You think you know, but you have no idea. One day you’re living your best life, and then just like that, you receive the most devastating news: “You have breast cancer.”
Life is never the same.
That was a reality for Tiara Neal. At the age of 33, she had a successful career in TV production working on projects like the dreamy bridal gown show on the TLC Network, Say Yes to the Dress.
Neal was relaxing with her significant other when the pair discovered a small pebble-like mass on the outside of her right breast. (Approximately 18 percent of breast cancers are discovered on accident by a partner or spouse, according to a National Health Interview Survey.) A series of mammography exams revealed the mass was malignant – Stage 1 invasive ductal carcinoma. Neal had a bilateral mastectomy and breast reconstruction, and would move on with her life as a survivor.
Four years later, her intuition told her that something wasn’t right.
“My worst nightmare came true when a mass was detected in an MRI and I had to have a surgical biopsy. The mass turned out to be benign, thank God,” Neal says.
Breast cancer can shred your body into pieces, cause severe depression and even rob you of your fertility. But, if you are blessed to survive it, you are among the estimated 3.8 million women like Neal in the United States enthusiastically celebrating Cancer Survivors Month in June.
Kori Lee of Houston recently celebrated her 38th birthday with immense gratitude. She is courageously fighting breast cancer for the second time but is confident that she can beat it again.
Lee was diagnosed with stage 2B triple negative breast cancer in November 2020 after discovering a mass through a self-exam. The doctors treated her via chemotherapy and surgery. Lee rang the bell and twirled on with her life. During a routine follow-up in the spring of 2023, tests revealed the cancer returned, and this time, it spread to her lymph nodes. Lee is currently in treatment.
“I am just in awe of myself, it’s surreal. The recurrence confirms even more that God is real because I must be a superhero for Him to give me this battle to conquer the ‘c’ word again,” says Lee.
Early detection was the key to Neal and Lee getting ahead of their diagnosis. That’s what the American Cancer Society wants Black women to know through its new screening awareness campaign, “I Love You, Get Screened.” Regular screening can catch cancer early, when it may be easier to treat.
Tracy Nicole, a 10-year breast cancer survivor out of Atlanta is grateful for that early detection, necessary in her case because of a family history of breast cancer. Her mother kept insisting Nicole and her sister get screened.
“We actually put it off for almost a year before we both decided to get our mammograms,” she recalls. “My sister and I are 17 months apart and thought we were going to get it over with. Her results came back good. My results changed my life forever.”
When Nicole was diagnosed with ductal carcinoma in situ in 2012, shortly after, the unthinkable happened.
“My mom was diagnosed with breast cancer a third time at the same time I was diagnosed. The hardest part was that we did not tell each other at the time trying to protect the other from the hurt of knowing,” she says. “I am still here because of early detection. Take charge of your own health and know that a breast cancer diagnosis is not a death sentence.”
These bold women believe there is life after breast cancer, and have found purpose after the most traumatic physical, emotional and mental experiences.
“It’s true that you never know how strong you are until you have to be,” Nicole says. “I became more patient, more present and a more thoughtful mother and friend. I learned that I had people in my life that really cared about me and had my back through it all. I started living more intentional, on purpose.”
She attributes her breast cancer diagnosis to giving her the courage to launch Tracy Nicole Clothing, a line that includes pieces made especially with breast cancer patients in mind.
As for Lee, she says she “learned that survivorship starts the moment you are diagnosed and you begin to fight. It’s a lifestyle.”
She is empowering women through her “K.O.K.O.” (Keep on Keeping on) mantra and is in the process of curating support resources that will make an impact.
“In truth there are never-ending challenges with being diagnosed because it literally flips your life upside down and back around again, but you can’t focus too long on one because tomorrow’s challenge could be worse. I have to remind myself to take it one day at a time in this survival journey,” Lee says.
“Once you’ve conquered cancer, there’s nothing you can’t do. We are all here for a bigger purpose in life,” says Neal.
Neal’s breast cancer diagnosis inspired a purposeful pivot from TV production to overseeing the Bexa Equity Alliance, a nonprofit that provides non-invasive early detection breast exams for women in under-supported communities of color. Neal says she is proud of the partnerships she has cultivated in the breast cancer awareness movement to make a significant difference.
“We are survivors who are blessed to be alive to spread awareness to help save other people’s lives. That’s an incredible honor bestowed upon us,” she says.
Breast cancer may cause an unexpected shift in one’s life and priorities, but through screening and early detection, these survivors have demonstrated how to move on triumphantly from it all.
Lyndsay Levingston is a multimedia professional, host and writer based in Houston, TX. The 3-year breast cancer survivor is the founder of SurviveHER, a breast cancer awareness nonprofit she started in October 2020 after completing treatment for Stage 2B triple-negative breast cancer to inform, inspire and empower women. She also serves as an American Cancer Society “Get Screened” Ambassador.