If anyone had told me I would be a two-time breast cancer survivor, I would have argued it. However, I’m elated to share my story with you in hopes of you learning something about breast cancer, the primary importance of preventative healthcare, and to also enlighten you on how to find resources that can further your understanding or help you in some way.
My Journey with breast cancer began with an abnormal mammogram in late February of 2019. It was my 9th mammogram; well, let me quickly chip in that I started mammograms in my mid-30s, after finding a lump during a monthly breast self-exam. I was diagnosed with Fibrocystic and extremely dense breast. Due to this, I had to get mammograms every year prior to the age 40 requirement for breast cancer screenings. In March, I was called back for my 10th mammogram. It was also abnormal, so we scheduled a biopsy in April for additional follow-up.
When I had the biopsy in April, the lump was found to be benign, so I conferred with my doctor and we decided to get a lumpectomy to remove the lump and send it to the pathology lab for further testing in May. Unfortunately, I did not get the results until 12th of June, primarily because I did not follow-up, and in my mind, I kept on believing that no news meant good news. On my path again, I was not determined, nor did I make any enthusiastic approach towards this because of the myths I believed about cancer, coupled with other misinformation, my previous mammogram results, and my benign biopsy.
I deeply believed that if my mother and maternal grandmother did not have breast cancer, then there was no way I was going to get it. I also believed that my paternal grandmother’s breast cancer was a result of it spreading from her liver cancer, which did not count, since that was where her breast cancer originated from. Welp, I was totally wrong because I was diagnosed with stage 0 Hormone positive DCIS (Ductal Carcinoma in situ) on June 12, 2019.
"I personally vow to help people of color learn about breast cancer even if it's just one person." - Vina Morris
In disbelief and shock, I scheduled a second opinion. This is standard practice, but I wanted to be sure I was diagnosed properly and also make sure I had the right treatment plan. Unfortunately, the second was identical to my first diagnosis, and they recommended the same next steps. My treatment plan consisted of another lumpectomy, 15 rounds of radiation, a diagnostic mammogram 3 months after completing radiation, mammograms every 6 months after the diagnostic mammogram for two years and taking Tamoxifen for 5 years. That’s a whole lot, right? I felt that way when I heard it all as well.
Everything I knew, or that I thought I knew about breast cancer, was completely incorrect. Misinformation was the architect of my actions about breast cancer, nonetheless, in spite of what I believed, I still did my monthly breast self-exams, annual mammograms, and annual physicals. With those correctly done, I was able to find breast cancer at stage 0, because it is usually hard to detect, and it is often found mistakenly. This was certainly the case for me because I had a benign biopsy, and we were only taking it out as a precaution.
I had the 2nd lumpectomy in July and started the radiation therapy in August. I had no idea what radiation entailed, and I thought my hair was going to fall out. So, I planned ahead and did something uncharacteristic with my hair in anticipation of this. Guess what? It ended up being just what I needed to help me get through that process.
My battle hair consisted of 24-inch-long strawberry blonde box braids. I have always admired braids, but I never believed it would go so well at work. It was a low maintenance hairstyle that worked out perfectly on the days I was too drained from the radiation. My braids coupled with tunes of Prince during my radiation sessions helped tremendously. It was one less thing to worry about as I looked forward to finishing the radiation process and ringing that bell.
I rang the bell on 4th of September, which symbolized the end of my radiation and the start of a life free of cancer, even though the cancer was removed in July and the radiation was a preventative measure. To be honest, I was happy to have completed this milestone, nevertheless, I felt really ashamed, and I only shared my diagnosis with my family and close friends. My shame stemmed from stigmas tied to people who are or have been afflicted with cancer, and I did not want any part of it. The questions were always endless …I’m single, who will help me? How do I disclose this to potential life partners? Should I move back to Chicago to be near my family? Can I afford this? Will I have insurance issues, and so many others.
As I gained more knowledge about the disease and how I was potentially a victim, my shame slowly diminished. From my countless hours of research, I discovered that women of color have a 40% higher rate of dying from breast cancer than any other races. I also learned that even though it’s rare, men do get breast cancer too. Black men have a 2.9% higher chance of dying from breast cancer than other races. I wondered if this is because women are often ashamed and do not want to share their diagnoses, or they probably believed all the myths like me but didn’t get tested, or maybe they aren’t aware of the importance of preventative care, or worse, because of lack of access to healthcare. Whatever the reason may be, I made up my mind and set it as a goal to figure out how to change this, because since last October, it has risen to 42% for Black women.
I began by claiming my victory publicly on Instagram and Facebook, starting on October 1, 2019, and I kept this up as often as I could during breast cancer awareness month. I included all the facts I found along with my own personal experience, wore something pink; that is my favorite color by the way, every single day, including my nails and lips. This still did not seem enough to me. I felt really driven to do more.
I was basking in the quietness of an early Saturday morning, still grappling with my battle and wondering what more I could do to share my story when the concept of a non-profit organization emerged. It was day 26 of Breast Cancer Awareness Month and of my personal vow to help other people of color learn about breast cancer, even if I was just able to be of help to one woman or man. I was not seeking pity, rather, I was seeking to be a living, breathing example of what an early diagnosed breast cancer survivor looked like, with the hope of encouraging them to learn their status.
I brainstormed names that could match so well with the pink of the breast cancer ribbon to communities of color; a name that will let you know it is for us and is attributed specifically to breast cancer. AfroPink® was the first name that popped in my head. I kept toying with other names, but surprisingly, AfroPink® stuck. I did a quick search and it was available. So, at 7:44 AM on October 26, 2019, AfroPink® began.
Six weeks later, I had my diagnostic mammogram after a benign biopsy, 2 lumpectomies, 3 months of Tamoxifen, and 15 sessions of radiation. To my greatest surprise, it was abnormal again. My options were to wait and see for 6 months, do another biopsy, or do another lumpectomy. So, I decided to go with option 3, and I scheduled the lumpectomy on January 3, 2020. In anticipation, I hoped and prayed it was just scar tissue.
This time, I had the privilege of having my first experience with breast cancer, so I decided to take my mother with me to discuss my results and next steps. It was positive again for stage 0 hormone-positive DCIS. My next steps were limited to a mastectomy because you cannot get radiated twice on the same breast, and chemo is not given to stage 0 patients.
Without hesitation, I opted for a double mastectomy with reconstruction with implants. My surgery was scheduled for 6th of March because I needed 6 months for my skin to heal from the radiation. Another step included genetic testing to determine if I had the BRCA genes and other genes that could be the cause of any type of cancer. Surprisingly, it was all negative, which means that I do not have any genetic markers for any cancer that can be screened. In other words, cancer does not run in my family.
The last day of Black History Month, February 29, 2020, I did a soft launch of AfroPink® to spread the word of what’s to come at the Metro NY Chapter of the National Black MBA’s Up Mixer. Six days later, I walked in for my surgery with no iota of fear, hair freshly done, and my nails were painted with the prettiest shade of pink. My surgeon noticed it immediately and commented on how it was a good sign, while also stating that she has never seen anyone jump on the table so quickly. It can be attributed to the two months I had to make peace with my next steps, a hiatus from social media, saying goodbye to my girls in my own way, and it was a time I used to focus on preparing for the recovery. So, when it was time for my surgery, I climbed on the table, ready to walk into my destiny, the new normal, a life free of breast cancer, and the fuel I needed to formally launch AfroPink®.
Little did I know that the universe had other plans. On the 6th of March, a state of emergency was declared in New York due to COVID-19. I was literally on the table and had no idea of the declaration until 3 days later. I was surrounded by my loving family at home immediately after my hospital release. Most of my family members flew back to Chicago the following week, but my mother stayed with me for 15 weeks due to COVID travel restrictions, and she also supported me through the various steps of reconstruction. Breast reconstruction is a multiple step process, and it solely depends on the type of mastectomy you choose or that is recommended for you based on your circumstances. I chose to do immediate reconstruction with implants, and this entailed several trips to the office and two additional surgeries.
In June, I received my permanent implants, and on Friday, September 18, 2020, I finished my final surgery, which was nipple reconstruction. I was excited to reach this stage and, once again, I climbed on the table, ready to accept my fate. This time, I was awake throughout the entire surgery, giving me the opportunity to be able to listen to Prince and discuss my next steps in life with my surgical team.
It went faster than I expected, and I was able to quickly get dressed and walk out the door. “May we never see you again” was an appropriate send off as I walked out of the OR, one step away from fully reconstructed breasts. That day, I engaged myself with doing things to celebrate my milestone. I got a mani/pedi and selected fuchsia as my shade of pink. I had lunch and met my friends for a quick dinner prior to the pain meds wearing off. My final step of reconstruction, areola reconstruction, will occur sometime in December. So, I will start 2021 fully reconstructed.
This experience, though scary, changed my life. It gave my life meaning and purpose. Things that were important to me prior to this experience were suddenly trivial, and they brought forth a whole new focus of staying alive and bringing awareness of breast cancer survival to people of color. It is my hope that AfroPink® will help lower the 42% higher rate that women of color have of dying of breast cancer than any other race, and the 2.9% higher chance that men of color have of dying from breast cancer. This amazing feat will be achieved by dispelling myths, encouraging preventative health care, and informing of and providing resources for screenings, and much more.
CEO, Founder & President
“The best protection is early detection!”
“I’m stronger than I thought I was. My phrase has been ‘This too shall pass.’ I now understand it really well.”
Robin Roberts on her strength battling cancer