She is modestly appareled on a brisk October afternoon in all things breast cancer awareness — from her grey and pink hoodie, which is covered by a white scarf enveloped in breast cancer ribbons, to her pink-accented Nike kicks and bubblegum pink nails. She requires only a cup of warm tea and a few packets of honey before she’s fully camera-ready.
But it isn’t her awareness gear, her celebrity, some massive entourage, or even a physical presentation that commands this attention. Much simpler, yet mystifying, is the aura of self-possession Roxanne radiates as she strides into her BET interview, which will peel back the layers of one of the grimmest struggles survived by the iconic Queens-hailed MC and legendary battle rap veteran.
Life for me has never really been easy
It’s been over two years since a different unlayering of her life, Roxanne Roxanne, was revealed to the world through cinematic lens. The January 2017-released biopic chronicled the humble Queensbridge Projects beginnings of Roxanne Shanté, born Lolita Shanté Gooden. The film grippingly depicts her teenage experiences with statutory rape, domestic abuse, financial betrayal and her complicated relationship with an austere mother. Gloriously, these struggles are underpinned by her reign as the undefeated queen of battle rap, a crown Roxanne earned after racking beneath her belt every contender brave enough to enter battle rap territory with her and putting each of her neighborhood male MC counterparts to shame.
Despite the film’s praise from hip-hop fans, the Netflix original still didn’t fully explicate Roxanne Shanté’s life any more than a two-time breast cancer diagnosis could extinguish the tenacious spirit of the Queens-bred battle rap legend.
“Life for me has never really been easy,” she says matter-of-factly. “Women today may not have been able to deal with some of the things I was dealing with even at the age of 10.”
Even an embattled 10-year-old Roxanne couldn’t have imagined the health pitfall she’d find herself in 30 years later. Roxanne comes from a strong bloodline of healthy women, none of whom were ever diagnosed with breast cancer, as far as Roxanne’s understanding goes. She had no knowledge of the hereditary lineage of her father and his family, however. Her knowledge about the disease was scant. She’d heard of a cancer fatality here, or happened upon a poster in a medical clinic there, but was never close enough to any loved one with cancer to pay any more mind to it than that.
So when Roxanne felt a lump on her left breast, she didn’t immediately panic, nor did she apply the necessary attention to it either.
“Being an African-American woman, we don’t really take a priority in our health, so we don’t really know certain things about our bodies like we should,” she explains of her initial oblivion to the lump. “I'm sure that we do now because times have changed and we have become more aware of how important it is. But we didn't always do that. So when I did feel a lump in my breast, I remember saying to myself like, ‘Okay, I'm getting older. My breast must be falling apart.’ I guess they weren’t always going to stay in tact. They weren’t going to always sit up. I've had babies, you know, this must be what happens as you get older.”
Roxanne initially took the issue up with friends and family. From suggestions of drinking more carrot juice to other quick fixes like jogging, each person had their own remedy, but none had the right one. “I’m going to tell you—when you’re going through breast cancer, you can't ask [about it] to people who have never been through it,” she asserts. “The worst thing in the world to do is to try to go and get advice from someone who does not know what it's like.”
Considering that neither the lump nor any other part of her breast was painful, Roxanne believed nothing was wrong. Afterward, what she assumed to be a stubborn cold didn’t raise any major concerns either, which she figured to resolve with her general physician. During the physical exam, the doctor felt the lump and recommended her for a mammogram, a procedure Roxanne thought women didn’t need until 50-years-old. Still, she followed her physician’s orders without much apprehension. It wasn’t until one seemingly simple, yet unsettling question from her mammographer that the alarms rang out.
“I went and got the mammogram and while I was getting the exam, the technician, she just kept looking back at me and looking back at me and looking back at me,” Roxanne remembers.
“And then she was like, ‘So where do you go for treatment?’ And I was like, ‘Treatment?’” In that moment, Roxanne’s mammographer realized she’d made a tremendous mistake. “And then, the look on her face was like, ‘Oh my God—what did I just say?’ And the look on my face was like, ‘Treatment for what?’ Like, what is she saying to me?”
In a last-ditch damage control effort from her flub, the mammographer attempted to backpedal the question. Though the signs of the disease were undeniably apparent to the technician, she realized Roxanne had not been formally diagnosed with breast cancer from her doctor. Looking at the white clouds of her imaging test results, Roxanne didn’t realize what she was seeing were the areas the cancer had spread. Despite the mystery, ”she still knew something was wrong. After she was sent back to her physician with the mammogram results, she was then advised to visit an oncologist— more unfamiliar medical territory. “And then that's when they sat me down and told me, and I was like, ‘Wow, another battle to go through for Roxanne Shanté,’” she recalls from that moment. “Now what am I going to do?”
At first, Roxanne kept the diagnosis quiet for as long as she could, especially from her sisters, whom she always shared everything with and didn’t want to devastate with the news. One inescapable reality endured by most cancer patients would later force her into admission: chemotherapy.
which she began shortly after the diagnosis. As she relives these moments, she drops her head, calling back each vivid detail. Her first order of business was to find a comfortable chair. She remembers the multiple wires snaking around her body and into the machine that would feed her the medication. She recalls trembling through chills. The excessively dry feel of her lips from cotton mouth. The disappearance of her taste buds. The ceaseless, piercing ringing noise in her ears that she likened to being struck in the head with a blunt object. The weak, sluggish postcondition that she was reduced to from this machine that would either protect her life or write it off, a thought she often wrestled with. She also summoned back quieter thoughts from those moments.
“Am I going to start to look like some of the other people in the room after a little while?” she formidably pondered about the other chemo patients. “Because you'll notice that everyone is starting to change. Everyone's starting to actually look like they're fighting for their life.”
...The look on her face was like, ‘Oh my God—what did I just say?’...
Of all the physical and psychological adverse effects, however, it was Roxanne’s hair loss – one of the most notoriously conspicuous effects of chemotherapy – that exposed her secret. As she sits in front of me, Roxanne is rocking her third full head of hair since she began her treatments. It’s neatly tucked into a large bun on top of her head. But back then, her thick tresses were thinning away, and her sister couldn’t help but notice it along with how tired she always appeared. Instead of revealing the real cause of the hair loss, she accepted her sister’s suggestion for a quick weave—another naive mistake she unfortunately had to learn about in her following chemotherapy session.
This mistake was realized through “hothead,” a term that explains the rising body temperature in chemotherapy. Patients usually request something for their heads to keep them cool during these treatments. Unbeknown to Roxanne, the quick weave that her sister installed was the last thing she’d want on her head. But it also became the inadvertent catalyst that forced Roxanne to tell her sister the truth. “I remember calling her and having to tell her, ‘I gotta get this off my head. I need to tell you what's going on.’ And then I told her, and she broke down crying. I told her, ‘Don't do that to me. Don’t cry.’”
Refusing self-pity and that of anyone else’s, Roxanne adopted a blissful outlook toward her condition that her family didn’t expect. She splurged through credit cards and account funds. She replaced savings with spontaneity and replaced checkbooks with scrapbooks, took wonderous destination trips with her loved ones and savored every memory along the way.
She traded in her bucket list for her newly coined “f**k-it list”: a personal agenda of experiences, memories, luxuries and wishes she’d leave behind if worse came to worse. Roxanne vowed to make the best of whatever time she had left, even if that meant confusing everyone around her. “Other people were like, ‘I can't believe how she's taking it,’” she remembers. “Maybe some people even felt offended, like she's not taking this seriously.”
She remembers the room she apprehensively walked into before her oncologist informed her, full of warm smiles. Roxanne’s bubbly, humored temperament that she’d married herself to throughout the battle spoke for her before she could even react to the information. “I was sitting there like, what?” she says, a nostalgic grin redeeming the tears on her face. “And they were like, yeah, you know, you're going to live. And I was like, okay, with all his f**king debt that I just piled up like, you mean I gotta stay?” The room exploded with tears of both laughter and relief.
Yet, because Roxanne never removed her breast, the doctors were transparent with her about the possibility of a breast cancer recurrence, which she later experienced in the opposite breast. But this time, Roxanne didn’t leave herself in the dark about her own body. She didn’t hide the update from family or scramble to find answers. This time, she was smarter, wiser and far more proactive. Roxanne turned to a holistic approach to cope with her symptoms. Though she returned to chemotherapy, her treatments weren’t as aggressive because, as she prides, “early detection is key.”
Dubbing the breast cancer awareness flagship month of October “Roxtober,” she’s also burrowed herself in activism. This month alone, Roxanne will attend 22 events (and possibly more, she adds) devoted to breast cancer survival advocacy, including seminars, walks and projects. Her approach is all-inclusive, embracing survivors as well as their families and medical staff, particularly as they ascribe to the roles of caregivers.
“People overlook them,” she says. “People don't understand how important it is. The person who was there holding the pail for you when you're throwing up, the person who's willing to clean you up and wipe up, the person who's willing to even cook you food, knowing that you can't even taste this s**t. The person who's willing to, you know, hold you during the night.”
Roxtober is taxing, she reminds me, but nonetheless rewarding, especially considering how far she’s come in her ultimate goal to spread awareness.
“I don't want some woman to be watching this now and feel like, okay, well now I'm going to eat apples every day and this is what's going to work for me,” she informs. “No, you need to find out what is the treatment for you in order to make sure that you are here with your family, that you are able to live your life. It is important that you follow your treatment. Yeah. There are a million books for people to tell you, ‘This is what I did and how I survived’. There are seminars, there's YouTube, there's the internet, there's support groups, there's all these different things. But you still need to go in and find out exactly what treatment is best for you so that you can stay here with your family.”
(Photo: Susan Watts/NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images)