While everyone is at risk of getting breast cancer, African American women under 40 tend to have more aggressive, and ultimately deadlier tumors. To find out what young African American woman can do I spoke with Reona Berry, a breast cancer survivor and executive director, and co-founder of the AABCA (African American Breast Cancer Association).
What is your story?
I was age 38 when diagnosed and did not think about breast cancer much. I did find a lump earlier at age 35, but it was a cyst.
In June 1989 I found a dark discoloration under my armpit and right breast. I thought it was a rash from deodorant, but it didn’t itch or hurt. I ignored it until in October/November I felt pain as my arm moved along my breast during moving, sleeping, walking, etc. In late November, while laying in bed I could no longer ignore the hot, painful lump I found. In January, I finally sought a mammogram and then the doctor did a breast biopsy. He was unable to aspire any fluid from the lump, meaning it was a solid mass. From the doctor’s comments, I knew it was not good news. He ordered an excisional biopsy which confirmed breast cancer. I had lumpectomy surgery, chemotherapy and radiation therapy. I lost all of my hair, but by October it was growing back and I loved the short hair styles I sported. Breast cancer changed my life in many ways, good, bad and otherwise. Thankfully, I’m still here 26 years later.
I, and other black women, founded the African American Breast Cancer Alliance and created our innovative educational brochure “Being There” to inform black women and others that breast cancer is a disease that black women needed to be aware of and take action to fight. We can no longer talk about the “Big C”, we need to fight it by share lifesaving and life affirming information to help save and support our sisters and community members.
I described a conversation about breast cancer I had with two young black women to Ms. Berry and asked her advice on their completely different lifestyles and mindsets on breast cancer in their community.
The first woman, “D”, smokes and drinks because she doesn’t feel she can do anything about her health. What advice would you have for her and other young women that have the same “carefree” mentality?
Young black women have an abundance of information about breast cancer available to them. It is important that they know young women are susceptible to more aggressive breast cancers. Black women overall have more aggressive breast cancers, therefore they need earlier and more aggressive detection, follow-up, and treatment. Knowledge is power, which leads to the action needed to fight this disease. We advocate to, “Take charge of your health, take care of your life”. We would advise “D” to visit her healthcare provider to share her family breast cancer and health history, and ask for a genetic test for any genetic possibility so she can be aware of signs and symptoms indicating she may not have a genetic link. She will be empowered by information either way and not fall victim to the “whatever will be, will be” attitude that can lead people to give up on their health and themselves. Also, research shows that excess drinking and smoking can add to possible breast cancer development, along with other diseases. If she has or expects to have children, this medical history information would be important for them. She and her future family deserve to have a healthy life and we want that for her.
The second woman, Cali, is a vegan and has never smoked and doesn’t drink. Cali believes that she should do as much as she can in this moment to prevent cancer and illness in any form and it reflects in her “clean” lifestyle.
Cali is aware about her breast health and appears to be diligent in seeking information and taking positive action. Eating healthy, exercise, and living healthy is optimum. However, breast cancer does not skip over healthy people. Any woman can be diagnosed with breast cancer simply because they are a female with estrogen. Many women that are vegans are still at risk for breast cancer, cancer does not discriminate. We would also advise Cali to visit her healthcare professional for a clinical breast exam and family breast cancer history. Also, genetic testing would be advisable.
What advice would you give to any young African American girl/boy in terms of living a better healthier life?
Children can be taught healthy practices with eating good and nutritious foods, exercising, playing, sleeping, caring about others and themselves. Ask your parents, teachers, friends what does it mean to live a better healthier life, read books about health, learn about different diseases (My Mommy Has Cancer is one). Check out programs such as First Lady Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move” that incorporates fun with learning about healthy foods and movement so they can learn what healthy is and what they can do to achieve a better, healthier life.
Also what do you feel needs to happen to within the African American community to reduce the breast cancer?
Breast cancer awareness, detection, treatment and understanding is crucial to reduce the breast cancer incidences and high mortality rates that African Americans experience. We have so much more access to information, detection services, and medical treatments to help us have better outcomes and live longer lives after a cancer diagnosis.
For more information about African American Breast Cancer Alliance go to their website, http://aabcainc.org/
Alicia is a queer vegan Xicana living in Los Angeles, she enjoys dancing, painting, and long walks to the nearest coffee shop. If you don’t see her sippin’ on a cold brew you’ll probably catch her at the local park giving the death stare to people who are littering.