This story is featured in the September/October issue of ESSENCE, available on newsstands now.
At the age of 37, I was initiated into a sisterhood that I didn’t choose.
At the time, I was working in the New York City area, building a successful career in media. Then, on a hot summer day in 2019, everything changed. I felt a lump in my right breast and was subsequently diagnosed with stage 2B, triple-negative breast cancer. It’s an aggressive subtype that disproportionately affects Black women.
From the very beginning, when fear of mortality was omnipresent, Jamie Terry, M.D. — a breast surgeon with Texas Breast Specialists in Houston — looked me firmly in the eye and reassured me that I’d be okay. From then on, I had faith in God and the plan my doctor recommended. I trusted her completely and knew I would survive.
She referred me to an oncofertility specialist to retrieve and preserve my eggs. Then I proceeded with an aggressive regimen of chemotherapy. While I was undergoing treatment, a medical genetic test would confirm that I had the BRCA1 gene mutation, which increases a person’s risk for breast and ovarian cancers. With that information, Terry was in favor of my having both breasts removed and reconstructed; and my oncologist, Gurjyot Doshi, M.D., of Texas Oncology, recommended extracting my ovaries and fallopian tubes. I underwent each of the suggested procedures, and I’ve been in remission since 2020.
However, my breast cancer journey is not over. In addition to praying for no recurrence, I’m managing the side effects that came with my treatment. While my uterus is still intact, after having my ovaries removed I entered medically induced menopause at age 40.
Every day I’m visited by surges of intense heat that overwhelm my body. Looking for relief, I find myself running to the freezer to stick my head inside; I also fan myself like a seasoned saint in a Southern Baptist church. Some may not understand that these very uncomfortable hot flashes trigger a roller coaster of feelings, thoughts and reminders. I am a 40-year-old breast cancer survivor without children and unmarried, after filing for divorce during the most eye-opening time in my life. I’ve learned to manage the emotions of what I’ve been through by undergoing psychotherapy, embracing self-care and traveling.
While that’s my story, I’ve discovered in these past two years that survivorship looks different for everyone. In December 2020, for example, after an initial misdiagnosis of a rare form of breast cancer, Chicago native Se’Nita Harris was correctly diagnosed with stage 2 triple-negative breast cancer. She underwent treatment, which took a toll on her physical and mental health. While Harris was going through all this, her mother, Felicia, died.
“On top of grieving for myself, I was grieving for my mother—so I had to deal with everything that life threw at me in addition to the diagnosis,” she recalls. “There was no time to heal, because life just kept on happening.”
That’s the harsh reality. Life doesn’t stop when a woman is dealing with breast cancer or while she’s confronting the impact of her experience after the fact. The challenging part is trying to maintain a sense of normalcy while grieving the loss of loved ones, body parts or, for me, a marriage.
“Having had both of my breasts cut off and replaced in my forties was tough,” says Vina Morris, a two-time breast cancer survivor and founder of the breast cancer awareness organization AfroPink. “I have body dysmorphia and real anxiety about how I look. I am learning to shed my former self-image, love my body all over again and embrace the new me. My diagnoses have taught me to be grateful and to appreciate living in the moment, while focusing on a healthier lifestyle. I eliminated things that weren’t important to me—and I started AfroPink to educate Black and Brown communities about the realities of breast cancer.”
Like Morris, Harris was also prompted to reevaluate her life when faced with her diagnosis. She shifted her career path to pursue what felt like more purposeful work, becoming the multicultural marketing manager at Susan G. Komen and focusing on health equity. With the cancer now in remission, she has created a lifestyle of harmony and peace, through the principles of Ayurveda—an ancient Indian practice that takes a natural and holistic approach to physical and mental health.
Today there are more than 168,000 women in the U.S. living with metastatic, or stage 4, breast cancer. Deltra James, a mother of five daughters, is also a For the Breast of Us Baddie Ambassador, increasing the visibility of and support for women of color affected by breast cancer. She experienced significant physical trauma from her treatments but has successfully reached the “NED”—no evidence of disease—stage. “I gravitate toward the word ‘thriver,’” the 36-year-old wrote in an Instagram post, “but I suppose I am surviving cancer as long as I have breath.”
For James, her NED status is a win that deserves to be celebrated, though women who experience metastatic breast cancer typically don’t ring an “end of treatment” bell. While James acknowledges that the NED stage can be “a pit stop along the cancer journey,” she remains optimistic that the ongoing treatment she receives will continue to work. She, like all breast cancer survivors and “thrivers,” can’t predict what tomorrow will bring. But many are united in hope, strength, courage and faith. “Part of my self-care is not allowing the uncertain and uncontrollable future to steal my joy,” James explains. “I can quiet my fears about death and live to see another day.”
Lyndsay Levingston is a multimedia host and writer based in Houston. The two-year breast cancer survivor is the founder and executive director of breast cancer awareness nonprofit SurviveHER.