My first encounter with cancer was when I was 4 or 5 years old. My great grandma, Lois, was diagnosed with breast cancer. I remember, clearly, the conversations that were had at our family dinners, the prayer offerings for her healing at our church and the constant talk of her last holidays and last time at our family’s annual blues festival gathering. The cancer spread rapidly through her body. She left us on a windy morning in February. The loss was tough on everyone. My story isn’t particularly unique because there have been thousands of families who have been impacted by this disease. Besides my family, I have known a few others. Breast cancer awareness, funding, advocacy and the ability to diagnose has improved greatly since the late 80’s but we still have a long way to go. Many women have lost their lives but we can be a part of the change and conversations that will allow many to see more birthdays, anniversaries, graduations, and blues festivals.
Breast cancer is a crisis situation in our community. For the first time the rates of incidence are now equal to those of white women. Historically, breast cancer was deadlier in Black women than in white women but our incidence rates were lower. Currently, data is showing that breast cancer will continue to take a detrimental toll on us. If the incidence rates are increasing and our death rates were already higher, we will see more lives lost from this disease. The picture is dark. Breast cancer diagnosis and treatment have evolved over time but those advancements have leapt over us. Money from the breast cancer fundraising efforts every October do not make it in the hands of researchers who are working, tirelessly towards eliminating the burden for women of color. Statistics show that Black women who are diagnosed with breast cancer are much younger than white women and die younger too. We have the disadvantage but it doesn’t need to remain that way.
What can we do? We can learn to share everything happening with us, medically,with our doctors. If something doesn’t feel right, say so! You are not going to shock your doctor. Believe me, they have heard everything. Their job is to take care of you. If you feel if they are not doing an adequate job of doing that, get rid of them. Plain and simple. If there has been a change to your breast or you are noticing discharge and you are not breastfeeding, those are things to talk to your doctor about. Let them feel and touch your breasts and answer all of your questions. Make a list if that will help. Conducting a self breast exam is a useful way to find irregularities and detect breast cancer early. Over 40 percent of diagnosed breast cancers are detected by women who feel a lump, proving that feeling yourself up is crucial. Breasts can be screened in the shower, in the mirror or laying on your bed. They are your breasts, touch them. The National Breast Cancer Foundation, Inc. recommends self breast screenings should be done once a month. You can even have your partner help you out :).
Knowing your risk is important. Certain women have a higher risk, regardless of race. Many women experience symptoms before being diagnosed with early breast cancer. Talk to your doctor if you have these risk factors:
- Your parents or siblings were diagnosed with breast or ovarian cancer before they were 45.
- You have been told you have dense breasts on a mammogram.
- You have had previous radiation therapy to the chest before age 30.
If the lack of insurance or money is the issue, there are programs that can help. The National Breast and Cervical Cancer Early Detection Program (NBCCEDP) has provided low-income, uninsured, and underserved women access to timely breast and cervical cancer screening and diagnostic services. Find out if you can qualify here!
Breast cancer took the life of the woman who had a larger than life personality, with a no-nonsense attitude, an eye for fashion, a music fanatic who had, hands down, one of the most beautiful smiles I had ever seen. Breast cancer robbed me and the other women in my family the opportunity to know someone who would have smothered us with wisdom, love and an incredible intelligence for investing and business. I was robbed of knowing my great grandmother. I was robbed of knowing my beautiful mother in law too. Let’s have open dialogues with our doctors, survivors and spread awareness to protect ourselves and our future.