Empowering my breast cancer care: The impact of choosing a Black oncologist
During forty-plus years of working as a professional dancer on Broadway, television, and film, I never had any health issues, and there had never been any history of the C-word in my family. When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, I had been working in the public school as a teaching artist for five years.
Six months after I submitted to a work-mandated Covid-vaccination, I felt a lump above my right breast on my chest/sternum area. It just appeared one day. I made an OB/Gyn appointment, and she recommended that I get a biopsy. The results were malignant: I had estrogen receptor-positive breast cancer. It was April of 2022.
I continued working throughout my diagnosis and surgical procedures.
Finding the right oncologist for me
My first appointment was with an Indian oncologist. The doctor seemed to want to rush me through the appointment. He came into the room saying, “We can do a lumpectomy and a mastectomy.” He hadn’t even examined me or had my chart in his hands. I was out of his office quicker than I could blink! It was disheartening – to say the least.
My second appointment was with a white surgeon. He mentioned the lumpectomy, and then asked me what I did. I asked him what my occupation had to do with my diagnosis. I felt that my economic status was being scrutinized because of my color.
Frustrated and dissatisfied with both, I spoke with my family. My niece Tracey suggested that I should find a Black oncologist. Within days, my prayer-partner Angela connected me with her friend June who was diagnosed with breast cancer. June informed me that her neighbor would be performing her upcoming surgery.
I was shocked and had to confirm that I had heard correctly: Her neighbor would perform the surgery? She said, yes, he is a Black oncologist at a hospital in the Bronx. She gave me his office number, and I was able to schedule an appointment the following week with him. Look at how God orchestrated a solution by using my prayer-partner!
The color of compassionate care
When I arrived at my appointment, my doctor, Bert Petersen, MD, FACS, was a compassionate professional. He immediately asked how he could help me. He studied my chart and recognized the absence of comprehensive tests in my previous appointments. He was concerned about the absence of a CT scan, a PET scan, an MRI, and more. He was not surprised, however, reflecting upon the broader disparities within the medical industry for patients of color. Regardless of whether I would choose him as my surgeon, he said he would order the necessary tests. I was convinced that he was the right doctor for me.
I underwent surgeries in November of 2022 to remove both the lump and lymph nodes, followed by an additional procedure to remove any remaining tissue above my breast. On December 15, 2022, my margins were clear! However, for precautionary measures, eight sessions of chemotherapy were recommended as well as 33 sessions of radiation.
Having a Black oncologist resonated with me on many levels: the comfort of our cultural similarities, the texture of our skin, and how to handle that in surgery. When I arrived for surgery, I had an anxiety attack and was crying profusely. Dr. Petersen took my hand and spoke comforting affirmations to me that brought calm and peace to me. He asked if I trust him, and I said I trust God, and I trust you. After surgery, Dr. Petersen informed me that he was able to remove the lump and lymph nodes and did not go anywhere near my breast. I had surgery on a Thursday, and on Monday I went back to teach dance. I was careful with extending my right arm, but I believe getting back to my physical routine strengthened me through my journey.
During this time, I also began to consult with a holistic nutritionist in New Jersey, who advised me to cut out white sugar, caffeine, and red meat, all of which I immediately removed from my diet. Overall, I made healthier decisions on everything that I consumed.
The cold cap, chemotherapy, and hair loss
In my quest to prevent hair loss with the impending chemotherapy, I discovered cold caps. My primary facility lacked access to these, so I transitioned to another facility that had more resources. However, despite this change and all my efforts, my hair loss persisted. By my fourth session of chemotherapy my hair was almost completely gone. It was devastating! As I evaluated my situation after the fact, I realized that I should have saturated my hair with conditioner and products that I normally use to slick my hair down. I also would have braided my hair so that the cold cap would have better access to my scalp.
The cold cap manufacturer reached out to me via email to inquire about my experience. I asked if they had done any research on Black hair. The representative replied that they had not. This product was not made with me or anyone who looks like me in mind. I also asked if there were any Black members on their board of directors. There was not. This scenario is one that is common in the world in which we live, and it continues to perpetuate the lack of care and inclusion for people of color. After I offered suggestions, my statements were listed on their website. I then received an email after my treatment with full on instructions for wavy/course hair, which was never provided to me prior to treatment.
Losing my hair was one side effect I did not want to experience. I held onto a few strands until my friend David said, “Darla (my nickname), you need to shave it off so that you can start from scratch.”
I immediately began to go wig shopping, and then I took him up on his offer; however, I did not have the courage to go out in public with a bald head. My hair has recently begun growing, and by Thanksgiving I should be able to get finger waves, which is a style that I could rock in public.
Discovering support services
Throughout my journey my faith in God was my driving force. Commencing chemotherapy in February 2023 and concluding in June, I continued to trust God through my journey with prayers of agreement with my support groups to counter side effects and stand with me as I declared daily that I am the exception! Strategic affirmations, supplements, and a robust network fortified my resilience. Radiation treatments, ongoing until August 23, 2023, mark the latest leg of my journey. Through unwavering faith, I've remained undeterred, turning adversity into strength. Organizations such as CancerCare, Sharsheret, and Rocking the Road for a Cure offered support that was above and beyond what I could have ever expected to receive. I hadn’t even known about support services until my friend Stephanie asked if I had a social worker or an advocate. My chemotherapy treatments were already over, but I called my hospital to inquire. Did someone drop the ball, or was that yet another scenario regarding the disparities among patients of color?
My journey as a Black woman with breast cancer revealed a lack of care, regard, and inclusion, and I discovered I had to ask and request things that would otherwise be a given to others. It is my hope to be a voice to other women of color about the steps to take to get ample medical treatment:
- Do your own research
- Google every prescription
- Seek out natural and holistic remedies, and
- Challenge your doctors with questions. After all, it’s their practice, and practice means to improve one’s proficiency!
By sharing my story, I aspire to raise awareness about challenges faced by patients of color within the medical landscape. This journey has only strengthened my determination to overcome and inspire others along the way.
The views and opinions of our bloggers represent the views and opinions of the bloggers alone and not those of Living Beyond Breast Cancer. Also understand that Living Beyond Breast Cancer does not medically review any information or content contained on, or distributed through, its blog and therefore does not endorse the accuracy or reliability of any such information or content. Through our blog, we merely seek to give individuals creative freedom to tell their stories. It is not a substitute for professional counseling or medical advice.
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