Brenda Alexander is a West Philly native with a love of the 3 W's: writing, wine and Whitney Houston. When she's not working or overanalyzing life, you can catch her praising Jesus with a bomb Gospel playlist or annoying those who love her as she listens to Christmas music all year round (her fascination with the holiday even produced a Christmas book). Her work has been featured on Mayvenn's Real Beautiful blog and CurlyNikki . Follow her excursions via Instagram @trulybrenda_
Would you leave a six-figure paying gig with a minimal plan and only one company you've ever worked for spanning almost two decades on your resume because you were unhappy? Well, Joyel Crawford, owner of Crawford Leadership Strategies, did just that.
After 18 years with Verizon in various management roles and a checkered bill of health from being overworked, Joyel took her transferable skills in management and turned them into a business in life and career coaching. She now warns her clients, both individual and corporate, against making the same mistakes she did and witnessed working in corporate America. I spoke with the Elon University alumna about how a woman with a Bachelor's in Psychology and a Theater minor with secret dreams of Broadway ended up in a career she felt stifled her for so long before stepping into her true destiny.
Joyel Crawford, Owner of Crawford Leadership Strategies
Through our chat, I discovered that the saying "Money and success doesn't buy happiness" was all too real in her case.
You took a job unrelated to your studies, why?
Most women in my family are [in] social services and mental health so that was a natural and safe concentration. My passion was always the creative arts, hence my theater minor – but my parents weren't supportive of that as a focus. My cousin had recently gotten a job at Bell Atlantic Mobile (now Verizon) in customer service. I wanted to get my MBA and knew the company did 100% tuition reimbursement. During my new hire orientation, they presented on their commitment to professional advancement and that's when my love of leadership clicked in. Throughout my academic career, I was very active in leadership roles and was impressed by their commitment to employee development. My main focus when I first started working at Verizon was not the actual job but obtaining my MBA.
How did you climb the corporate ladder?
Networking. Even as a customer service rep, I spoke to colleagues and managers about my goals. They liked my work ethic and personality and encouraged me to go through the ranks within the company. Within five years, I got my MBA in management. I was promoted to a national accounts manager, to a coach for new hires, to finally an HR admin. From there, I settled into being a leadership development training consultant.
When did you notice you were unhappy?
Looking back, I was never happy because I wasn't doing exactly what I loved. I overcompensated by getting promotions. My knack for leadership allowed me to co-create a new leader orientation program, which was something that came out of frustration of having employees complete eight hours of online training. We consolidated it into just two hours and through that, I certified over 100 employees through that program. At one point, I was responsible for leading development and training for 30,000 employees. But I was coming to a ceiling there.
"Looking back, I was never happy because I wasn't doing exactly what I loved. I overcompensated by getting promotions."
Did you develop an action plan?
No, I just knew that my time was coming to an end there. I was exploring different options but nothing planned out. A friend suggested that I start doing public speaking and telling my story to other professionals about how to move up the ranks within their jobs. I realized that's where my passion lied. Simultaneously, I began to get sick and later discovered it was work-related.
What was going on health-wise?
It started with insomnia. I was diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder and depression but thanks to my theater background and being a great actress, no one knew. At home, I was miserable and crying with no motivation outside of work. I started grinding my teeth and cracked a tooth and had to get an $800 mouth guard. I was put on antidepressants and a cocktail of different drugs – one to stabilize my moods, one to put me to sleep and so on. At one point, I was singing, acting, and auditioning while working full-time. On my way to rehearsal, I had extreme abdominal pain and discovered it to be a fibroid. I had to have surgery. The process of discovering the fibroid, scheduling, and having the operation and being back at work was done within three weeks. The surgery didn't help. More fibroids developed. The final straw was when I was five minutes late for a conference call and my manager called to give me an earful while I was sick from the fibroids. I quit on the spot and explained why. He was empathetic and instead, suggested I go out on emotional and medical leave.
How’d you get through that period?
My last salary was a base of $103,500. I also had my pension, 401k, and over two consecutive months of unused vacation. I rolled my 401k into an IRA. I knew I wanted to quit and had saved enough money to survive as far as living for rent and other expenses. A year before I quit, I was contemplating what was next. My husband was consulting and suggested I do the same. I had the skill set and the education but didn't recognize it. He did. So I started Crawford Leadership Strategies in 2014.
"A year before I quit, I was contemplating what was next."
How did you start?
I invested in professional memberships for networking purposes. Thankfully, I had credentials under my belt from all of the trainings I completed at Verizon. Although I had a good amount of savings, I didn't take into account the startup costs of a business. Building a website, membership fees, additional certifications, paperwork, and even business cards added up fast. My survival money was running out within six months. Things were getting bad financially.
How bad did it get financially?
My survival money was gone and I resorted to state assistance and food stamps. I couldn't claim unemployment because I left my job voluntarily – regardless of the fact that I could have attributed it to my health and said I left for medical reasons. I couldn't be modest anymore.
How did you work to get your business booming?
Letting go of pride first and advertising to family and friends. My first paying client was a woman who my aunt was mentoring. She worked in government and desired assistance with a new career and my aunt referred me. I came up with an hourly consulting fee. She hired me for a six-hour session. Through that experience, I figured out pricing and packages because she needed me to travel to her in another state and paid for my accommodations. I ended up working with her for six months and she actually became a test client for a practicum I was doing for a certification. That snowballed into other business.
How do you feel you’ve been able to sustain your business?
The great thing about my work is that I can do it virtually so I'm not limited in the clients I can take. Because of my certifications, education, and background, I can do webinars, life coaching, and career coaching. I can build curriculum and I can facilitate programs. I have a variety of what I offer.
You gave up a six-figure salary. Do you see the return on your investment?
Yes, but I made poor investments in advertising in the beginning that cost me. Now I stick to social media and utilize my network of colleagues and clients for work. My certifications help and I'm a member of the Forbes Coaching Council. I've had a small feature in Essence Magazine and I write and coach for The Muse.
Was it worth the risk?
Absolutely. My father passed this year and one of the last things he said to me was, "If you have the chance to do what you love, then do it." I was in a career that was taxing but had skills that I loved and was able to apply them to what I do now full-time. Revenue has gone up yearly. My health is in tact and although like many, I work to find balance, I am happy!
"If you have the chance to do what you love, then do it."
How is life different now?
Before, I never went on vacation and as mentioned, cashed my vacation time out when I quit my job. Since then I've gotten married to the man of my dreams, I've been traveling, and I make time for the things I love.
What advice do you give to those looking to transition?
Put yourself out there and network. It's about who you know, that's how I've landed all of my clients dating back to my first. Stay the course and have patience. I contemplated quitting because of the financial stress but my clients encouraged me and I ultimately decided to continue my business because I refused to regress into what I'd experienced before. Know and show your value and know your WHY as it won't lead you wrong.
For more information about Joyel and her coaching business, check out her website.
This is Camille's story, as told to Brenda Alexander.
I returned from my first trip abroad, a dream vacation in Africa. It was 1994 and I was 25, feeling on top of the world.
When I arrived home, I fell ill. My physician told me that I'd contracted Idiopathic Thrombocytopenic Purpura, also known as ITP. My doctor said that it was a side effect of Mefloquine, a prevention medication against malaria that I'd taken before the trip.
ITP had me feeling fatigued and I developed bruises all over my body. Doctors told me that some bruises may be permanent, but it wasn't likely. I was sent to a hematologist to investigate my blood and why I wasn't recuperating. I was put through a series of blood tests; one of them was an HIV test. The first time, they lost my results, so I had to retake it. Back then, results took one month to come back, which I meant I had to wait an agonizing two months for my results.
After those two months passed, I was told that I was HIV positive.
The doctor told me they wouldn't treat people who had both ITP and HIV. I was left to fend for myself. And during that time, you were considered dead with that diagnosis.
I asked if they could detect when I was infected. "You've had HIV for two years," they said.
I had been dating my boyfriend longer than two years and hadn't been with anyone else.
I knew men played the reversed psychology/blame game after being confronted about STDs so I devised a plan in case he tried the same. I contacted all former lovers and advised them to get tested. They all reported back that they were negative.
When I finally told my boyfriend, he was in denial. "The test is wrong," he claimed. I countered that the doctors ran my blood 3-4 times per protocol to ensure the diagnosis was correct and my exes were negative. He refused testing. "I won't be able to handle it like you," he said.
Six months later, he was incarcerated. While in prison, he tested positive. When we spoke, he was calm, never blaming or questioning me. Instead, he suggested we get married since we both had the virus. He knew he was the culprit. In fact, he'd messed around before.
A year prior, he confessed he'd contracted chlamydia after cheating and told me to get tested. He paid for my doctor's visit and accompanied me to my appointment. My results came back negative. The counselor suggested that I also take an HIV test but I declined. I'd already suffered enough trauma from that experience. I refused because I couldn't face a potential positive result. Had I taken the test, I could have learned about my status sooner.
The doctor prescribed the only medication available at the time, AZT. I had a friend who passed from the virus and deteriorated quickly while on AZT. He lost weight and his skin color changed. Witnessing that, I opted out of treatment. I told my doctor that I was leaving town. "Could you give me a copy of my medical records?" I asked. "I'll handle it when I move."
I left Philadelphia and walked with HIV untreated until my health began to become affected. I was scarred by the insensitivity of the first doctor.
I told two people about my status. One of my cousins told her husband. Another told her kids. A friend of mine had a friend who liked me. I went out with him and disclosed. He went back and told my friend - who had no idea. The news was too big for people.
The part of my life that "suffered" were romantic relationships. I never cared about marriage, but I wanted a lifelong partner. The difficulty in dating and living with HIV became real very - fast. I took a vow of celibacy.
It wasn't until four years later that I was intimate with someone, but it was an uphill battle. A man that I was dating for about a year (without sex) told me he'd never have sex with me after I disclosed my status. He later changed his mind. But with him, as with many, you can feel their fear during sex. I ended things because I didn't want to burden him.
Some were fine with my status because they were educated on the effectiveness of condoms. Others vehemently refused to date me. One guy even asked, "Why'd you let me kiss you?" after I disclosed my status to him.
For a long time, I reconciled that I may be "alone." So I focused on other aspects of my life.
A woman I'd met in my 20s was an avid traveler, which I admired. I asked how it was possible for her to travel to so many places. She told me, "If you don't ever believe you will, then you won't."
That stayed with me. I thought, I don't have to live a long life to live a great life.
So every day, I began to live as if it were my last.
I poured my energy into traveling. I performed and traveled as a vocalist with international bands and eventually became an HIV advocate. Without HIV, I wouldn't have been as full because I wouldn't have had the emergency courage.
Still, things were difficult. It wasn't until I was positive for about 20 years when I learned that aside from condoms, daily medication and becoming undetectable would prevent me from passing the virus onto anyone. There had been advances before but when I was avoiding treatment, I knew nothing. I became fearless. Before that, I felt like I was in a state of hiding. It was stressful and demoralizing.
I felt like a despised animal among human beings. I felt like damaged goods and less than a woman.
Today at 50, I don't have children. Many women are mothers before age 25, which was the age of my diagnosis. I took birth control at 25 to avoid unplanned pregnancies. Had PrEP been available back then, I would have planned for a family.
For women in particular with this virus, we are more likely to be ashamed or feel guilty, so we don't talk about it.
Many women share men, whether it is acknowledged or not. How many women are in on-again-off-again relationships with men? How about sleeping with married men or men who live with their current or former partners? Do they really know their status or the status of their other partner(s)?
Assumptions are made because women feel like the men they are sleeping with are men who belong to them. Trust cannot be implied when it comes to having sex.
You have to be your own advocate, especially in terms of your sexual health. This extends beyond the bedroom. Talk to your physicians. In many cases, your provider isn't likely to bring up preventative tools besides birth control. I had several doctors I saw after my diagnosis who weren't aware of my status. They didn't ask, I didn't tell, and I wasn't tested. You have to ask. They are more likely to have the conversation with you after an unfortunate incident.
Just like you take birth control to avoid unplanned pregnancy, use condoms and/or PrEP to protect yourself against STIs.
If diagnosed, life changes. Your family life will change. Your opinion of yourself will change. No matter how strong you are mentally - no matter how educated you are - there is an immediate shift that takes place. And that weight is avoidable.
When you hear my story, you probably think HIV isn't an issue anymore, considering I was diagnosed in '94. That's far from the truth.
In the 90s, we had the Magic Johnson announcement, the sudden death of Eazy E and the tears from 11-year-old Hydeia Broadbent to make us "woke" about this virus. We don't have a FACE to the virus anymore.
Many are undetectable and they don't have to disclose their status. This is why conversations are so important.
My life is amazing and I wouldn't trade my journey. I found and lost love, I'm confident and am an expert on my virus, making a future mate comfortable as I'm able to educate them. There's no longer a barrier.
People can live long, healthy lives and outlive people with other diseases. But the stigma is still strong.
HIV is equated to promiscuity, homosexuality, and drug users. That's the dangerous part.
Don't be a part of the stigma. Know your status. Advocate. As the saying was in the 90s, "If it affects one, it affects all."
This fight is nowhere near over.
Featured image by Getty Images
I can remember, as early as four years old, sitting in between my mom's legs on the living room floor while she plaited my hair adding barrettes, having conversations about how I came to be hers. "You're my baby, but I didn't have you," she'd say. "D gave you to me. That's why you're so special."
I'd simply reply, "Okay mom." And special is how I always felt.
I never felt "adopted."
I never felt an emptiness or the desire to search for answers like many adoptees experienced. It was never a secret. It couldn't be, because my birth mom was always around.
July 4, 1991 - the day I became my mom's
I was born the fourth of seven children. My birth mom, D, and my mom are first cousins, raised like sisters. From what I know, D was a partier (that's who I get my dancing skills from). She was slim-thick, beautiful and chocolate, and a sweetheart. But at the time, she was more attracted to going out than being at home.
D would often leave me in the care of my grandfather, who was blind in one eye with glaucoma. My mom checked in on him often and helped him care for me while she was there. From the moment she saw me, she says it was love at first sight.
My grandfather did his best to care for me, insisting D would return, but time passed and after a conversation with my aunt (D's sister), my mom suggested she take me off of his hands for a few days. He obliged and on July 4, 1991, at five months old, I left my grandfather's house with a onesie on my back, on the hip of my mom, and was hers from that day forward.
My dad, who was my mom's boyfriend of six years at the time, accepted and loved me immediately. They broke up when I was around 8 months old. But, he had me every weekend and they coparented. My childhood was glorious. My dad spoiled me, literally. I had all the material things one could imagine: diamonds, custom trench coats, a princess themed room at both houses, toys galore.
More importantly, I had an abundance of love.
They both took me to school every morning, together after a hearty breakfast at a local diner. We took photos together, celebrated holidays as a family – the whole nine. It was like they never broke up.
As the story goes, D called one day before I turned two and told my mom that she was on her way to get me, permanently, but my mom refused. After that, my mom officially filed paperwork to legally adopt me. My dad brought receipts to court to show that they were caring for me. The judge signed off. But, the angel that my mom is, never blocked D from having contact. She gave her open access to me. As a I grew older, I'd ask why. "I love her because without her, I wouldn't have you. One day, you'll understand."
Me and Dad when I was about 2 years old.
As time passed, D picked me up from school often and I was able to spend time with my siblings. I even stayed with her at times. Things were fine. It wasn't until around middle school that I started to feel resentful. I began to notice that when D picked me up from school, she'd tell the other parents that she was my mom. That irked me. I didn't know how to verbalize how I felt when I was younger, but now, I can say that I don't feel she had the right to claim that title.
She gave birth to me, but she wasn't my mom.
I've always been the "let go and let God" type, even as a child, so that's what I did. After one of many breakdowns, my mom finally left it up to me to determine whether or not I communicated with my birth mother and her family. I decided to step aside and if any relationships would form, it would have to be on my terms.
I stayed in my own world for a long time. That changed my junior year of college when my mom called to tell me that D was having a serious and potentially fatal surgery. My mom insisted I call, always reminding me, "I wouldn't have you if it weren't for her." I then called her to tell her that I loved her and prayed her surgery went well. Thankfully, it did.
After that, I tried to establish some form of a relationship, without everyone else's interference or input. Something about that phone call created a form of an epiphany for me. After all, she did give birth to me.
So in 2017, we started talking a lot more often.
In August of that year, my mom and I went to a birthday celebration at my aunt's house. Just as we pulled up, D was leaving. I asked her to stay for a bit and we ended up spending a few hours together, drinking, talking, and taking pictures. There was a feeling of nostalgia – of peace – I thought to myself, This is how it should be. Little did I know, that would be the last time I'd have that opportunity.
The next month, I got a call from my aunt one Saturday evening. D had a stroke and she told me that it wasn't looking good. I went to the hospital and we were told she wouldn't make it through the night. She did.
The next three weeks were filled with hospital visits and meetings between my siblings and I with various doctors. I wasn't expecting that my siblings would involve me in decision-making regarding her health since we weren't raised together, but D always told us, "You're brothers and sisters." It must have stuck with us, because for the first time, I felt included.
I took on a role of silent support. I only gave my opinion in terms of what should be done medically when asked by my siblings or when I felt a certain treatment would not work. Otherwise, I tried to tend to my younger siblings, as they were the ones she raised and needed the most support.
She passed away on October 25, 2017.
Once things were all said and done, I had time to process things. It was the most confusing time I've ever experienced. On one hand, I was regretful and felt guilty about all of the years I closed D out. On the other hand, I was grateful for the last time we spent together and how my siblings rallied around me in a time where I expected the complete opposite.
It was hard to openly vent to people about how I truly felt about her passing. I had my parents of course, and my boyfriend and my sister were amazing. But at night with my own thoughts, I felt alone. I realized that in this instance, I'd have to do some deep soul searching, rely heavily on God, and truly heal myself.
I spent a lot of time thinking about D not as my birth mother, but as a woman.
How hard it must have been for her to pass me along to another caretaker and watch me flourish while trying to figure out where or if she belonged in my life. How perplexing it must have been at times for her to try and enforce relationships between her children when she didn't necessarily have that authority to do so, but knew that it needed to be done. She, like me, was just as confused trying to navigate this modern family that was created.
It was agonizing some nights. But I eventually found peace knowing that her love for me was magnified by 1,000 by her choice to give me not one, but two chances at life when she gave me to my amazing mom.
My mom used to always tell me, "One day you'll love her as much as I do because she loved you enough to give me you."
That day came.
Featured image by Giphy
Last year, while on a sister trip to Paris, my sister and I found ourselves gagging at what we found in the local sex shops after watching a midnight show at the Moulin Rouge.
I was amazed at the number of options available. One of the stores we went in was the size of a department store - think Macy's in Herald Square in New York but full of dildos, sleeves and all of the dominatrix-esque lingerie you've ever seen. As a souvenir, I purchased my first bullet at a whopping $6. What's the point of window shopping at a store like that? My boyfriend and I tried it one night and I was instantly hooked! It became a regular part of our sexual trysts. But not everyone is open to the idea of bringing a third party into their bedroom.
If you've been in a relationship for some time, things can get to be routine. You become so comfortable with each other that the bedroom department can get bland. Who has time to waste for that?! I'm trying to be like Rihanna - sex with me should be amazing! When it comes to intimate time with your mate, I believe in complete freedom. There should be no inhibitions. Using a toy or two to switch things up and add an extra layer of pleasure can do wonders for you and your relationship. So let your hair and walls (pun intended) down with these added trinkets:
Dual Purpose Candles
Yoni Investments: 4 Standards Your Sex Toys Should Meet - Read More
If Your Sex Life Is on E, These Tips Will Help You Steam Up the Bedroom - Read More
It's A Vibe: The One Vibrator Every Woman Needs - Read More
Featured image by Shutterstock
Kori's Story, as told to Brenda Alexander:
Although I hate to be categorized, if I have to check a box on a US Census form, I would identify as lesbian. I always have.
I've been in long-term committed relationships with women and despite my mother's desire for grandchildren the "natural way" and her loving skepticism regarding my "lifestyle," I've always been confident in my partnerships. And that has been accepted from those who love me.
However, I do not conform to normalities.
I consider myself a free spirit. I'm a lover of people and attracted to energy. I'm a user of mood rings and sage, someone who goes with the flow and believes in constant evolution and recreating and/or redefining oneself as one continues their journey of self-discovery. That too is known by all those close to me. It's the reason why when I ended up pregnant after a celebratory week in Vegas for my birthday, my friends did not question how it came to be.
It seemed like a set up from the beginning. I had just gotten out of a dysfunctional relationship with my ex-live-in-girlfriend of several years. It was one of those relationships where one took on the role of teacher, or as my mama would say "a clean up woman," where you work tirelessly to mold and groom your significant other into the person you believe is a true representation of their full potential. But the drama it took to get them there was a complete and utter turn off that left you drained and eager for a spiritual cleanse to get rid of them.
My birthday was approaching and I figured a girls trip to Vegas would be a great way to celebrate being single and ring in my personal New Year. I booked my flights and Airbnb and was determined to take Vegas by storm! We were all flying in from different cities and since I was traveling alone, I figured I deserved the absolute most. When the service attendant asked me if I wanted to upgrade from coach to first class for a small fee upon check-in, I said, "Yes."
With free champagne and a meal, I was off to a good start. And then I saw him.
While walking to my seat, he called my name. "Kori," he yelled.
Caught off guard, I turned and gave him a hug when I recognized it was him. We shared a mutual friend who he went to college with. We hung out over the years and he was always into me but I never gave him the time of day. But, that didn't stop his pursuit of me. Whenever I did see him, he'd always remind me, "I know you aren't interested but if you change your mind, I'm here," he'd tell me. Our friends thought we would be perfect together. I thought he was nice looking, a cool and sweet guy but paid him no mind. I NEVER saw him in that way.
We chatted for a moment. He told me he was headed to Vegas on business and ironically knew from our friend's social media that I was headed there for pleasure. "Maybe we can all link up at some point," he said, hopeful. That was the end of our conversation. I went to my seat, sipped on my prosecco, and mellowed out before takeoff.
This wasn't your usual party all day and night Vegas experience. Instead, I wanted to bask in my new freedom with some adult-like excursions. We traded three nights worth of club hopping for a helicopter ride over the Grand Canyon, wine and bourbon tastings, high tea at the Cha Garden, and a host of lunches, brunches and even a four-course dinner. Cocktails flowed consistently and there were many outfit changes accompanied with Instagram postings for my followers to envy.
Then came the night in question.
On our final night, instead of paying a cover charge and waiting in line with 4-inch heels to get into the latest hotspot on The Strip that we would have to Uber to and from, it made more sense to me to throw a kickback-style shindig at our Airbnb, fill up the fridge with some gin and juice, and top it off with bottles of Hennessy X for us to share, which I later learned was the Devil's nectar.
He was invited and brought some of his coworkers along with him to make it an even number of girls and guys for a full-on house party. The ratchet playlist was in full-effect and the drinks were on pour. He made his way over to me and we ended up in our own corner. We're talking, laughing, and enjoying the libations. It was the first time in a long time that I could be my authentic self, with no restrictions. Of course, the punch gives liquid courage; but nonetheless, I was enjoying myself with him.
As the night went on, the rest of the group dwindled into their own worlds. Some went outside to enjoy the chronic, others went into separate rooms and there were a few who just couldn't hang and called it an early night. He and I went to my room where we continued our conversation. While there, he kept telling me how much he has always been into me and this time, I was more flattered than in the past. After a while, he started looking and sounding more attractive than before.
I think every woman has at least one instance in their lives when they have that moment where they know it's going down - when they want it to go down - and this was mine.
I thought to myself, "I'm single, I'm in Vegas and I'm with him. So why not?!" What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas, right?
Wrong! Because just a little over a month later, Aunt Flo, who always calls and raises hell at the same time each month, decided to go on her own vacation and not give me a heads up.
The symptoms were subtle but I knew something was off. As a girl who never cramped during her cycle, I all of a sudden had unbearable stomach pain. I've always enjoyed a good nap or two, but I was sleeping almost all day and could barely get through work. I knew it was a strong possibility so during a trip to Walmart, I picked up a few tests.
Before I could even finish peeing on the stick, the two lines generated and confirmed my suspicions.
Hell, blame it on the Henny.
He and I kept in touch post our Vegas rendezvous and began to develop something special, so I wasn't hesitant to tell him, but this was something life-changing. In case he decided to ghost me, I let him know that abortion was something I personally would not do and that I had no problem relinquishing him of his parental rights early and moving along with our one hit wonder by my lonesome.
Of course, he was thrilled to have seemingly trapped me. The idea of him not being a father to our child was out of the question for him. And, possibly having a family together, if I would have him, was ideal.
So here we are - expectant parents and in a new relationship of sorts. As always, I am taking this new journey in stride and excited for the possibilities to come - and the modern family I've created.
All I have to say is, Thanksgiving dinner with the family will be interesting this year.
- As told to Brenda Alexander
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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