Today’s article comes to us from longtime StyleBlueprint Birmingham contributor, Javacia Harris Bowser. You see her byline on our FACES features often, but today, she’s sharing her own story with us, plus tips for helping those close to you navigate a diagnosis.
Breast Cancer Awareness Month is coming to a close — for some people. But for me, as a breast cancer survivor, every month is Breast Cancer Awareness Month. And there are some things I want you to keep in mind not just in October but all year long.
Breast cancer doesn’t care how old you are.
So many people view breast cancer as a disease that women should only worry about after age 50. In fact, until recently, the U.S. Preventative Services Task Force recommended that most women wait until age 50 to start getting regular mammograms. This year, in May, that recommendation was changed, lowering the age to 40. But I was 38 years old when I was diagnosed with invasive lobular carcinoma. This was in January of 2020.
I got lucky. Yes, even though I was diagnosed with breast cancer, I feel lucky. I say this because I had a primary care physician and a gynecologist who pushed me to get a mammogram early, and I had health insurance willing to cover it.
Thanks to my proactive doctors, the malignant tumor in my left breast had only progressed to stage two when it was discovered. As I type this, I am cancer-free, and the chances of staying that way are good.
You must be your own advocate.
Unfortunately, not everyone has the proactive healthcare providers that I do. So, don’t be afraid to be your own advocate! You know your body better than anyone. If something doesn’t feel right, speak up. If needed, get a second opinion. Don’t stop until you get the answers and the treatment you deserve.
Breast cancer is different for women who look like me.
Each breast cancer patient’s active treatment plan is unique and depends on a number of factors such as their age, type and stage of cancer, and more. My treatment plan included a lumpectomy, five months of chemotherapy, and 36 rounds of radiation.
After my diagnosis, my oncologist told me she wanted to throw everything she could at the disease, especially because I’m a Black woman.
Black women are 40 percent more likely to die from breast cancer than white women. Black women are also more likely to be diagnosed at earlier ages, at more advanced stages, and with more aggressive cancers. And doctors aren’t sure why.
But I know that this is why research is so important. We need studies of the biological and social factors influencing breast cancer risk and outcomes — especially for Black women. We also need more women of color participating in clinical trials.
If you’re looking for an organization to support that specifically addresses breast cancer’s impact on women of color, check out the Tigerlily Foundation.
Survivorship is hard.
Once you’re done with active treatment, and your doctors declare you N.E.D. (no evidence of disease), people say things like, “You must be so glad that’s all behind you now.” And these people mean well, but they’re completely missing the mark.
I may be done with chemo and radiation, but cancer is not “behind” me now. It’s front and center most days. The type of cancer I had was hormone-responsive. My oncologist explained it this way: “Estrogen tried to kill you.” So, I take medication that has pushed me into menopause. Dealing with all the changes — and the AWFUL hot flashes — that come along with that is no fun at all.
Actually, it’s probably more accurate to say that cancer is always sitting on my shoulder, whispering in my ear, always making me question if this ache or pain is a sign that cancer has returned. It’s making me afraid to eat my favorite foods. It’s making me have second thoughts about planning a 20th-anniversary party for my husband and myself.
Yes, all of this will get better with time. I’m less frantic now than I was just a year ago. But I know that I will never be who I was before cancer.
Fighting breast cancer is expensive.
The first bill I received after my first round of chemo was for over $1200. Fortunately, the financial help department at the cancer center discovered that my insurance should have been covering most of this. But unfortunately, the insurance company continued to make this mistake after every round of treatment. From May to December 2020, I had to call my insurance company every single week to get the charges properly processed so that I wouldn’t end up paying $20,000 in medical bills.
As frustrating as this was, I recognized with each phone call how privileged I was to have health insurance in the first place. I also never had to worry about how I would get to and from the cancer center. And I could always afford my co-pay.
This isn’t the case for far too many people going through breast cancer. If you want to do something about this, consider supporting Forge Breast Cancer Survivor Center, which supports, empowers, and improves the quality of life for Alabama breast cancer patients, survivors, and those who love them.
Forge offers transportation resources, financial assistance, and a host of programs to help with survivorship, including support groups, wellness classes, and mental health counseling.
Your story has healing power.
Iyanla Vanzant once said, “When you stand and share your story in an empowering way, your story will heal you, and your story will heal somebody else.”
Breast cancer showed me how true this statement is. I’ll tell anyone willing to listen that I wrote my way through breast cancer. I journaled constantly, sometimes when I was sitting in the chemo chair. But what helped me even more was when I started journaling out loud — when I started sharing my story on social media, blogs, and essays for both print and digital publications. Seeing my story’s positive impact on others made me less angry about going through cancer because I found a purpose for my pain.
Clumsy conversation is better than no conversation at all.
When a friend is diagnosed with something like breast cancer, you may be tempted to ghost her. Not because you’re a terrible person but because you just don’t know what to do or to say. I get it. But don’t disappear. Your friend needs you now more than ever. Yes, you’re probably going to say something that you shouldn’t, but that’s better than saying nothing at all.
In case you’re wondering, here’s a quick list of dos and don’ts:
- Do talk to your friend just as you did before her diagnosis. If you see a meme that you think she’ll find funny, send it! She will appreciate the sense of normalcy and need all the laughter she can get.
- Don’t tell her about your aunt or grandmother who died from breast cancer. If you know someone alive and thriving after a diagnosis, tell her about that person instead.
- Do let her vent and cry and cuss or whatever else she needs to do.
- Don’t silence her with “Good Vibes Only” toxic positivity.
- Do send her gifts. I went through treatment during the pandemic, so friends and family couldn’t visit me. Instead, they showed love with small gifts — blankets for the cold chemo room, ginger chews and peppermint tea for nausea, graphic tees with inspirational messages, journals, and adult coloring books.
- Don’t tell her about some special diet you read she should try during chemo. Chances are, rice and apple sauce will be the only things she can keep down. As my treatment progressed, I couldn’t even stomach the scent of meat. So, this is definitely not the time to tell her to go keto!
Let’s turn Breast Cancer Awareness Month into Breast Cancer Action Month by supporting organizations doing research and groups like Tigerlily Foundation and Forge Breast Cancer Survivor Center. Most of all, let’s take action by supporting loved ones impacted by this disease all year long.
All photography provided by Javacia Harris Bowser.
To stay in the know on the best of Birmingham, subscribe to our daily emails!