This couple faced the fear of breast cancer and encourages black community to do the same
African-American women are often diagnosed at later stages and have a higher mortality rate
There are no sweaty palms. No pacing back and forth like a prizefighter waiting to enter the ring. But there is great anticipation – a sense of wanting to stand at a news podium, in front of a roomful of people you’ve never met.
With every opportunity to face a new crowd, our “pitch” gets tighter and better. We start with humor – with Heather stepping to the front of the room, and me taking my rightful place by her side or behind her, peeking at her notes over her shoulder.
But there’s nothing funny about being diagnosed with breast cancer – living with it, enduring and surviving.
Heather is good at telling her story; she hardly needs notes. Mostly, we go off the cuff. There are no phobias about being in front of strangers. It actually feels good. At least that’s what her smiles tell the room. I draw strength from it – like that favorite coach in middle school who always made you feel like you could be the difference maker, even when you had doubts about your ability.
After all, this is what she does for a living as a journalist – presenting, pitching, telling stories, influencing people. She’s badass, really.
She takes the room back to the toughest year of her life – 2012, when she was diagnosed, when she saw her life flash before her. Her story … now, it gives her joy to tell. Best believe, though, her diagnosis inspired fear at first, at the possibility of not seeing her three kids grow up to finish college, get married or play professional soccer. Her diagnosis crushed me, too — and made me realize, very quickly, that she was without question the most important person in our family.
To see her today – a five-year survivor, vibrant, healthy, a full head of hair – is a far cry from 2012, a time she recalled with a range of emotions, as she described it in the September 2013 issue of Essence magazine:
“I ran my middle finger over it again,” she wrote, recalling the first time she suspected a lump. “I touched it once but didn’t really want to touch it again. It didn’t hurt, but it was real. I checked the same spot on my right side, thinking: Surely, there must be another random lump on the other side of my body, just under my right armpit because that’s the way God does things, in twos. But there was nothing on the right side. I asked for a second opinion: “Honey, do you feel this?” He sat up. I guided his index finger to the spot. Sounds sexy, doesn’t it? It wasn’t. “Yeah,” he said. “There’s something there.”
Essence afforded us the rare chance to give individual accounts of the journey we shared – as patient and caregiver. As the husband, readers – particularly brothers – thanked me for saying things out loud that they felt.
In the moments after hearing the doctor confirm our fears with the words “it’s breast cancer,” I was haunted by the possibility. I knew her family’s history.
Telling our story like this – literally reading portions of the article right there, in front of strangers – always brings the room to a whisper. Our story makes audience members recall their own journey, or that of a family member, or friend.
I stand close, aware and ready for some tears to fall, even if it’s through laughter. Where I stand is exactly where I stood just a few years ago as she endured six rounds of chemo, a bilateral mastectomy, reconstruction, recovery from a hematoma and removal of her ovaries.
Brothers … and I’m talking to you now, you ain’t been through nothin’ until you’ve gone through something like this, consumed by fear and what-ifs and in no real position to do anything.
Now that you’ve watched nearly a full October’s worth of sports, you’ve seen the flashes of pink dotting the fields and arenas, athletes wearing pink gloves and socks, cheerleaders pink’d out in their bustiers and supershort skirts. Critics will say this — especially the latter — has nothing to do with breast cancer. And stop with the pink already. I say … we say, shut up. If even one woman gets a mammogram, does a self-exam or makes an appointment, it’s a win – bigger than LeBron finally bringing the Larry O’Brien to Cleveland. Even if the only thing all that pink does is remind you that this breast cancer epidemic is real, and the real-life version of it couldn’t be less glamorous than what you see on NFL Sundays.
Here’s why you — yes, you, fans and readers of The Undefeated — have to care, and not be annoyed:
As a community, our African-American mothers and sisters and female buddies are less likely to get regular mammograms than white women and are more likely to be diagnosed with triple negative breast cancer, which is a more aggressive type of breast cancer. (Triple negative breast cancer is generally diagnosed based upon the presence, or lack of, three receptors known to fuel most breast cancers: estrogen receptors, progesterone receptors and human epidermal growth factor receptors.) Thankfully, Heather was not diagnosed as triple negative.
Further, African-American women are often diagnosed at a later stage of breast cancer and have a higher mortality rate. Those realities hurt to write, and, I gather, tough to read.
You can understand, then, why we were consumed by fear at first, and for a good portion of our journey. I’ll speak for myself: I was afraid to sleep, if I’m really honest.
Heather started a shift in mindset – beginning with this idea of overcoming fear. That’s our No. 1 obstacle, particularly in the African-American community. It paralyzes us. That cultural mistrust of doctors and hospitals is deadly. That’s where our hashtag — #FaithNotFear — grew from. I followed her lead.
Her five-year milestone is great — frikkin’ awesome, really. Being five years cancer-free increases your chances of longer survival exponentially. I see her now — especially when she’s in her element at work — and I marvel at how far she’s come.
So if pink’d-out cheerleaders lead you to ask your wife-sister-female friend if she’s had a mammogram, or if she’s even self-checked herself, then — boom! — mission accomplished.
A lot’s been written about the commercialization of the NFL’s breast cancer awareness campaign – that the NFL “takes a 25 percent royalty from the wholesale price, [and] donates 90 percent of [the] royalty to [the] American Cancer Society,” giving the American Cancer Society just $11.25 for every $100 of pink merchandise sold. And, of that, only about 70 percent goes to cancer programs — particularly screenings.
I say good — to all of it. Screenings actually save lives, so what are we talking about?
I have had a handful of my boys call me when their wives have had scares or even routine checks. Their fear takes me back to 2012; I don’t like going back there – but that’s exactly why I’m just the guy I want them to call.
Heather’s story isn’t unlike other brave and strong women and families whose stories have come with pain, and, yes, loss. Her story isn’t any more dynamic. But it does ring familiar to millions of families, particularly in the African-American community.
Since 2012, Heather’s #FaithNotFear team has been a top earner at the American Cancer Society’s Making Strides Against Breast Cancer walk in Charlotte, North Carolina. We party with friends and family at our home the night before – all donning shirts they’ve purchased, with proceeds going to the American Cancer Society.
There’s happiness. Sadness, too; yes, we’ve lost loved ones to cancer since 2012 – Heather’s mother among them. (Man, we miss her – still.) She walked with us in October 2013, weakened. That’s why we go hard every October. Others close to us are battling, including her aunt, who was diagnosed with breast cancer just after Heather was and is undergoing treatment for a second time.
While I was writing this, Heather asked me, “How does this all make you feel?” Powerless. That’s the word that comes to mind. We’re men; we’re fixers – so, yeah … powerless.
That’s why I applaud professional athletes who use their platform to do more than read prepared public service announcements from a teleprompter this time of year. DeAngelo Williams, the former Carolina Panthers running back now with the Pittsburgh Steelers, covered the cost of mammogram testing for 53 women this year. Williams’ mother, Sandra Hill, died from breast cancer two years ago, at 53. I salute you, brother, and others like you.
Octobers, for me, are no longer just about the beginning of another inevitable downward spiral for my Washington Redskins. I am happy about that, because following that team – the Washington Wizards, too! – drains even the biggest optimist.
Do I still worry about her? Absolutely. Do I overthink and go straight to worst-case scenario when she gets a cold or cough or wakes up feeling a little achy? Yup — guilty as charged. But experience tells me that that’s a natural, human response, and I no longer beat myself up. We just can’t stay in that fearful space.
Heather is Undefeated. So are millions of women — and men — in the fight. And, when we’re giving a talk, Heather always gets the last word.
In Essence, she wrote: “Prevention is one thing, but it’s not the goal. It can’t be, because cancer is too slippery. The goal is to be healthy in every way so that if it happens to you, you are fighting with your healthiest body and mind, your healthiest relationships, your healthiest self.”