Is your child in front of you? Take a really good look at him or her. Did he just make you laugh? Did she do something that made you furious? Did you feel a burst of joy when he said something loving?
What if in fifteen minutes, the phone rings. You get up. You walk over. You pick up the phone. It’s your doctor. You went in for a routine checkup late last week. She has the results. You were expecting them Friday, and today’s Tuesday. Four days late but you’re not worried and so you hadn’t called to follow up. You’ve always been healthy. You’re almost always the last person to catch whatever virus is going around—if you catch it at all.
The doctor cuts to the chase. She says three words in quick succession: “It is cancer.” You hear the words but you don’t understand. It’s almost like someone is speaking to you underwater.
Then the walls crash in on you. In one instant, the decades you saw stretching before you are reduced to months. If that.
And the first thing you think is: What about my babies? What is going to happen to my babies? What are they going to do without a mother?
You don’t think it could happen?
I didn’t either. But it did.
When I was diagnosed with breast cancer in my 30s—two and a half years ago—I thought I had been handed a death sentence. It was advanced. It was serious. It had spread. All three typical of women of color at diagnosis.
I was so confused. I had nursed both of my babies for over a year each. I was still nursing my youngest. I had no family history. I had no risk factors. How could this be?
I was in such a fog those first few weeks.
Almost immediately I started beating myself up. This could have been prevented—or hugely mitigated—if only I had looked out for myself as well as I did for every single other person around me. If one of my babies as much as cried funny, I would run her to the doctor. Why had I ignored all of my own warning signs?
I had been so incredibly tired and run down for a few years. I assumed it was because I was a new mother.
I had felt something lumpy in my breast. I assumed it was a clogged milk duct.
I had been angry, furious, raging for a long time. I assumed it was a post-partum something or other.
I seemed to have a chronic yeast infection.
I was catching colds and flu constantly—not like me at all.
By the time I finally got a mammogram, it had been over a year since I hadn’t felt right. The mammogram showed nothing. I had to insist on an ultrasound. The ultrasound picked up a mass. They biopsied it and there it was. All 9 centimeters of it.
It is well known that women of color—and particularly black women—don’t detect their breast cancer until much later. As a result by the time they’re diagnosed, the cancer is much more advanced and thus much more likely to be deadly.
A few months ago at the CNN Heroes event, I had the honor to meet a beautiful angel of a human being—an African American woman from Florida—who, following a breast cancer diagnosis, made it her mission in life to go knocking on doors every weekend to make sure that every single woman who would like a mammogram but can’t afford it, can have access to one. For the obvious reason, I’m a bit hostile toward mammograms (it didn’t pick up my nine centimeter tumor) but I could see how they are of value in certain situations. And there are certainly many other diagnostic tools out there that can detect whatever may be wrong with great accuracy.
The one thing modern medicine is pretty good at is detection and diagnosis.
I’m now two and a half years out. I passed a major milestone at two years post-diagnosis and will pass another one in another two-and-a-half years at the five-year mark. I remember when they had put me into an MRI machine to see whether the cancer had metastasized elsewhere, just praying and visualizing myself dancing at my daughter’s wedding. “Please God, let me raise my children. Please give me the honor of raising my babies,” is what I repeated over and over again in my head those days.
My kids got me through some of the darkest times that followed.
I love my kids. I intend to be around to raise my kids. For that reason, I now take really good care of myself as well.
And I am asking in all seriousness: Are you loving YOU?
5 thoughts on “Who’s Loving You?”
Wow; this post felt like a slap in the face! Day care? Who cares about child care providers! There are more serious threats to your child’s well-being, like Mommy being gone! Thank you for this!
I’ve often read that cancer affects women of color in the way you describe: late detection. As I understand it, there is also a particularly aggressive form of cancer that disproportionately affects women of color, and is very resistant to treatment; researchers are still trying to figure out why. Either way, to be affected by cancer in your 30s? You’re probably not even on the age charts.
If you don’t mind my asking, how did you prepare your children for the ordeal? Did they ever really understand? And how was your fight different or unique as a woman of color?
Congratulations on meeting your first milestone, Nazie!
Thanks ORJ. I’ve been following your post and the subsequent discussion about childcare closely and with a great deal of interest. We seem to be on very similar wave lengths in general.
My son was 1 and my daughter was 3 when I was diagnosed. I lost my hair and wore a wig for about a year. I was as thin as a skeleton for a while there! Except for being really upset that he had to wean so quickly, my boy didn’t notice at all. My daughter seemed confused about my hair being long one minute and then not, another! She couldn’t quite grasp what a wig was.
I was tactful but VERY honest about the illness. Once it had healed, I showed them the reconstruction of my right breast. I explained that it was a part of my body that was sick and so had to go because I intended to do whatever I could to be there for them.
We talked about dying in terms of living in “this world” and then our soul “moving on to the next world” where we would ultimately see each other again. I’m not sure how much they understood but my children’s abuelita had just died (from cancer: yikes!) and my daughter was aware abuelita was not around anymore and so she seemed concerned about me not being around like abuelita.
Here’s how I think my fight was different and unique as a woman of color: I had some SERIOUS ATTITUDE (and still do. And for what it’s worth, studies show that patients who are perceived as being difficult have better long-term survival rates). I found the medical establishment patronizing and dictatorial. They wanted to dictate to me what I would be doing. I wanted to dictate to THEM what they would be doing. A power struggle ensued. I won.
I wanted more of an integrative approach. I wanted to include intensive herbal supplements and a naturopath. Some of the things they were suggesting would have definitely destroyed the cancer but it would have also destroyed the rest of me with it–even the healthy parts. I wanted a doctor who also had the view of my living LONG TERM, not just for the next five years.
The general public seems to be much more willing to take the medical establishment at its word. I NEVER assumed that they knew what they were talking about and so I double and triple checked everything, and made my own way. If it didn’t make sense to me, it didn’t happen. I think I did the right thing for me.
What a role model of courage and strength!
I lost my mom to pancreatic cancer two years ago. It definitely sparked a fire in me to take better care of myself. My son was only 6 months old when she passed, so we didnt need to really prepare him, so to speak.
I’m concerned about my future. Being morbidly obese, having Type II diabetes in remission… smoking… drinking… I’ve definitely got to get it together in terms of the health stuff. When I turned 30, it was a turning point for me and I’ve been focused ever sense. You are right though, we have to take care of ourselves first or there will be no cocoa mama to speak of.
Benee: So sorry about your mother. Given that you are so young, I’m assuming she was as well. >>big hug<< I feel like I went down the rabbit hole like Alice when I was diagnosed. My eyes were opened to so many institutions in this country that just "ain't right"–and are tolerated because lots of people are making obscene amounts of money. I was already a contrarian by nature but after my ordeal I truly learned to QUESTION EVERYTHING. ASSUME NOTHING.
Nazie, thank you so much for sharing this! And congrats from me as well for reaching your milestone and for being in control (attitudinal 🙂 ) and inspiring others. I’m going upstairs to do a breast exam right now . . . and will follow that with a workout.