Ten years ago, I lost a very close friend and colleague to breast cancer. I met her in graduate school, and like so many of the women I met there, she became like family to me. My friend, C.W., had worked as a nurse for many years while raising her family. She went back to school and got another degree in history. She then decided she wanted to attend graduate school and have a second career as a professor.
She told very few people about her diagnosis. I guess she didn’t want people to feel pity for her. In spite of treatment, the cancer spread to other parts of her body. However, she kept right on attending classes and teaching until she went into the hospital for the last time. I often think of how caring she was, calling to check on my husband after he had minor surgery, when she must have been in so much pain herself.
C.W.’s death made me more aware of breast cancer and the devastating impact it has on African American women. Breast cancer is the second most common type of cancer in women. (Skin cancer is the first.) Statistically, one in eight American women will develop invasive breast cancer. While white women generally have higher rates of breast cancer for all age groups (except under 40), black women are 50% more likely to die within three years. Certainly, that is, at least in part, due to disparities in access to health care. Hopefully, the Affordable Care Act’s provisions that health insurance plans cover preventive care (like mammograms) will lead to a reduction in mortality from this disease.
I became vigilant about encouraging those around me–my mother, my aunts, my friends–to do their monthly self-breast exams. I had a part-time job, and I asked a group of my co-workers if they were doing monthly exams. It was not surprising that they all said no, but they also seemed a bit offended by my question. It was as if I had asked them to engage in a lewd act. One of the women asked rhetorically, “Why would I want to do that when I’ve got a boyfriend?” It seemed ridiculous until I remembered that C.W. did not find the lump in her breast; her partner did.
I am not trying to imply that C.W. would have survived if she had been doing monthly exams herself. I am saying that C.W.–like my co-workers, like many black women I know and love–take care of everyone and everything but themselves. Let’s start to change that beginning today. Let’s love and cherish ourselves as we do our families. Let’s agree to do monthly self-breast exams. October, Breast Cancer Awareness Month, is a great time to start! Who’s with me?
Related Articles and Links to Information on Breast Cancer
- Nanci Hellmich, Exercise, Weight Control Reduce Risk of Breast Cancer, 1 October 2013
- Ryan Jaslow, Breast Cancer Rates Rising in Black Women: Report, 2 October 2013
- Breast Cancer Facts & Figures 2013-2014 (American Cancer Society)
- How to Perform a Breast Self-Exam