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After being diagnosed with breast cancer, I learned more about the disparities that Black women with the disease face.
For a Black woman, a diagnosis of breast cancer is a death sentence. Statistically, black women are 41% more likely to die from breast cancer, according to the American Cancer Society. For me, the diagnosis was a rebirth — a reality check that gave me a whole new perspective on who I was, who I could be, and the role I believed I could play in the world.
I was in my early 20s, having the time of my life. I was pursuing my dream as an aspiring comedian. I became well connected in a city I love, I was in love. I worked my way into the life I dreamed of in NYC.
My father passed away in 2004, and his death shook me to my core, I felt alone. My mother was living, she and I have had a rocky relationship for years.
This was the perfect time for me to go for it —make a name for myself and move to Los Angeles. This is also the year I found out I had breast cancer. I was staying at the Roosevelt Hotel, having the time of my life! Hanging with celebrities, hitting the parties and brunching in the midafternoon. Everything was going my way... I knew about breast cancer, of course, and had heard about the toll that it takes on black women. But I never thought it would happen to me.
I was lounging at the pool, sipping on a margarita and I rubbed my breast, adjusted my bikini top and felt a bump; I immediately started to feel all round my breast and it was clear: there was a bump, for sure. I couldn’t believe it and kept feeling all around while I was trying to look like I was enjoying myself. But there was a bump insidemy breast.
When the party stopped at the pool, I went inside my room and checked again, and I noticed it was red maybe from the touching. I called my radiologist the following day. But being from the East Coast, my doctors were in New York. He asked,“when can you fly back to New York?” I said ASAP! I was familiar with radiologists because in the 9th grade, I had a surgery to remove a benign mass and was told and taught to give self-exams.
Once I arrived at the airport, my world started to shrink slowly, for whatever reason (other than a lump being on my breast) I knew something was wrong; I knew I was up against something but just didn't know the magnitude. The feeling I had was just to get to the next day.
After getting my mammogram, the radiologist wanted more images and then a sonogram, all done inside the office, the same day. I was flat on the table and Isaid, "Can we biopsy the lump?” He was totally against the thought. I was told I was too young.But I wanted to do it and I pushed and wouldn't take no for an answer. So we did the biopsy.
My boyfriend and I went to lunch and while we were sitting there eating, the cell rang, and it was the doctor's office. "Hello" the first thing Isaid was, "I have cancer?!" "Yes, you do."
When the words sunk in for the moment,I felt all the normal emotions: fear, anger, denial. At first, I wanted to run away from the diagnosis. I wanted to fly back to LA and forget but I couldn't because the doctor was a friend of my boyfriend, and we were directed immediately to meet with an oncologist.
We were told the oncologist was waiting for us. At that moment I knew this was serious — more serious than I could ever imagine. There was a car on hand, and we jumped in car and drove to the oncologist.At this point, I was numb. I didn't have any thoughts; I was just along for the ride. I wanted the oncologist to tell me that the radiologist was wrong and there was a big mistake. I wanted to jump on the next flight and call my friends once I landed and tell them it was a close call but I'm alright.
When we arrived and I was walking through the office to meet with the doctor, I witnessed chairs with machines hooked to them.The rooms were private and looked cold and isolated. It was no place for a 29-year-old who was full of life, waiting to get a big break on stage making people laugh. I did not want to be there for any reason.
The doctor's actual office was cluttered with awards and family photos, degree after degree on the wall. We started talking, and he was asking me about my background while looking over the stack of paper in front of him. I couldn't believe that in such a short time all this paperwork about me was with him. My boyfriend was right by my side and the doctor became quiet reading my chart, flipping the papers, everything the radiologist sent over.
He looked up at me and he said, "If you don't do chemo you are cooked."There was silence in the room. I didn't know what “cooked” really meant but it didn't sound good.
In that moment, I straightened up and mustered up all the confidence I had, and I told this man who has never met me before and really didn't know anything about me, I didn't care what he was reading. I am a child of God and I do believe that the holy spirit came over me so to this award-winning, 10,000-degrees-having doctorI said, "Only God knows my expiration date." I Looked over to my boyfriend and I said I'm ready to go.
The doctor quickly started explaining his position. He wanted me to know that I was in trouble and needed to take care of myself immediately. He gave us his directions and we expressed our concerns. After our talk, we said thank you and walked out of the office. Driving down the street there was silence in the car. My hand was on the seat and my boyfriend's hand was on the side of his seat and I felt warmth, he put his hand on top of mind but didn't say a word. Tears started to flow from my eyes down my cheek — I couldn't help it. I couldn't stop my tears from flowing and I said my voice cracking "I don't want to die ''
The biggest concern is that I was moved to the west coast. I couldn't care for myself on the west coast with no one. My boyfriend and I were on rocky ground, loving one another and not knowing what's going on with us before this happened. I moved to LA to become a star, not to get diagnosed with cancer at the age of 29! This was a nightmare!
The oncologist was clear that I needed to move fast if I was going to do the chemo treatment. I asked if I could return to LA and get my thoughts together. The answer was yes, try to make up your mind within 30 days.
I packed my bags and headed back to LA; I was in such a state I don't remember boarding the plane. I don't remember how I got from the airport to the hotel. I made a hair appointment subconsciously anticipating some type of treatment and I wouldn't have to do my hair. I was so scared about what chemo would do to me emotionally, physically, mentally. I had my girlfriend braid my hair.
As I was leaving the shop, I saw a sign and this sign spoke to me as my father would have spoken to me. It was a sign from my father that I only would have understood. My father worked for General Motors and there was the GM logo and under the logo it read "Take care of your car like you take care of you." That was the sign. I had to do chemo! I wasn't crazy about cars or anything like that. It was the "Take care of you." That was it.
In a manner I would later learn is typical of Black women who are diagnosed with breast cancer, I hoped that God and faith would see me through. But once I decided to do the treatment, I was unstoppable. (I DIDN'T want to die) I was so scared that I couldn’t focus on the cancer, I was focused on getting the cancer out of my body. I made a choice: my choice I wanted to live, and this is what I focused on.
I didn’t run away from the cancer; I ran toward it. When it was time for my radiation treatment, which was located in the basement of Mount Sinai, I saw a picture in the “New York Times” of a group of women dressed in pink, marching for breast cancer awareness. I felt numb, angry, love and safe — all these emotions in a matter of seconds. This is when the first time I asked God,“Why me?”
I wrote in the “New York Times” “PinkChoseMe” (one word). I looked at it and I felt strong, I felt like I could beat it. There was a woman in the waiting room, she was with her husband, and he had cancer and wasn’t in good shape. I would read the newspaper to her, and she would tell me about her plants in Greece and how she missed them, but she needed to be with her dying husband. Our conversations saved each other. She needed to talk about something other than her reality and me listening and reading to her took me out of my reality. But what I also learned about cancer and how it was affecting women all over the world.
That was the moment the nonprofit, PinkChoseMe, was createdto support young women of color and women living with breast cancer in underserved communities.
Through that process, I was reborn. I learned how to advocate for myself with doctors. I learned how to walk into a room full of powerful people and engage them as equals. I learned how to experience true joy instead of smiling through my pain. And I learned what it meant to truly take care of myself from the inside out.
I also learned about the factors that drive the vastly poorer outcomes for black women who are diagnosed with breast cancer.For example, a smaller percentage of Black women with breast cancer attend follow-up appointments compared to White women. Usually when we receive our diagnosis, we are sent home to manage by ourselves without any further support. My diagnosis led me to get more deeply in touch with my culture and think critically about the lessons we are taught about our bodies, our culture patterns, and our power.
I refused to put my head in the sand and gave up, I held my head high, was diagnosed twice after my first diagnosis.but I am still here and I'm not going anywhere.
This post was written and submitted by Tiffany Jones. The article reflects the views of Tiffany Jones and not of CURE®. This is also not supposed to be intended as medical advice.
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