Normally I like to keep things positive and uplifting, light and fluffy over here on Afrobella. I see my blog as a respite, an oasis, a safe space. And it is in this safe space that I’m going to share my story even if some of this is TMI. My TMI could help someone else. Here’s what my last month or so has been like behind the scenes. This is why you may have noticed less posts on my blog lately. Here goes.
Here’s how it all began.
I take really good care of my skin. As I’ve grown older, I’ve become obsessed with body creams and oils and face moisturizers. Trust and believe that my situation is moisturized with the best of products, from head to toe every day. So when I started to have super dry, flaky skin around my areola, I was very confused. I tried new lotions, new creams, new body butters, new oils. Nothing seemed to really make a difference and make the problem go away. I told myself that it was because of the long, cold, dry winter we were having. Seasonal eczema or something, I told myself. I let this go on for months, until I finally said enough is enough. Let’s go find out what this is all about.
I turned 35 on March 8, and it’s kind of like a mental switch flipped inside me. I talked about this in my 10 Realizations About Being In Your Thirties post – in this bracket of life, you start thinking of things differently and having realizations about yourself, your life, your long terms goals and your health that wouldn’t have occurred to you with such gravity and impetus in your twenties. Anyway, long story short – I turned 35 and started getting serious about stuff I usually put off or don’t want to think about. Like going to the doctor. I didn’t have a Primary Care Physician and I’d been meaning to find one. Plus this itchy skin problem was frustrating and upsetting me, and making me feel self conscious and unattractive. Not the biz. Plus, in the back of my mind I remembered that my Aunty Gemma’s breast cancer symptoms began with itching that she ignored for years. So on my birthday I decided to make a doctor’s appointment. I found a women’s clinic in the neighborhood and scheduled my visit. Here’s where my diary begins.
March 11 – I went to the doctor’s office today – it was such a pleasant surprise to find an all-black women’s clinic in downtown Chicago! As soon as I met the doctor, I felt comfortable. I removed my clothing while she inspected me and asked questions about my condition. I told her about the dry skin and the itching, and she looked closely at the problem area. She was frowning a little as she investigated. “I’m not as concerned about that as I am about this,” she said, indicating what I thought was just a small under-the-skin zit on my chest. “How long have you had this?” I was embarrassed to tell her that I’d been ignoring it for weeks. “I want you to get a mammogram,” she said. “Have you ever had one before?” I hadn’t. I just turned 35! Mammograms were for women in their 40’s or 50’s, right? “Which hospital would be better for you? Northwestern or Rush? Both are great. Rush is nearer and you’re more likely to get an appointment soon.” From the moment she said “I want you to get a mammogram,” I felt a veil of stress come over me. I came to this doctor’s office, expecting to get a diagnosis for some kind of ointment. A special body wash. Something topical. I didn’t expect to stroll in here and leave with an anvil of worry and a list of instructions to walk out with.
I left the doctor’s office with a referral to the Rush Breast Imaging Center, and directions on how to make my mammogram appointment. I got an appointment for March 15th.
Like I mentioned, I don’t have much of a family history of breast cancer, except for my Aunty Gemma, who ignored warning signs for years. Her first symptoms were itchy feelings she couldn’t ignore. I kept thinking of her and what she’s been through, how cancer has affected her life. Aunty Gemma’s in her 70’s now. I didn’t want to imagine experiencing all of that at my age, or at any age. That evening when my husband came home, I told him what was going on. He held me and reassured me and let me feel my feelings. “It’s just a closer look to make sure everything’s OK, babe. It’s gonna be alright.” I knew he was right, but I couldn’t shake the worry off me.
March 12 to 14 – I can be a space cadet, a daydreamer and a worrier under normal circumstances – I’m a Pisces. Under these circumstances, I went deep into my feelings. I found myself struggling with my writing, drifting off into clouds of worry. And through it all, I had to try to meet deadlines and have business calls and go to lunch meetings. I wanted to tell my family what was going on and that I was worried about the doctor sending me for a mammogram, but ultimately I decided not to. I FaceTime with my parents regularly, and on the day I planned to tell them both, my dad looked fine but my mom wasn’t feeling well and was lying on the bed, about to take a nap. Given my mother’s history of high blood pressure, I decided to keep my burden to myself. I decided not to tell anyone in my family, because I didn’t want them to worry. I did share it with my friend Felicia Leatherwood – besides being an amazing hairstylist and natural hair guru, she’s one of the wisest and most experienced people I know. Felicia helped to get my mind right about what was going on. “Maybe you’re supposed to go through this. Maybe sharing your story will save someone’s life,” she said. That’s all I can hope for.
March 15 – Mammogram Day. An otherwise beautiful Saturday with blue skies over Chicago. And here we were – my husband and I – heading to Rush Breast Imaging Center. I couldn’t eat that morning. I didn’t even wear eye makeup because I knew I’d just cry it all off. When I got to the lobby I filled out the requisite paperwork and sat there feeling numb, holding my husband’s hand until they called me in. It didn’t take long. I went to the changing room where I was given a pink dressing gown that stopped at the hip. I could keep my jeans and shoes on. I had followed the detailed list of rules – no lotions, no perfumes, no deodorant, no painkillers besides Tylenol because of the risk of blood thinning, no glucosamine or joint supplements. I felt self conscious. Worried about body odor. Sad. I changed and went to the other waiting room, and then I was called to the imaging room.
The nurse in the imaging room was no-nonsense. She said she’d been working there for 30 years and she’d seen it all. She showed me where to stand in front of the mammogram machine. She would raise my arm, position my breast, and the machine would clamp down on me to hold it in position. I had heard that mammograms were painful, but I didn’t KNOW. Now I know. Mammograms hurt. I tried to just be stoic and cry quietly. I found myself wondering if breast size was related to mammogram pain. There were moments when putting the vice on me made me audibly sob, even when I had steeled myself not to make a sound. I felt sad and confused and scared. I wasn’t supposed to be here, in a pink hospital gown with my breast in a vice. I was supposed to be in Paris, at a fabulous natural hair event with my friends. But that fell through and then this happened. Why did it have to be this way? How did this happen to me? All of those thoughts were swirling though my head.
There was a screen in the background of the mammogram room, of things that are supposed to keep you calm. Gentle waterfalls, babbling brooks, flowers swaying in the mountain breeze, stuff like that. My favorite image was of a herd of fuzzy donkeys, nestled under a tree in the wilderness. When the pain got to be too much, I just kept staring at the screen and trying to imagine myself there, in the forest, surrounded by them.
After my mammogram, I sat in the patient waiting room for a while. One of the patients waiting with me was an elderly woman from a small town near Joliet. She said even though there were hospitals nearer to her home, she came all the way to Rush because their service is the best. She said she knew of patients who came from Indiana and St. Louis, just to go to Rush. That made me feel somewhat reassured.
Then the sweet elderly woman got dressed and left. It was St. Patrick’s Day in downtown Chicago and she was wearing head to toe green, ready to see the green river and to eat corned beef sandwiches at Manny’s Deli. The nurse called me back into the mammogram room, and told me that the doctor wasn’t satisfied with what he saw in my mammogram, and he wanted to do an ultrasound.
For the ultrasound, the nurse handed me over to the doctor. We went to a different room for the procedure and I had to lie down instead of stand before a machine. The doctor applied a warm gel before beginning the ultrasound and then began trying to look for the issue he had noticed. It turns out that the original issue that brought me to Rush wasn’t even the issue he was concerned about. My first doctor had been worried about a smaller bump that was much closer to the surface. This doctor was concerned about a bigger mass that was deeper inside my other breast. He dismissed the small bump as a concern that could be dealt with clinically, but he was worried about this deeper, larger mass. “I want you to come back in so we can do a needle biopsy on this,” he said. I left feeling shattered and scared of what was to come.
March 17 – I went to NYC for a panel with Glam Media. I was proud of myself for being able to participate and be focused when on the inside I didn’t feel that way.
March 18 – I came back home to Chicago that evening. I felt like I was going through the motions.
March 19 – Finally my first full day back in Chicago. I called my first doctor’s office to discuss what was happening. She said “I know it’s easier said than done, but try not to worry.” I had to call my parents to let them know my trip to New York went well. FaceTime with my parents was difficult, because when I’m sad you can look at me and tell. So I’d call them when I was distracted with something else or when I knew they’d be out and about (because sometimes we FaceTime from the car, my mom answers while dad is driving). I really didn’t want my mom to be worried. I didn’t tell anyone else in my family because I didn’t want word to get around. I couldn’t risk someone saying something to someone else (and that DOES happen). It was tough, but I made the decision with my husband’s support, not to tell anyone anything until we had results one way or another. That went for my family and for his. That was tough.
March 20 – I was finally able to announce that I was part of the Urban Decay electric palette campaign and share my looks online. I was so grateful and excited to be part of this campaign – I mean, honestly. Who would ever have thought someone like me from Trinidad, who grew up reading magazines and yearning to even buy or try makeup of department store caliber, would grow up to literally BE in the campaign for a brand like Urban Decay? It was such a personal highlight, but the emotions around it were so muted by what I was going through. On March 20 I found out that my needle biopsy was scheduled for April 1. April’s fools.
March 22 – I went to the Red Pump Project’s Rock the Red fashion show and it was really good to get out of my apartment and out of my head for a little bit. Being surrounded by friends and inspired by beautiful fashion lifted my spirits a lot.
March 30 – I went to Baltimore for the Oyin Handmade launch party and it was so awesome. I had the best time and was able to truly forget my worries for the night.
April 1 – Biopsy. My husband is the best. He took the day off work to take me to my appointment! I wish I could say I was stoic and hardcore in the face of this procedure. I wasn’t. I was on the brink of a panic attack. I put on my bravest face while waiting in my pink robe. After all, I’d been here before. I asked a woman in the waiting room to take a photo of me because I planned to write about all of this.
Right after she took this, I pretty much burst into tears. The lady in the waiting room was really sweet and we talked a bit about what I was feeling – she’d been here and done this before, and now she was here again, this time waiting for her daughter while she had an ultrasound. There was something reassuring about talking to other women who knew how it all felt.
I was called away to a room way down the hall, past the mammogram and ultrasound rooms I knew. The nurse was very sweet, maternal, and concerned. I had been told I could bring headphones and listen to music to distract myself, and I put on my Sunday Bubblebath playlist to try to relax. The doctor used a local anesthetic, like they do at the dentist. I can’t say I felt much pain during the biopsy, but I’d liken the experience to being stapled, or hole punched. There is an audible click and pressure when your doctor extracts the tissue he needs. That must be what a piece of paper would feel like. The doctor showed me the samples they were extracting, and they looked like tiny reddish worms in a container of solution. I listened to Adele and tried to tune it out.
The nurse was so caring, so maternal. After the procedure was over, she taped me up, covered the wound with gauze, gave me thorough instructions on my self care for the next 7 to 10 days. That day I had to wear an ice pack in my bra for 6 hours and then use ice packs alternatively for the next 20 hours. I spent the day lying on the couch. I was so, so grateful my husband had taken the day off. I could have gone through it alone if I had to, but having someone to just be there, taking care of me made it all so much better.
April 4 – Friday. My husband took the day off to be home with me when we got the results. I couldn’t eat, my stomach was in knots. I read Psalm 20 over and over again. At 12:30, I called my doctor and put the phone on speaker. “Hey, I have GREAT news for you!” he said. “But first – what’s your birthday?” When he said the word benign, my husband hugged me and we both cried a little. Benign is SUCH a beautiful word!! The stress cloud lifted immediately. I felt like I had taken off a backpack made of bricks. And then, only then, did I call my family to tell them what had happened and that all was well. My mom was dismayed and sad that I didn’t tell her the whole time, so she could have been praying for me. But I explained that besides praying, I knew she’d be worried sick. Literally. I hate keeping secrets from my family but she understood. And she was so happy to know that all was well.
April 5 – I left for Atlanta to be the official red carpet correspondent at the United Negro College Fund’s Evening of Stars and it felt SO good to go in the knowledge that I was healthy and fine!
It is April 10 and my last piece of tape fell off this morning. The skin underneath is smooth and undisturbed, like nothing ever happened. It finally feels OVER.
Many women get false positive results in mammograms, Komen has a great post on it here and according to this report on ABC News, 60% of abnormal mammograms are negative (according to stats from the Annals of Family Medicine). I’m absolutely not the only woman who went through all of this and was benign the whole time.
My husband feels some kinda way about all of this, seeing as the end result was just extreme stress and worry, tears and a hospital bill. His point is, if my initial issue had been diagnosed as not a big deal, then I wouldn’t have had the mammogram, the second mass wouldn’t have been found, and it was benign the whole time so life would have just gone on as normal. I would be none the wiser and I’d still be fine. I totally understand why he sees it that way…but I see it differently. I can’t say that I’m glad that I had a breast cancer scare and endured all of that stress. I can’t say that I’m glad I had the experience at all, but it put a whole lot in perspective. It reinforced that I need to take better care of myself. It made me appreciate my life, my mortality in a whole different way. It was a kind of wake up call.
What did I learn?
- I learned that sickness doesn’t care what your schedule is. You see that diary up above – I had made commitments for blog posts and appearances. I still had to meet those commitments. I didn’t want to tell many people what was going on, so I still had to hold my head up and smile through it all. If I can do it, so can you. There’s an inner wellspring of strength that you’ll discover, that you never knew you had.
- It’s important to listen to your gut instinct. If you’ve got a bump or mark on your skin that seems weird or new – don’t ignore it. Don’t brush away your worries. Your doctor isn’t free but your doctor is your friend. Sound health and peace of mind is worth it.
- If you’re going through something super heavy and you feel like it’s pulling you down, know that you’re NOT alone. You have to go through it and feel your feelings, but it helps to not dwell in the darkness. It’s so important to have a support group and people to talk to and hug you. It’s essential.
Have you ever had to deal with something like this? Are you a breast cancer survivor? Please share your story with me. Who knows, maybe sharing our stories will save someone else.