, it was fixed, etc. Well, she went to the doctor, who told her that because she was a young black female it was almost certainly a fibroadenoma, don’t worry. Well, her stepmother insisted they do a biopsy, and guess what? It was cancer. She had a mastectomy, chemo, the whole nine yards. She had never been married. She got reconstructive surgery (and back then, it was the silicone implant which hardened within a year). Well, a couple of years after that, she did get married to a fabulous man. Shortly thereafter, she had her ovaries removed in an effort to try to stop the aggressive nature of her cancer. She was so young, you see, full of estrogen, and the cancer was loving it. She died about 10 years ago, when she was 30, and she fought hard the whole time. I don’t think I could have been as strong and brave as she was. She was no saint, now, let me tell you. She was loud and outspoken and impatient and bossy, and she stayed all those things until she died. But she was also so honest and brave and generous. She didn’t like to talk about her cancer, either. I can’t presume to say why, though I have my thoughts. I know for a fact it was her faith and her wonderful family that helped her and kept her going for so long. She didn’t go to a support group, either. Now me myself, I love support groups, but she was different. I understand your feelings about not being able to be there, bella. The latter half of my friend’s sickness, I lived in a different state and was embroiled in some major craziness of my own…so I wasn’t able to be there, and the day before I was finally going to get to see her again, she died. I think things have come a lot farther since then, but we still have a ways to go, especially when it comes to black women, as T.T.’s story shows. Robin Roberts on GMA has done a great service, helping to make more people, especially women of color, more aware. We get it less, but die more often, so it is SO important to take those steps to get checked out. Keep calling your relative, just so she has that tangible evidence that you care. I wish I could say something profound that would help. Just know that your community here cares.

  16. Hey CeeCee! Woe – it’s up already?? I wish I had more time, but I was so honored to be asked. I was planning to race home from work in time to announce it… darn! Missed that window. I’ll do a little post on it now.

  17. First, let me say I am very sorry for the pain that your pain is going through right now. But, I know that God is always present, even when we don’t see Him.
    In 1990 when I was 12 years old, my mother was diagnosed with breast cancer. She died 4 years later. She also didn’t change her diet and try to become healthier. Cancer is very prevalent in my mom’s family. I think she felt like death as a result of cancer was inevitable. Her sister died in 1984 at the young age of 39. My mom’s cancer began in her breasts, spread to her ovaries, and then metasticized everywhere. She still found a way to laugh through the hair loss, go to work, be a loving wife, be an attentive mother. Sadly, she died in 1994. I was 16 and she was 46.
    My aunt was also diagnosed with breast cancer in the early 1990′s. She has been cancer free for over 10 years. She did decide to live healthier and exercise. Her doctor is amazed that the cancer has never returned.
    I do have one piece of advice for you. When your family member talks about her cancer, don’t change the subject and try to make her laugh. Venting may very well be a coping mechanism for her. Don’t try to make her join a support group if she’s unwilling. Her shy nature may make that even more stressful. It may be better if she could make friends one at a time who have also gone through the same struggle. We don’t all cope the same way. I do, however, think you should keep trying to encourage her to adopt a healthier lifestyle. Maybe other family members can invite her over for dinner and cook a very healthy meal. Maybe they can give her fresh fruit baskets. They can invite her for an evening stroll. Anything will help.
    Take care and I pray everything works out for the best!

  18. I am planning to do the cancer blood test just in case the mammogram did not catch all possible areas.

  19. Hi everyone,

    I’m sorry if this feels a little misplaced, but we’re spreading the word that October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month and that my company, 1-800Free411 is donating $1 for every new caller in October (up to $25,000) and will go to the National Breast Cancer Coalition Fund. Please help…we have to make more progress to hit our goal!

    For all the details and to “Pass the Ribbon” about important health information to family and friends, go to http://www.Free411/pink

    My best wishes to all,
    Paul

  20. You and your family are in my thoughts and prayers. I recently had a mammogram done after my doctor felt a lump and at present things are okay but I have to return in 6 months. My dear friend is a 1 year survivor and she is such an inspiration. Blessings!

  21. That’s a terrible thing to have to experience I hope everything goes well with your relative.

  22. mistress scorpio says:

    Bella, you, your family and all the posters with stories of their own friends and families… you are all in my thoughts. I am one of the lucky ones, to have never been touched by this disease, not through friends or family. I am not naive and I know it’s just a matter of time.

  23. AFROBELLA, thank you for sharing. Please let your relative know that she has numerous people who do not even know her, praying and sending out well wishes for her recovery. I pray that even if she doesn’t extend her support circle, that she does rely upon those she loves and trusts.

  24. Here are 2 centers in Oakland that any woman (or her loved ones) can go to for support, information and understanding around cancer. My only affiliation is that I have volunteered at both.

    Womens Cancer Resource Center
    http://www.wcrc.org

    Charlotte Maxwell Complementary Clinic
    http://www.charlottemaxwell.org/

    Peace and blessings to you and your family Bella.

  25. Patrice your blog is always such a bright spot in my day. This and so many other posts have really resonated with me (and I mean, they range from the “hello kitty” post announcing max’s arrival and your affinity for german sheperds to your valued insight on hair products). My grandmother is one of the people who means the most to me and she was diagnosed this time last year. She had a mastectomy and is now doing fine. While it was all happening though, I left so far away (she’s in the states and I live in London). Also, my mother-in-law has just undergone the same procedure T.T. described (a lumpectomy and some lymph node surgery followed by chemo and now radiotherapy). I’d never been so affected by breast cancer as I have in the last 365 days. I wish nothing but strength, hope, love and light for your relative. She is lucky to have you in her life. Also, I’d like to thank T.T. for sharing her story. I’ve long had benign lumps aspirated (I’m only 27) and have had a big one for a few months now that I’ve been lax about. Because of this post, I’ve made my doctor’s appointment today to get it checked out. We women of color really do need to encourage one another to look after ourselves and take breast cancer seriously. Peace.

  26. oops: typo. I meant ‘I felt so far away.’ I know how helpless you can feel when loved ones are suffering and you aren’t physically nearby to comfort them. The phone calls and the thoughts do matter, though!

  27. Hey There,
    Please forgive me if this has already been mentioned on your blog and I have missed it, but I thought I’d spread a little unknown fact to a lot of afrobella’s out there. October is well-known as Cancer Awareness Month, however, October is also Lupus Awareness Month. Lupus is an autoimmune disease that affects various parts of the body, including the skin, joints, heart, lungs, blood, kidneys and brain. The immune system makes antibodies directed against itself. These antibodies cause inflammation, pain and damage in various parts of the body. Lupus affects nearly two million Americans. African-American women are three times more likely to get lupus than Caucasian women and are more likely to suffer worse symptoms. According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), as many as one in every 250 African-American women has lupus.
    Thought I’d share a few fashion/beauty companies that are helping the fight against Lupus. Percentages of their sales of certain products go towards lupus research. Check them out, you got a few days left in October!
    http://www.bareescentuals.com/news/BE-cares/
    http://www.carolsdaughter.com/products1.asp?dept=1078
    http://www.morgandanedesigns.com/

  28. Bella,

    Even with all of the pink products floating around in October, I have still be quite lazy about my monthly self-breast exams.
    Your blog has inspired me to make an appointment for my yearly exam and get on the good foot about checking my boobs each and every month.
    I need to care about my health more than anyone else. I don’t want to become another statistic.
    I will pray for your relative.

  29. Patrice, I am sorry to hear about your aunt. It really distresses me that in our little island more isn’t being done. Corporate sponsors really need to step it up! But take heart, the Cancer Society is trying their hardest. I am a volunteer for the Cancer Society and I know. The past month has been a flurry of activities geared towards raising funds and awareness for all things cancer related. They also do things throughout the year. We’ve been in the malls, in the supermarkets. I am blessed that no-one in my immediate family has been affected, though I have an aunt who is in remission for the past few years. Being a volunteer is a humbling and rewarding experience. Breast Cancer, and cancer in general, awareness is something that is very important to me. I am trying my hardest to get some of my students involved in the activities this month and becoming more aware. It’s a work in progress though because still here on our island, people think cancer is a bad word. You would be suprised at some of the looks I received last week while I was out there selling Dollar ribbons. I figured if I was selling sex I would get a better response. It both saddens and angers me, but I can’t let that stop me. Because the point is to make people care! and not only when they are immediately affected. I was shocked the other day to hear a co-worker the other day saying that she felt uncomfortable do a breast self-exam! WTF! It’s crazy. Anyway, I hope your aunt get all of the best treatment that she needs and finds the strength to share her story with others, it really helps. Keep up the good work and thanks for brining the issue to light. I’ll be out there again tomorrow selling ribbons and sharing information. I encourage others to volunteer and do the same!

Trackbacks

  1. [...] Spotted at AfroBella -> A must-read! Breast cancer hits very close to home. [...]

  2. [...] In October, when I wrote about breast cancer month, I got some really good comments from bellas asking about other such initatives. Where’s the diabetes month, or multiple sclerosis month? What are the colors for those? How can I support other diseases from month to month? An initiative is underway to make February and March all about your ticker. The American Heart Association’s goal is to make you “fall in love with your heart.” [...]

  3. [...] But my heart felt so full, and I wanted to talk about the unpredictability of this disease so much, I wrote this, where I wrote about her cancer without writing about her directly. She didn’t want to put her name and face out there at the time, and I respected her wishes. [...]

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