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Treating Breast Cancer Early

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Breast Cancer: From Surviving to Thriving as a Woman of Color

Marissa Thomas_Breast Cancer From Surviving to Thriving as a Woman of Color

Survivorship is the term used to describe the period after completing treatment for cancer. For some, survivorship starts the day they receive a diagnosis. But as a Woman of Color, survivorship is an everyday struggle from the moment we set foot into the world. Not only are we navigating the world with a life-threatening illness, but we are also navigating all of the traumas and difficulties that life as a Woman of Color throws at us everyday. 

Breast cancer is a diagnosis that can turn anyone's life upside down. As my good friend and fellow thriver Trish says, "we're all just one phone call away from our lives changing." One minute you're like myself, planning a trip with your family and about to celebrate the holidays, and the next minute you're preparing for surgery and chemo. Receiving my breast cancer diagnosis was a life-changing smack-into-reality moment on how things can change in an instant – and time is of the essence.

Most people receiving this diagnosis may feel like I did. But for Women of Color, the experience can be particularly difficult. Systemic racism, lack of access to quality healthcare, and other socio-economic factors can make the experience even more challenging. Survivorship for Women of Color living with breast cancer can be an uphill climb, but it is possible with the right resources and support. 

Advocating for yourself

Survivorship for Women of Color with breast cancer starts with a type of advocacy most people don’t have to think about. For example, we must ask ourselves questions like, “Will my doctor believe me today?” “Should I speak up and say how I’m feeling or should I go with the flow so they don’t think I’m the ‘angry Black Woman?’” “How do I get my family to talk about our health history?” 

I used to not speak up for myself, especially when it came to my medical team. However, I've noticed that people will have their own narrative or bias about you and the type of care you will receive. When I was receiving chemotherapy, I called the on-call doctor asking them to put in an order for hydration because I knew I was dehydrated. He denied my request and told me to just rest. I messaged my doctor and she told the on-call doctor that when a patient calls with a concern or an ask, they should take it seriously and ask more questions instead of denying the request. I learned it’s worth it to advocate for yourself – and to find a doctor who will listen and advocate for you, as well.

Another form of advocacy for Women of Color involves sharing our personal experiences with breast cancer tailored for us, by us, as well as raising awareness of the challenges faced by Women of Color. 

Sharing your story can be done multiple ways like writing about your personal experiences on sites like For the Breast of Us – the organization I co-founded to support Women of Color with breast cancer – speaking at conferences or health fairs, or even by making a social media post. However, I know some of us aren't as open to sharing on social media or publicly, and that is okay! I was once there and I don't feel anyone should be pressured to share or be a "super advocate." You do what feels right and comfortable to you. Even talking to a small group of people or one on one with another person is a form of advocacy.

Advocacy can also involve pushing for policies and programs that address the disparities faced by Women of Color in accessing breast cancer care and support. I know firsthand that navigating survivorship can be challenging, as it often involves adjusting to changes in one's health, coping with the emotional and psychological distress that comes from a breast cancer diagnosis, and making lifestyle changes to adapt to the new person you are forced to become.

While I’m still learning what survivorship looks like for me, here are some tips that have helped me along the way:

Communicate with your healthcare team

Stay in touch with your healthcare team and keep them informed of any changes in your health; no matter how big or small, let them know! Be proactive in managing your medical care, and don't hesitate to ask questions or seek second opinions. Check your online patient portal regularly and if you see any errors, inform your team. 

I've realized that, to make sure my care is tailored to how I want it, I have to be an active participant. My first oncologist (I've had three since receiving my diagnosis) said to me, "Think of our relationship like we are riding in a car together and you're driving the car. I'm just in the passenger seat. From time to time while you're driving, I may suggest we change the radio channel or make a right turn instead of a left, but ultimately it is your decision." This helped me remember that this relationship is one of shared decision making, and I am in control of this ride (my life).

Find outlets to manage your emotional and mental well-being 

Survivorship can be emotionally challenging. Seek support from loved ones, join a support group, or consider seeing a mental health professional. It’s okay to “date around” to find the group that works for you. One day a certain group is right, and the next day, another one may be better. Just like life, survivorship changes from day to day and it’s okay to be flexible and go where you feel is best for you.

One of the reasons we created For the Breast of Us was so Women of Color had a place to connect, share their experiences, and see other thrivers that look like them. It's important to have others who can understand you on the days when nothing makes sense but you have to put on a smile regardless. The support is crucial at those times when your body feels like an 80-year-old woman’s and you can't remember what you just said 10 minutes ago.

Celebrate your achievements

Remember to celebrate your achievements and the progress you've made along the way. Give yourself credit for navigating survivorship in the best way for YOU. There’s no right or wrong answer. Remember at the end of the day, it’s your life and you are the one living it. Don’t let anyone else determine what your survivorship looks like.

At our For the Breast of Us meetings, we start by asking everyone, "What is your little win of the day, week, or month?" We do this to remind everyone it is okay to celebrate yourself and the accomplishments you've made no matter how big or small. Celebrate them all! Did you make your bed this morning? Good job! Remember to take all your medications today? Great! Made it through a shopping trip by sticking to your list? Yes, girl, you did that! I've started keeping a weekly journal of all the achievements that happened, so at the end of year I can look back at all the good and celebrate myself for a job well done. And remember, no one can tell you how big or small your win is because it's YOUR win!

Survivorship to me means moving from surviving to thriving. As Black and Brown women, we move through the world learning to survive each day. Instead of learning to survive, I want to thrive in this world and past this diagnosis. Let me thrive daily, one step at a time and one moment at a time, on my terms.

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Medical Reviewer: Lisa Valente, MS, RD
Last Review Date: 2021 Mar 30
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THIS CONTENT DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. This content is provided for informational purposes and reflects the opinions of the author. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Always seek the advice of a qualified healthcare professional regarding your health. If you think you may have a medical emergency, contact your doctor immediately or call 911.