On October 20, I celebrated four years of survivorship/thrivership. I celebrated four years of being cancer-free.
My cancer diagnosis story is not unlike many other women like me. I was a typical, multi-tasking, miracle-working, taking-care-of-everyone superhero Black woman and went to the doctor for my annual checkup. It was there, in the most unexpected of surprises, that I was diagnosed with Stage 3A Triple Negative Breast Cancer, the most aggressive breast cancer sub-type. It represents about 15% of breast cancers and currently, there are no targeted therapies, making recurrence more prevalent and the mortality rate significantly higher.
And, it affects Black women at three times the rate.
The next steps were terrifying ones. I had a double mastectomy, chemotherapy and underwent radiation. In my first meeting with my oncologist, she said I would probably only live for 2 years. At the time, my youngest daughter was a sophomore at Dartmouth. I told my doctor that she, I and God would have to work something out because I not only wanted to see Hayley graduate, but I also had to work and pay for it. Somehow, I needed to make it through.
By the grace of God and my doctors, I watched my daughter graduate and her sister, Link Amanda Brown, recently marry.
But my recovery wasn’t all in hospitals and healthcare facilities. My faith, the support of family and my sista friends carried me through. I had to find peace in my life.
I did that by getting rid of all the cancers in my life, not just the one in my breast. I quit my life and started a new one by divorcing my husband of 30 years, separating from my business partners of 10 years, selling my house in the suburbs and moving to the beach. I started my own business between by 3 rounds of chemo. My prayer closet is on my paddleboard on the Chesapeake Bay. And, my peace is non-negotiable.
My personal hashtags are #WalkingInBlessings and #TriplePositive. Though I am blessed and doing well, other Black women are not as fortunate, and it’s certainly not for lack of their own faith or will. Here are some very troubling statistics. According to the American Cancer Society, Breast Cancer incidence has increased 23 percent for whites and 35 percent for African Americans. Breast Cancer mortality has decreased 34 percent for whites and only 2 percent for African Americans. 33 percent of breast cancers in Black women occur UNDER the age of 50 compared to 21 percent in white women.
African American women are diagnosed at later stages. And African American women are three times more likely to have Triple Negative Breast Cancer, the more aggressive form that I had.
According to the CDC, Breast Cancer is the most commonly diagnosed cancer among African American women. Black women under age 35 have rates of breast cancer two times higher and die three times as often as Caucasian women under age 35. Black women are on average three to seven years younger than white women when diagnosed. For women ages 45–64 years, the breast cancer death rate is 60 percent higher for Black women than white women.
This new guidance of moving the age to get our first mammogram to age 45 or 50, will cause the numbers above to increase. If we look at this latest set of guidelines in light of what we know about black women and breast cancer, we can only expect more deaths from breast cancer in our community.
So what can we do?
We can support the Black Women’s Health Imperative that continues to support beginning breast screening at age 40. And, as a collective group, we must let our voices be heard! Go to the American Cancer Society Facebook page with your concerns. Call your congressional leaders to voice your concerns.
Also, I tell everyone I know to check the breasts that you love; I know you have a pair. Begin monthly breast self-exams starting at age 20. Get a clinical breast exam by a trained medical professional every 2-3 years beginning at age 20 and annually after age 40. Get a mammogram every one to two years beginning at age 35 (earlier and more frequently if you have a family history).
And lastly, we don’t always have to be super heroes. Listen to the direction of flight attendants, put the mask on yourself first. Take a pause for yourself every day and find peace in your life.
Ricki Fairley is the president of Dove Marketing, a marketing agency with a mission to deliver iconic thinking, strategic problem solving and creative genius to clients seeking profitable business results.. You can follow her on Twitter here.