While most 23-year-olds are basking in the accomplishment of graduating college, ready to take over the corporate or creative world in their respective careers or travel, Jasmine Skinner was on the verge of depression after testing positive for the BRCA2 mutation, a change in a gene that is responsible for proofreading cells to check for cancer. She learned that when that occurred, it put her at an increased risk for breast cancer.
Having already experienced her grandmother, aunt, and sister suffer from breast cancer, with her mother and sister both diagnosed around the same time (her mother twice), she knew the unfortunate possibility that lied ahead. Jasmine would spend the next few months fighting to control crying spells and dealing with high levels of anxiety out of fear that she'd be the next cancer patient. Would she get the chance to get married? Have kids? Travel? Do all that she set out to do? Or would she be next?
With such a long history of the cancer on both sides of her family, Jasmine decided she would embark on a journey of self-care to take the steps needed to try and prevent the same fate.
Jasmine's experience is not uncommon. Studies suggests that young black women have a higher rate of abnormal BRCA1 or BRCA2 genes. Additionally, while overall rates of breast cancer in black and white women are about the same, black women are 20-40% more likely to die from breast cancer and suffer from a more advanced form than our white counterparts. The reason for this disparity is likely due to several factors, including genetics, the biology of the cancer, and differences in healthcare. But a huge risk factor is the familial history and knowing the risk.
Dr. Monique Gary, Medical Director of Breast Health at Grand View Hospital and Surgical Oncologist, says that being educated on our family histories can be the toss-up between survival. "I tell patients to talk to their family to get the history," Dr. Gary explains. "We are sick as the secrets we keep. Screening guidelines for breast cancer are based on the patient's known risks so having an open dialogue is imperative."
Depending on your risks, screenings vary from patient to patient. The most common are mammograms and ultrasounds. Dr. Gary advises against opting out of one or the other and insists that they should be done in conjunction with one another. "Patients now have the option of 3D mammography with tomosynthesis, which is an electronic mammogram that allows 9 slices through the breast to thoroughly check. [It] is a great technique to detect breast cancer, specifically in women with dense breasts," she explains. "Ultrasounds are helpful because they look at the soft tissue of the breast and uses sound waves."
One screening method that is often overlooked is a self-breast examination.
For Jasmine's older sister Carlette, a lump felt during a self-breast examination was the first sign that something could be off. At 33, Carlette Knox was a working full-time wife, mother, and church community member who was also helping care for her and Jasmine's mom, who was recently diagnosed with breast cancer a second time. "I was living a fast-paced life because I was working, helping with my mom's care, and managing my family, which at the time consisted of my husband, son, and three foster children," Knox explains.
After discovering the lump, instead of immediately scheduling an appointment to see an Oncologist, she put it off for two months, which Dr. Gary says is a huge mistake that many women make.
"With Black women having higher risks for advanced breast cancer, putting appointments off can be detrimental because sometimes if the cancer progresses to a certain point, it's hard to halt or reverse it."
During the two months between discovery and her appointment, Carlette says the lump grew significantly larger and more tender. When the results from her breast cancer came back, she was stunned. "Going sooner could have made a big difference," she says. "When I finally went in, it was stage 3 and I opted to have a mastectomy (removal of the breast) because I had witnessed what my mom had experienced and did not want the cancer to make a comeback. By the time my surgery came, it was a stage 4."
Post-surgery, Carlette's treatment consisted of 16 chemotherapy treatments and five weeks of radiation after it was found that her lymph nodes were affected. Unlike many patients who experience horrible side effects of treatment, she considered herself lucky to have a different experience. "I never had nausea, vomiting, or things that most people experience. I did lose my hair; but, I didn't lose weight and maintained my appetite during my chemo," she says. "It was the same during my radiation also. Most patients I know suffered skin burns, so I felt guilty because I seemed to get off easily. But I credit my relatively healthy eating habits prior to diagnosis and my overall positive spirit from the date of diagnosis."
Lifestyle choices such as a balanced diet can not only prevent a woman from developing breast cancer, but according to Dr. Gary, can dictate how patients react to treatment. "You don't have to live a meatless or vegetarian lifestyle," Dr. Gary says. "Foods high in antioxidants the chomp away at cellular damage and that's what cancer is. Lean meats like lean chicken, beef and fish are good because they are low in fat content. The less preserved the meats and veggies are and the fresher it is, the more nutrients we get."
Purchasing organic foods and fresh vegetables as opposed to frozen options help with the nutrients needed to keep us healthy and work well with our cells. Before treatment, Dr. Gary preps her patients for an overall cleanse. "I tell patients to treat this like they are training for a marathon," she says. "During treatment, we must look at how to optimize our health during every stage of treatment and not just the measure of treatment. We have to treat our bodies well at every stage. Before surgery, I encourage an increase of antioxidants, fruits and vegetables."
Dr. Gary educates her patients on why such a thing is important, explaining radiation making patients tired, so keeping energy levels up are key. Side effects of chemo include symptoms like numbness in limbs, hair loss, nausea, and sometimes diarrhea. Unfortunately, Linda Martin experienced all of those side effects during her treatments.
After her diagnosis post her mammogram screening in her early 50's, she like Knox endured chemotherapy and radiation because her cancer was very aggressive. Linda had trouble eating, experienced stomach pains, and nausea. "I primarily followed a light diet that consisted of soup and even baby food," she explains. "I was also extremely tired and after treatment, I would be out of commission for about four days."
But like Carlette, Linda was determined to beat her cancer diagnosis and get back to her normal life. "I continued to work because it kept me sane and distracted. My job was supportive as well as my daughter. My main focus was to not succumb to the cancer so I did whatever my doctors told me and stayed as positive as possible."
Today, both Linda and Carlette remain breast cancer free. For Carlette, it was a huge feat, considering her mother's battle with breast cancer twice, with the second diagnosis leading to her death. That's unfortunately the case for many.
"Black women are much more likely to be diagnosed with triple-negative breast cancer, which can be more aggressive, harder to treat, and more likely to come back," explains Dr. Gary. "It's imperative that we take care of ourselves."
Carlette and Linda maintain healthy lifestyles to prevent having to deal with breast cancer again – and for Jasmine, at all.
Because she knows the likelihood of developing breast cancer, Jasmine takes her health seriously. "MRI's and monograms every 6 months are non-negotiable for me. I don't smoke. I do yoga. I eat healthy and I cook at home as often as possible."
To learn more about breast cancer prevention and treatment in black women, visit Sisters Network Inc.
Featured image via Jasmine Skinner