I received a life-changing phone call July 11, 2019. I remember it vividly. I was sitting in the bathroom, nervous to receive the test results of a regular mammogram, 3-D mammogram (which I didn’t know existed), breast ultrasound and a very uncomfortable and slightly painful biopsy of an almond-sized lump in my right breast that I’d discovered through self-examination.

“I’m sorry, Lyndsay, it’s breast cancer,” affirmed the radiologist.

I cried. My life would change forever. Triple-negative breast cancer, stage 2B, an aggressive form of the chronic illness more common in Black women who are diagnosed.  Statistics show Black women younger than 40 have higher rates of breast cancer compared to white women. We also tend to be diagnosed at a younger age than white women.  Facts.   I’m one of them.

Everything I had worked so hard to build in New York City as a media personality came to a screeching halt.  All of the hard work, and so close to that big break, then boom. To be honest, I needed a break from the hustle and bustle. Of course, a vacation in the Maldives would’ve been my preference, but my health needed my critical attention.

I hopped on a one-way flight home to Houston for a consultation with the best breast surgeon, Dr. Jamie Terry, a brilliant, Black physician, believer and family friend.  She was the captain of the ship who orchestrated an incredible team of medical professionals–Dr. Kemi Nurudeen (fertility specialist), Dr. Gurjyot Doshi (oncologist), and Dr. Sean Boutros  (plastic surgeon). Then, the overwhelming journey of treatment and multiple surgeries began.  It was hard to process, but I strapped on the armor of God and prepared for battle.

I froze the remaining eggs in my (aged) ovaries before powering through 15 arduous rounds of chemotherapy over a series of four months. I was poked and prodded with needles and IVs more than I could count. The medicine pumped through my body through a port inserted underneath my skin below my left clavicle. It made me extremely drowsy and fatigued. However, I maintained a very healthy appetite and guzzled Ensure vanilla for its nutrients, which was my grandmother Wade Ella’s favorite.  I knew she was with me, in spirit, every step of the way.

Dr. Terry confirmed that I would indeed lose every strand of hair from chemo, so I proactively shaved it off so I wouldn’t have to deal with the emotional trauma of hair loss.

Thankfully, the chemotherapy melted away the cancerous breast tumor within a few rounds. I learned that chemo doesn’t know which cells to attack, so it fights bad and good cells.  This attributes to those awful side effects including hair loss, darkening of finger nails, etc. I later found out, it destroyed my ovaries. (More on that in part 3 of the ‘Anatomy of a SurThriver’ series) Over the course of those intense four months, I rocked custom lace front wigs designed by my uber-talented hairstylist, Brittany, to hide my bald head. Believe it or not, I had the strength to take Zumba and boxing classes. I was adamant about staying active as much as my body could endure. I was determined to fight the c-word and knock it out.  Symbolically, I rang the bell two days shy of ringing in 2020 — entering a new year having successfully completed treatment.  I proudly wore a figurative heavyweight champion belt around my 28-inch waist. Ow!

I learned during treatment that I was born with a BRCA 1 gene mutation that puts me at a higher risk for breast and ovarian cancers. My own  DNA added another rather complicated layer to my journey.  Dr. Terry said at some point in my life I would’ve been diagnosed with breast cancer. Thank God it was detected early and could result in a positive prognosis. I call myself the Black Angelina Jolie. You may recall the former Mrs. Brad Pitt, who has a family history of both cancers, opted for a prophylactic bilateral mastectomy (surgery to remove one or both breasts to reduce the risk of developing breast cancer) and hysterectomy at age 37 as preventive measures.

In February 2020, I underwent a bilateral mastectomy with breast reconstruction.  In a tag-team procedure, Dr. Terry removed my breast tissue; then Dr. Boutros placed in tissue expanders (temporary placeholder, implant-like objects that stretch the skin). I woke up from surgery with a faux chest! I left the hospital the next day with four drains tethered to each side of my body.  I lived with those darn things for two months.  The healing process took about six weeks, and to be honest, it wasn’t too bad. Upper body movement was limited for the first two weeks – I couldn’t push, pull, sit up, scoot in a chair nor shower without help. When I was finally able to lift my arms over my head, I cheered. Some days I woke up helpless in tears, but I woke up.  Some days I danced to Beyoncé. 

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On Valentine’s Day, I received a life-changing phone call. This time, I cried tears of joy.  Dr. Terry said, “Your scans from surgery came back all clear, there’s no sign of cancer!”  Praise God!  My upcoming April birthday would be a celebration of rebirth. I set-up my ring light, beat my face, put some gel in my chemo curls and facilitated my own photo shoot in the living room with my iPhone. Come on now, self-photography!

Months laters, my fantastic, faith-filled plastic surgeon, Dr. Boutros, would perform the exchange surgery to replace the tissue expanders for breast implants. I felt like a woman again.  I’m over the hump now and oh so grateful to God for removing the toxins from my body. God aligned the people, medical professionals and resources to get me to the finish line of victory and I am here to cheer on my fellow “breasties.”  My therapist reminds me that I experienced a traumatic (health) experience, and that’s true.  I’m focused now on healing my mind, body and spirit. The journey continues.

A lot of people didn’t know what I was going through, and I was okay with that. I didn’t look like what I was going through because of God’s grace.  When faced with a chronic illness, sharing can be emotionally draining. It caused me to relive that phone call over and over. I wasn’t ready to bare my soul, until now.

The diagnosis strengthened me in so many ways and has dramatically changed my perspective on life. I appreciate the simple things I took for granted – each breath, whiff of fresh air, the sun and trees.  Will I be able to breastfeed my children? No. Will I have to visit the doctor more frequently for the rest of my life? Yes.  That’s okay. I’m alive!

I’m grateful for it all and I proudly proclaim my crown as a SurTHRIVER! I created this platform to inform, inspire and empower women around breast cancer awareness via my testimony and the testimonies of other amazing SurTHRIVERS.  Aren’t we all a SurTHRIVER in our own right? Whether you’ve survived a challenging career, relationship or financial hardship, you overcame it and are now thriving, living your best life now, right?!

What I encourage you to do

Slap on your mask, Sis, and go get a mammogram!  You don’t have to wait until you’re 40. It’s never too early. Schedule a test through your gynecologist or a women’s health center in your area. Advocate for a 3-D ultrasound which will offer a more comprehensive picture and analysis of your breast tissue. Confirm with your health provider if it’s covered or if it will require an out-of-pocket fee.  If breast cancer runs in your family, schedule a genetic evaluation. Knowledge is power.  Early detection saved my life and my mission in life is to help save yours.

What to do if you’re diagnosed with breast cancer

Breathe, pray and trust God. When I was first diagnosed and trying to figure everything out, I discovered hundreds of resources available via nonprofit organizations and groups – free wigs, gift cards for groceries, medicine assistance and so much more. There are centers that offer financial assistance, too, which can be helpful especially to women who aren’t able to work during treatment. God provides.

Lyndsay Levingston Christian is a multimedia talent, host and adjunct professor based in Houston, Texas. Follow her journey via @lynzchristiantv and join the movement @Sur_Thriver