The African proverb says “it takes a village to raise a child.” Well, it also takes a village to support a woman through her breast cancer journey, as there are many, many facets.
When I reflect on my journey, I see the blessings in breast cancer. Cancer is the gift that keeps on giving, but I’ll focus on the gift of love. God showed me His unconditional love through so many people. I will one day write a book to share in great detail the thoughtful gestures of love and sprinkles of hope I received throughout my journey, but I’ll just stick to the highlights for now.
Family Is Everything
My great aunt, Lenora Howard, affectionately known in our very Southern family as “Aunt Sister,” received her first mammogram at the age of 69. A mass was detected in her left breast and she was diagnosed with Stage 1 breast cancer.
When I shared with her the news of my diagnosis, she told me about her own experience. She elected for a partial mastectomy to remove the left breast and to keep the right breast.
“The doctor asked me if I wanted implants, and I said, ‘Naw, I don’t want nothing, just get me out of this hospital!” she enthusiastically recalled.
Aunt Sister didn’t undergo chemotherapy or radiation therapy, and was prescribed Tamoxifen (hormone therapy drug that blocks the effects of estrogen in the breast tissue) for five years.
“I never had any problems thereafter. I was truly blessed. The Lord blessed me,” she reflects.
The diagnosis didn’t stop her from living her best life. Now, at the age of 97, Aunt Sister is proof that surTHRIVERship is real and possible at any age. She demonstrated a level of strength that I channeled to fight my own diagnosis of Stage 2 breast cancer.
The nonagenarian is an important piece of my microcosm of co-surThrivers including an extremely loving family, church community, sorority sisters and sister friends. My village prayed fervently for, over and with me.
There were times when they would send dinner via UberEats or deliver home-cooked meals when I was too tired to cook. There were days in which I felt overwhelmed and sad, and my cheerleadeer, Aunt Angie, would deliver a smoothie, make-up or the latest item from the Skims collection to cheer me up, because I had to stay snatched during the journey, Chile. Every familial gesture equipped me with the “I can do it” strength to power through.
A Mother’s Love
I thank God for the blessing of my mother, Ivy. I benefited from her level of selflessness and great attention to detail. (I refer to her as my ‘lovegiver,’ not caregiver, by the way.) I have observed firsthand her remarkable strength through countless, agonizing doctor’s appointments and steady composure from day to day.
Before cancer, I had lived away from home since my early twenties. Now, more than a decade later, I had to move back home. I felt hopeless in a sense because I didn’t want to be a burden, but she made being a patient so easy.
I’ve had the chance to reconnect with her as ‘The Levingston Ladies,’ our dynamic duo/mother-daughter moniker that encapsulates the closeness of our relationship. I understand what it means to serve others, as she demonstrates it through her lifelong devotion to church and community. She accepted her calling to the Deacon Ministry at our home church a decade ago and is a faithful servant. She’s a retired school administrator who is passionate about mentoring aspiring principals and assistant principals. And, she’s a lifetime member of our illustrious sisterhood, Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Incorporated, through which she epitomizes our emphasis of service to all mankind.
Mom Ivy has taught me the definition of unconditional love. She humbly paused her activities during my chemo journey to take care of her only child – in every aspect, even if that meant bathing me when I could hardly stand up in the shower after my bilateral mastectomy. That is unconditional love.
She has maintained steady composure since the day I called her on the phone with the life-changing news to present day. She channels it through her late father, my Baw-Baw, whom I know, along with grandmother Wade Ella, are the reasons I successfully powered through this rigorous health journey.
In the Black community, we often call on our ancestors to help us through challenging times, and lean on them for a mere portion of strength they channeled to endure years of slavery and racism.
I lean on their strength.
I learned the value of relationships. When people show up for you and are fully present, that’s a blessing. When friends go out of their way to help you, that’s a blessing.
I realize some people don’t know how or what to do, and that’s understandable, so here’s a list of action items I think will be helpful in supporting someone during a breast cancer (or any) health journey:
- Be present. Listen. Smile.
- Small acts of kindness go a long way. Text a scripture, send a card, stop by their home to sweep the floor. I’m telling you every gesture – small or big – is greatly appreciated.
- Make them laugh. Laughter is medicine for the soul.
- Write down important dates including doctor’s appointments and surgeries, and reach out to them before and a few days after. It’s the thought that counts. It’s the unexpected texts, calls and florals I’ll always remember.
- Don’t ask a laundry list of questions. Allow them to tell you when they are ready to disclose details. Remember, it’s a lot to process.
- Be sensitive. Please don’t refer to a loved one who has transitioned or ‘lost his/her battle.’ Those words add an excruciatingly painful, emotional element to our already challenging journey. Positive energy and vibes only.
Purpose and Passion
The journey shifted my focus to hone in on what’s most important in life, personally and professionally – me. I understand the power of taking care of self – mentally, spiritally, emotionally, and of course, physically.
Even in the midst of my own breast cancer struggles, I had to be mindful of keeping other people together. If you’re married or partnered, or have children, you have to be strong for them, too.
Historically, we as Black women are known to hold it together for everyone. Michelle Obama eloquently said during a Q&A at the 25th ESSENCE Festival that it’s hard to put ourselves first as women. And, we’re so busy taking care of others, we forget to take care of ourselves. She encouraged us to prioritize self-care. Auntie Michelle, I hear you loud and clear and am making self a top priority!
My diagnosis prompted me to make a purposeful pivot and realize that serving others is so much more meaningful than climbing the ladder or keeping up with the Joneses. I gained clarity and a true sense of purpose (hello SurThriver!) coupled with a deeper desire to live like I’ve never lived before. I now put more thought and consideration into my legacy.
Breast cancer gave me hope and so much peace, and confirmation that we as women are not alone. When you’re down in the valley, you’ll find many blessings in there, too. There is a bright, sparkly light at the end of every tunnel.