HBO’s Yvonne Orji Sheds Light on Racial Disparities in TNBC

Yvonne Orji, actress and comedian from HBO’s “Insecure” discussed the racial disparities for Black women who receive a diagnosis of triple-negative breast cancer.

Yvonne Orji’s first experience with breast cancer was when she was 17 years old – she had found a lump in her breast. After getting it surgically removed, she learned that it was benign.

“It's scary because you're a senior in high school and you're like, ‘I could have had breast cancer.’ Thankfully, it was benign, but it's still kind of this thing of every once in a while, I'm like, still feeling there,” the comedian said. Although she has plenty of movies and TV shows dotting her resume, Orji is better known for her role as Molly Carter on the HBO series “Insecure.”

She wasn’t always on track to become a comedian/actress, however. In fact, Orji started her career by going to medical school, which eventually fast tracked to public health.

It’s this background that led to a recent partnership with Merck and a new program called “Uncovering TNBC,” which works to shed light on the experiences that Black women face when diagnosed with triple-negative breast cancer (TNBC).

Here, CURE® spoke further with Orji on the program, as well as what viewers can do after watching.

CURE®: How are you using your platform to raise awareness for the disparities surrounding TNBC?

Orji: One thing that was super helpful when I partnered with Merck was that I didn't know what TNBC was. I had no idea that there was a different strain of breast cancer that was very aggressive, and disproportionately affected black women. And so I was just like, “Oh, wait, if I don't know, how many other people don't know?” And so, we talk about using my platform, it is just about the same way that I got the awareness, using my platform to be like, “Hey, there's this other thing that affects us, guys. So not only am I suggesting that you get your regular checkups but ask questions when you do go to get your checkup about this.” Or “Hey, here's this website, ‘Uncovering TNBC.’ See if there are any resources there that you can use when you go to ask your questions. We have a guide that you can use to take with your doctor or take to your doctor's appointment so that you're not caught off guard, like ‘I don’t know what to ask’” We got y'all. Okay? And so, that's how I think we spread awareness. Just even having the conversation is spreading awareness and using my platform to do that. And so for me, I think it was a beautiful partnership, whereby, they can they can inform me of things that I didn't know, and I can inform other people of things that they maybe didn't know, either.

How did you find out about TNBC?

Merck approached me, and when they told me this, obviously, they know that my background is in public health, and I was taken aback about the things that I didn't know. … When I discovered (the program), and (Merck) told me that they were these three amazing women that they were going to be featuring on this documentary. … Not only were they battling TNBC, but they were looking at ways to help women battle it in ways that make it easier for them as they experience it in ways that weren't made easy for them. And I'm just like, “Wait, you really could just been focusing on healing, but you're just like, ‘No, no, as I'm receiving my healing, but I want to make sure that the woman that comes behind me doesn't have to experience either lack of information or a health care professional that kind of dismissing them in the queue. No, here's how you can be your own advocate.’” And just like that, that's just so amazing, but at the same time, it is so exhausting, because it's like Black women, we can't even just be sick. Like it's just not enough for us to just be going through some things, like no, we have to use this as a teachable moment. It's like (politician) Stacey Abrams couldn't just run, she now has to be like, “Well, I got to be an advocate for everybody and voter discrimination.” That is like…wow, like most people just get to be politicians. Now you have to be a politician and advocate and there's so many like compound words that go with just being a Black woman. And I think that was what was so fascinating as well as just tiring, if I'm being honest, with these women's stories, because it's time out for these disparities. We're tired of them. We want the same basic rights as every other American and it is our right as Americans to have them. Why are we still telling you that our pain is valid? Why are we still telling you to listen to us when we tell you we're in pain? Why are we still telling you to give us the time in these sessions, in these meetings, to walk us through what our options are so that we don't feel so alone?

What can viewers expect from the series?

You’re going to hear the stories of three amazing powerful women who all were shocked to discover that they had TNBC and what it meant for them, for their families. I mean, we have people who were in their early 30s, and just (were) like, “This wasn't supposed to happen to me right now,” or like, “What do I do with this?” You have people who were mothers with grown kids dealing with it and also just like I said, the challenges that they faced, whether it be speaking or talking to their health care professional and feeling that they were heard, feeling like they got all the information and what it looks like to be an advocate for yourself. These women said, “You know what, I am going to seek a second opinion and a third, whatever it takes for me to get the answers that feel right for me, I'm going to do that.” And so often we feel like we have to just accept what's given to us and it's like, no, we don't, because we deserve best. We deserve better than anything that is just given to us. So yeah, we will advocate for ourselves, we will ask the questions, we will have you annoyed with us. Whatever it takes. And these are women who were not afraid, who kind of even in their fear of whatever the diagnosis was, where they were not afraid to be their first advocate, they were not afraid to seek community and to seek assistance when it wasn't given to them from the people that you would expect it to be given to them from.

What is your main goal from the series?

I think for me, the goal is to make people aware. I think we can't discount awareness because again once you hear a thing, once you know a thing, you can't unknow it. You can't unlearn it. It's like my degree; I graduated in 2008. I can't unlearn the things that I learned, and so I think the more aware people are that there is this one disparity, but there is this other very aggressive form of breast cancer that affects Black women disproportionately, it's like “Hey, listen up, this thing is out there, so now what am I going to do with all of this awareness?” So that's like step two, but at least step one is like “Hey, this is a thing, here are some resources.” And if all you do is go to the website or have a conversation like, “Did y’all know there was a thing called TNBC?” That's how things spread. You just have a casual conversation with your girlfriends: “Hey, I didn't even know there was a TNBC, that's wild.” If nothing else, it lives in your subconscious and then a couple years later, you hear another conversation that’s like, “My friend told me about this thing a long time ago.” It's just word of mouth. Now, it doesn't feel so shocking because you're like, “Oh my God, this is that thing that so-and-so said about – what was that website? Okay, well let me get some more information.” And I think that's how awareness really either leads to early diagnosis or letting people know that you're not alone. You're not alone. You are not alone.

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