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?