Three Black Women, One Diagnosis: ‘I Wasn’t Surprised When I Got Cancer.’

Thelma P. Brown says cancer occupied an all too familiar presence in her home.

This year for Breast Cancer Awareness Month interviewed three women about their diagnosis and subsequent treatment. This is Thelma P. Brown's story. Erika Wimms and Kamesha Miles' stories are equally inspiring. 

I wasn’t surprised when I received my breast cancer diagnosis in 2008. I don’t want to sound fatalistic, but I was kind of waiting for it. Cancer was never a secret in my house; we always spoke about it. I had multiple members of my family who had already been diagnosed, and so when I was diagnosed in my late 40s, I expected it.

In fact, I had spoken with a doctor about a prophylactic bilateral mastectomy about a year or so before I was diagnosed. My mom got sick, and my sister’s health declined, and so I had no choice but to put having that surgery on the back burner.

Still, because of my family’s history, I had mammograms every six months. There were nine girls and three boys, and most of my sisters had already been diagnosed with the disease at the time of my diagnosis, as well as my mom and an aunt. Additionally, six months before my diagnosis, my oldest sister died from metastatic breast cancer, where the disease spread beyond the breasts to other parts of her body. Still, my most recent mammogram had been clean.

However, while showering, I felt something and went to see the doctor running the study for high-risk women that I was a part of. She felt something also but said that since my mammogram was done three months prior, I wouldn’t be able to get another one immediately.

RELATED: Three Black Women, One Diagnosis: ‘If I Found My Cancer Earlier, There’s A Possibility It Wouldn’t Have Come Back.’

I was frantic and went to see my primary care doctor the next day. He got me in to see someone that day for a mammogram. What they saw was so disturbing that I was scheduled for surgery immediately.

I had a bilateral mastectomy (a surgery in which both breasts are removed at the same time). About three months after I started my breast reconstruction surgeries, I received notification of an available appointment for a mammogram from that initial doctor. While those months may not have made a difference in my survival, they could have for someone who was diagnosed with a  more aggressive form of breast cancer. It just further proved how essential it is to advocate for yourself.

In 2014, I felt a sharp pain and found a lump on top of my reconstruction. At that point, I had already passed the five-year mark, which usually means you’re in the clear. I hadn’t seen an oncologist in a year, and I was no longer receiving adjuvant hormonal treatment (medication that can reduce the chance of a breast cancer recurrence).

My cancer returned, and although it was considered in the early stage, my Oncotype score —a number that can help determine if your cancer will recur and your treatment— was high, so they decided I needed chemotherapy and radiation. In 2015, I started hormonal therapy, which I’ll have to do for 10 years.

RELATED: Three Black Women, One Diagnosis: ‘Not Only Did The Biopsy Come Back Positive But Turns Out The Cancer Had Spread’

Currently, there is no evidence of the disease and I am cancer free. I was told that I have an inherited mutation called ATM. (According to the Susan G. Komen foundation ATM  is an inherited mutation that can increase the risk of breast cancer and other cancers.)

My journey taught me that it’s so important to do breast self-exams and to make sure to advocate for yourself. If something doesn’t feel right, you have to speak up. And that goes for men, too, because they also get breast cancer, and like African American women, they die at a higher rate than their counterparts.

If you want to learn more about breast cancer, how to advocate for yourself, different types of treatment available, donate or participate in an event, go to the Susan G. Komen website. Although Breast Cancer Awareness month is in October, the organization offers help and events throughout the year.

This article has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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