The idea of suicide is absolutely unthinkable to most. However, if you look at it through the eyes of someone in the darkness of depression, the anxiety of schizophrenia, the confusion of bi-polar disorder and so many others, many people may consider ending it all to have peace.
According to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, suicide is the 10th leading cause of death among Americans. However, mental health is nothing new in the black community, and those who are suffering silently may not always feel that they have a welcoming seat at the table to be comforted or healed.
Mental health is sometimes undermined in the Black community because those who have suicidal thoughts feel that they may be considered “insane” or too weak to withstand life’s circumstances. And then, there are those within the faith community who may say that dealing with suicidal thoughts is as simple as giving it to God or “pray it away.”
But what happens when you’re a Christian and still suffer from mental illness and suicidal thoughts? And what is the church’s role in helping these people?
Josceleyne, 28, had a late diagnosis of bipolar disorder. Amidst the diagnosis she injured her back, lost her job, and lost her insurance; however, she continued to pursue her Master’s degree while being loved by her loyal husband and children.
Due to her sudden loss of income, Josceleyne accrued more student loan debt and extremely was anxious about her financial stability. As a result of all she was going through, Joscelyne, a devout Christian, turned to her pastor for assistance and didn’t receive the response she was expecting. She also felt a lack of emotional support from her church family after her diagnosis, due to what she believed was a lack of understanding, according to family members.
And like others before her, Josceleyne was told to “pray harder,” instead of seeking professional help on how to cope with her current situation.
As time went on, Josceleyne began to take a combination of pain medication to subdue the wrenching back pain and sleeping pills because of her insomnia. Then, one night she accidentally overdosed on her medications and ended her life.
Josceleyne’s family says there was an overwhelmingly negative response to her accidental death that included gossip on her mental state, speculation on why she did not hand her issues to God, and limited support from the community.
Often, the stigma of mental illness in the Black community is that it is a personal issue, not a result of chemical imbalance. However, when people have cancer or other incurable diseases the community may offer sympathy and prayer. There is nothing immoral about seeking medical attention for those ailments, so why would there be criticism for incurable, mental illness?
As Christians, we cannot place the burden on those who suffer. According to Ephesians 6:18, we are told to “be persistent in your prayers for all believers everywhere.”
“Don’t Give Up Like Me.”
Often, members of the black community are raised to avoid cracking under pressure and staying strong even in the midst of chaos. So, mood disorders, such as depression, are viewed as a weakness instead of an illness, which often leads to thoughts of suicide.
Angie, an educated woman in her 20’s, knows this story all too well.
Just a few years ago, her budding, post-recession career was falling apart repeatedly, along with her long-term relationship. And although she appeared to have it all together, she lived just above the poverty line.
As a result of all that was going on, and despite her prayer and praise, Angie finally gave up hope. She made peace with ending her life because she got tired of repeatedly failing, being poor, and felt like a waste of God’s time. Upon making her decision she called her best friend, Elle, and said, “Don’t give up like me. I can’t do it anymore, but you can make it. Just don’t give up.”
On that day, Elle immediately became one of God’s vessels by crying with Angie, discussing her decision, offering encouragement and pushing her to get back up. Then, Angie received additional support from her cousin, Dylan, who sat up with her well into the night to bring her to the source of pain so she could begin to heal.
Soon after, Angie reluctantly went to her pastor and feared condemnation, but instead her concerned pastor simply asked,“Why.” And, even after she explained all of her reasons for wanting to end her life, Angie’s pastor offered both scripture and words of encouragement during her time of need.
Angie says that having Elle, Dylan, and her pastor allowed her to know that nothing was greater than love, especially self-love, which is an extension of God’s love.
How many of us have already written our mental obituaries with the headline, “Don’t Give Up Like Me,” because it was assumed that no one would be there to help us? Is it truly better to suffer alone when we are all a part of God’s family?
By bringing the issue to the forefront, it will help to erase the stigma, recognize the signs/symptoms, and create an avenue of help for those who are suffering.
Ways to Help Those Suffering from Mental Illness
Establish an understanding of what mental illness and mood disorders really are
Consider establishing resources right there in your church, including in-house training for staff, informational videos and pamphlets for parishioners.
Invite speakers who have survived mental illness to come in and speak to members of the congregation.
Consider preaching sermons on mental illness and mood disorders.
Organize events centered around mental health
Provide resources that will connect those in need with the right programs and medical professionals.
Available resources and support for people with mental illness
Brelahn Wyatt, a second-year medical student, hugs Shetland, a half-golden retriever, half-Labrador retriever who also happens to be a lieutenant commander in the Navy and a clinical instructor in the Department of Medical and Clinical Psychology at the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences. (Julie Rovner/KHN)
The newest faculty member at the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences has a great smile — and a wagging tail.
Shetland, not quite 2 years old, is half golden retriever, half Labrador retriever. As of this fall, he is also a lieutenant commander in the Navy and a clinical instructor in the Department of Medical and Clinical Psychology at USUHS.
Among Shetland’s skills are “hugging” on command, picking up a fallen object as small as a cellphone and carrying around a small basket filled with candy for harried medical and graduate students who study at the military’s medical school campus in Bethesda, Md.
But Shetland’s job is to provide much more than smiles and a head to pat.
“He is here to teach, not just to lift people’s spirits and provide a little stress relief after exams,” said USUHS Dean Arthur Kellermann. He said students interacting with Shetland are learning “the value of animal-assisted therapy.”
But helper dogs come in many varieties. Service dogs, like guide dogs for the blind, help people with disabilities live more independently. Therapy dogs can be household pets who visit people in hospitals, schools and nursing homes. And then there are highly trained working dogs, like the Belgian Malinois that recently helped run down Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.
Shetland is technically a “military facility dog,” trained to provide physical and mental assistance to patients as well as interact with a wide variety of people. His military commission does not entitle him to salutes from his human counterparts.
Although service dogs are commonly seen at the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences, Shetland, a retriever mix, is a clinical instructor in the Department of Medical and Clinical Psychology.
Although service dogs are commonly seen at the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences, Shetland, a retriever mix, is a clinical instructor in the Department of Medical and Clinical Psychology.(JULIE ROVNER/KHN)
“The ranks are a way of honoring the services [of the dogs] as well as strengthening the bond between the staff, patients and dogs here,” said Mary Constantino, deputy public affairs officer at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center.
USUHS, which trains doctors, dentists, nurses and other health professionals for the military, is on the same campus in suburban Washington, D.C., as Walter Reed. Two of the seven Walter Reed facility dogs — Hospital Corpsman 2nd Class Sully (the former service dog for President George H.W. Bush) and Marine Sgt. Dillon — attended Shetland’s formal commissioning ceremony in September as guests.
The Walter Reed dogs, on campus since 2007, earn commissions in the Army, Navy, Air Force or Marines. They wear special vests designating their service and rank. The dogs visit and interact with patients in several medical units, as well as in physical and occupational therapy, and help boost morale for patients’ family members.
But Shetland’s role is very different, said retired Col. Lisa Moores, USUHS associate dean for assessment and professional development.
“Our students are going to work with therapy dogs in their careers, and they need to understand what [the dogs] can do and what they can’t do,” she said.
As in civilian life, the military has made significant use of animal-assisted therapy. “When you walk through pretty much any military treatment facility, you see therapy dogs walking around in clinics, in the hospitals, even in the ICUs,” said Moores. Dogs also play a key role in helping returning service members with post-traumatic stress disorder.
Students need to learn who “the right patient is for a dog, or some other therapy animal,” she said. “And by having Shetland here, we can incorporate that into the curriculum so it’s another tool the students know they have for their patients someday.”
The students, not surprisingly, are thrilled by their newest teacher.
Brelahn Wyatt, a second-year medical student, said the Walter Reed dogs used to visit the school’s 1,500 students and faculty fairly regularly, but “having Shetland here all the time is optimal.” And not just because of the hugs and candy.
Wyatt said the only thing she knew about service dogs before “is that you’re not supposed to pet them.” But Shetland acts as both a service dog and a therapy dog, so he can be petted.
That helps medical students see “there’s a difference. What does that difference look like in the health care setting?” said Wyatt.
Like his colleagues Sully and Dillon, Shetland was bred and trained by America’s VetDogs. The New York nonprofit provides dogs for “stress control” for active-duty military missions overseas, as well as service dogs for disabled veterans and civilian first responders. Many of the puppies are raised by a combination of prison inmates (during the week) and families (on the weekends), before returning to New York for formal service dog training. National Hockey League teams such as the Washington Capitals and New York Islanders also raise puppies for the organization.
Dogs can be particularly helpful in treating service members, said Valerie Cramer, manager of America’s VetDogs service dog program. “The military is thinking about resiliency. They’re thinking about well-being, about decompression in the combat zone.” Often people in pain won’t talk to another person but will open up in front of a dog. “It’s an opportunity to start a conversation as a behavioral health specialist,” she said.
While service dogs for individuals are trained to perform both physical tasks like picking up dropped items and emotional ones like waking a veteran having a nightmare, facility dogs like Shetland are special, Cramer said. “That dog has to work in all different environments with people who are under pressure. It can work for multiple handlers, it can go and visit people, can go visit hospital patients, can knock over bowling pins to entertain or spend time in bed with a child.”
The military rank for the dogs is no joke. They can be promoted ― as Dillon was from Army specialist to sergeant in 2018 ― or demoted for bad behavior.
Said Kellermann, “So far, Shetland has a perfect conduct record.”
While enjoying a date night with my spouse at the Orpheum Theatre to see “Tyler Perry’s Medea’s Farewell Play Tour,” I met Jasmine Nichol Tate, a young lady with a beautiful smile who was seated next to me. We exchanged pleasantries and chatted a bit before the performance began. She mentioned that she had traveled to this event to celebrate with her mother, who was quietly seated next to her. During the intermission, we continued our conversation. She further shared with me her life-long challenge with Sickle Cell Anemia, but her reason for celebrating this particular occasion was for another issue. Jasmine was recovering from a mastectomy and had just recently completed a series of chemotherapy.
Jasmine was diagnosed with breast cancer at the age of 23 years old. But on this occasion, she was excited about feeling good enough to take this trip to have fun with her mom. My immediate feeling of sadness had no time to settle in as her engaging smile and excitement charged our personal space. Perhaps she had explained her circumstances too many times before that it resembled a sermonette. I listened to her story with my heart, and this compelled me to seek meaning in her truth. Not only did I realize that any test in life can accompany a blessing, I now know that life’s challenges can renew our spirit bringing lessons and new beginnings. Hopefully, I can share this beautiful miracle and inspiring message in a little neatly wrapped package, as Jasmine managed to do.
Discovery: The Storm
Simply preparing for what Jasmine describes as an ordinary day, she remembered to do breast self-examination. She mentioned her awareness of the importance of this routine. However, on this specific day, she felt something odd that seemed to be a lump. During a follow-up visit to her doctor who normally treats her for Sickle Cell disease, further inquiries were conducted, but ultimately, she was sent home with no answers. Later as the pain worsened in that area of her body, she knew that what she was experiencing was certainly not normal. It’s as if she developed a sixth sense to visit another doctor, her OB-GYN, as soon as possible.
She recalled having to insist that this medical staff listen and give their full attention to her complaints and concerns. A referral was issued to continue more testing at the Breast Center Clinic, where both an ultrasound and a mammogram were performed. To her surprise, the results were labeled “undetermined.” Unsettled with these findings, she was offered a third option. A biopsy procedure was done. This exam revealed that indeed, there was cancer detected in her left breast. Jasmine explained that on Tuesday, August 1, 2017, the day that she was given her diagnosis, became “the day her life changed forever.” This news was devastating, especially to a Sickle Cell Anemia patient. What else could happen? Where was God in all this?
There were many decisions to be made regarding the methods for her treatment. Included in her many choices, were the willingness to have faith or fear what was happening to her. One ray of hope which emerged was early detection. Jasmine’s saving grace as a survivor was God’s guiding hands in the ordeal. Critical to surviving was “finding her cancer in its early stages.” She knows that this really does save lives; therefore, routine exams are essential. Even having taken these precautions, she was not spared from the physical and mental agony of a mastectomy and chemotherapy in addition to a flu virus. Her fear of uncertainty lingered with hair loss, recurring bouts with her Sickle Cell disease, and lengthy hospital stays. As if this was not enough, the situation progressed. Her weakened immune system invited a staph infection. According to Jasmine, this was indeed in the “deathbed” category. It invaded her body for some time and caused a tsunami of medical complications. It was the perfect storm that placed her odds for survival unconscionably bleak. Yes, there was a great support system and its benefits, but the battle was personal.
Some storms come with more turbulence than others. At times it may seem that the mayhem within a storm captures our attention even more than the rain or lightning. Likewise, it just may be the havoc that occurs in our minds that causes us to seek shelter — this was Jasmine’s reality. What was totally out of her control had to rest within the shadow of the almighty God (Psalms 91:1). She found herself seeking that secret place in her soul. Realizing that her human reactions to her situation were only human instincts, they voided her thoughts about her purpose in this storm. It took some reflection time, but gradually, she began to embrace a new truth related to her life. As her body was changing, so were her mind’s eyes. Instead of only focusing on her pain and suffering, she felt the need to develop a more positive mindset. Maybe her current crisis was allowing her to learn how to redefine and discover herself as not just sick and vulnerable, but human. Eventually, she could see that her thoughts were helping her to transform purposefully. Perhaps she was not the victim as she had thought, but victorious. Every new day was another miracle of surviving and a reason to be hopeful. From what appeared to be a difficult experience with cancer and its unforeseen twists emerged a path to show her who she really could become and how she could best contribute to humanity. She practiced gaining a clearer focus, which contributed to her will to help others accept and respect the change in life as well. Could it be that through both prayer and praise, God had granted her a gift via her cancer ordeal?
The pain and the uncomfortable treatments continued, and there were many watershed moments, yet she learned that these moments were her body’s mechanisms for mental, physical, and spiritual cleansing. Throughout this healing process, there were revelations of how she could help others with her advocacy. No matter how uncertain things looked on some days, what was certain was that each passing day, she grew in her faith and hoped for a cure. During the discovery of her cancer, she felt that something was wrong. Now at this point, she saw that there was something right happening. By harnessing the realization that healing both from the outside with medicines to inside her mind was rejuvenating. The power of her mind shift was as necessary as the medical treatment that she was receiving.
Recovery: A Glimpse of Sunshine
Today, Jasmine lives cancer-free. Her acceptance of what exists in her life, along with lessons learned to fuel intimate gratefulness to God. The wisdom gained from her experience has become an unexpected welcomed blessing. As a breast cancer survivor, hope in her purpose to encourage others is limitless. Her journey remains a real eye-opening experience proving that everything in life possesses unique meanings. Seeing the world through new lenses helps to appreciate days that are no longer consumed by “what ifs” regarding cancer, but her “what is” concerning her life. For Jasmine, learning to differentiate grief from grace is a continuous part of healing. Somewhere in the middle, she has found purpose in ways that encourage us all to learn to trust our journey and its processes. She urges us to seek wisdom to manage all parts of life through our faith, especially things that we cannot control.
Negativity is its own disease. Therefore, attitude plays a significant role in rising above any challenge, because you can then begin to recognize that in life, everything seems to be a miracle. Jasmine strongly affirms that “I know that I’ve beat breast cancer” as she prepares to complete the next phase of breast surgery to replace a tissue expander with the actual breast implant. Enthusiastically, she says, “being challenged and pushed to my limit developed new perspectives of what is less fatal, but more important.” Her perspective on faith and hope is staying positive and to smile through storms. There is profound meaning in the portion of the Lord’s prayer, which requests God to “give us our daily bread (Matthew 6:11).” This bread for Jasmine represented the gift of empathy in that it is her understanding to see people, things, and circumstances from different points of view. Avoid worrying about issues that rob you of your peace. Teach yourself to let go of stuff not significant enough to hold in your mind-space. It’s only stuff, the extra baggage that may have kept you stressed in the first place. It tends to bring you “peace that passes all understanding” that believers often speak of in (Philippians 4:6-7).
Second, only to trust that God holds the first and last words over our lives, it is necessary to know that education is the key to surviving. Take time to learn about your body, for no one knows its changes, pain, or discomfort better than you. Trust your gut feeling, for it can be God’s message to you. Use both your physical and common senses by remaining persistent, asking questions, and becoming proactive. Remain curious about that which concerns you and learn how to interact with medical professionals effectively. One opinion from a single individual may not be the absolute answer for you. Celebrate you!
This was her reason for traveling to celebrate on the evening we met. At that time, I did not immediately see the scope of the grandness in her bright smile when we encountered each other. Upon reflection, her eyes were like a ray of sunshine, showing me a glimpse into her soul. Her story may seem fairly typical to many, but to me, the richness of meeting her was in divine order. It was a wake-up call filled with life’s truths to ponder from this day forward. As directed in Proverbs 3:5-6, we must remind ourselves to “trust in the Lord and lean not to our own understanding, but acknowledge Him in all things, and He shall direct our paths.”
While living in Detroit earlier this year, Brianna Snitchler wanted a cyst removed from her abdomen. But her doctor wanted the growth checked for cancer first. (Callie Richmond for KHN)
Brianna Snitchler was just figuring out the art of adulting when she scheduled a biopsy at Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit.
Snitchler was on top of her finances: Her student loan balance was down and her credit score was up.
“I had been working for the past three years trying to improve my credit and, you know, just become a functioning adult human being,” Snitchler, 27, said.
For the first time in her adult life, she had health insurance through her job and a primary care doctor she liked. Together they were working on Snitchler’s concerns about her mental and physical health.
One concern was a cyst on her abdomen. The growth was about the size of a quarter, and it didn’t hurt or particularly worry Snitchler. But it did make her self-conscious whenever she went for a swim.
“People would always call it out and be alarmed by it,” she recalled.
Before having the cyst removed, Snitchler’s doctor wanted to check the growth for cancer. After a first round of screening tests, Snitchler had an ultrasound-guided needle biopsy at Henry Ford Health System’s main hospital.
The procedure was “uneventful,” with no complications reported, according to results faxed to her primary care doctor after the procedure. The growth was indeed benign, and Snitchler thought her next step would be getting the cyst removed.
Then the bill came.
The Patient: Brianna Snitchler, 27, a user-experience designer living in Detroit at the time. As a contractor for Ford Motor Co., she had a UnitedHealthcare insurance plan.
Total Bill: $3,357.52, including a $2,170 facility fee listed as “operating room services.” The balance included a biopsy, ultrasound, physician charges and lab tests.
Service Provider: Henry Ford Health System in Detroit.
Medical Procedure: Ultrasound-guided needle biopsy of a cyst.
What Gives: When Snitchler scheduled the biopsy, no one told her that Henry Ford Health System would also charge her a $2,170 facility fee.
Snitchler said the bill turned out to be far more than what she budgeted for. Her insurance plan from UnitedHealthcare had a high-deductible of $3,250, plus she would owe coinsurance. All told, her bills for the care she received related to the biopsy left her on the hook for $3,357.52, with her insurance paying $974.
“She shrugged it off,” Snitchler’s partner, Emi Aguilar, recalled. “But I could see that she was upset in her eyes.”
Snitchler panicked when she realized the bill threatened the couple’s financial security. Snitchler had already spent down her savings for a recent cross-country move to Austin, Texas.
In an email, Henry Ford spokesman David Olejarz said the “procedure was performed in the Interventional Radiology procedure room, where the imaging allows the biopsy to be much more precise.”
“We perform procedures in the most appropriate venue to ensure the highest standards of patient quality and safety,” Olejarz wrote.
The initial bill from Henry Ford referred to “operating room services.” The hospital later sent an itemized bill that referred to the charge for a treatment room in the radiology department. Both descriptions boil down to a facility fee, a common charge that has become controversial as hospitals search for additional streams of income, and as more patients complain they’ve been blindsided by these fees.
Hospital officials argue that medical centers need the boosted income to provide the expensive care sick patients require, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.
But the way hospitals calculate facility fees is “a black box,” said Ted Doolittle, with the Office of the Healthcare Advocate for Connecticut, a state that has put a spotlight on the issue.
“It’s somewhat akin to a cover charge” at a club, said Doolittle, who previously served as deputy director of the federal Center for Program Integrity at the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services.
Hospitals in Connecticut billed more than $1 billion in facility fees in 2015 and 2016, according to state records. In 2015, Connecticut lawmakers approved a bill that forces all hospitals and medical providers to disclose facility fees upfront. Now patients in Connecticut “should never be charged a facility fee without being shown in burning scarlet letters that they are going to get charged this fee,” Doolittle said.
In Michigan, there’s no law requiring hospitals and other providers of health care services to inform patients of facility fees ahead of time.
Brianna Snitchler’s procedure took place on campus at Henry Ford’s main hospital site. When she got her bill, with its mention of “operating room services,” she was baffled. Snitchler said the room had “crazy medical equipment,” but she was still in her street clothes as a nurse numbed her cyst and she was sent home in a matter of minutes.
With Snitchler’s permission, Kaiser Health News shared her itemized bill, biopsy results and explanation of benefits with Dr. Mark Weiss, a radiologist who leads MediCrew, a company in Flint, Mich., that helps patients navigate the health system.
Weiss said it probably wasn’t medically necessary for Snitchler to go to the hospital to receive good care. “Not all surgical procedures have to be done at a surgical center,” he said, noting that biopsies often can be done in an office-based treatment center.
Resolution: Hoping for a reasonable explanation — or even the discovery of a mistake — Snitchler called her insurance company and the hospital.
A representative at Henry Ford told her on the phone that the hospital isn’t “legally required” to inform patients of fees ahead of time.
In an email, Henry Ford spokesman Olejarz apologized for that response: “We’ll use it as a teachable moment for our staff. We are committed to being transparent with our patients about what we charge.”
He pointed to an initiative launched in 2018 that helps patients anticipate out-of-pocket expenses. The program targets the most common elective radiology and gastroenterology tests that often have high price tags for patients.
Asked if Snitchler’s ultrasound-guided needle biopsy will be included in the price transparency initiative, Olejarz replied, “Can’t say at this point.”
In addition to the pilot program to inform patients of fees, Olejarz said, the hospital also plans to roll out an online cost-estimator tool.
For now, Snitchler has decided not to get the cyst removed, and she plans to try to negotiate on her bill. She has not yet paid any portion of it.
“You should always negotiate; you should always try,” Doolittle said. “Doesn’t mean it’s going to work, but it can work. People should not be shy about it.”
“We are happy to work out a flexible payment plan that best meets her needs,” Olejarz wrote when Kaiser Health News first inquired about Snitchler’s bill.
The Takeaway: When your doctor recommends an outpatient test or procedure like a biopsy, be aware that the hospital may be the most expensive place you can have it done. Ask your physician for recommendations of where else you might have the procedure, and then call each facility to try to get an estimate of the costs you’d face.
Also, be wary of places that may look like independent doctor’s offices but are owned by a hospital. These practices also can tack hefty facility fees onto your bill.
If you get a bill that seems inflated, call your hospital and insurer and try to negotiate it down.
Bill of the Month is a crowdsourced investigation by Kaiser Health News and NPR that dissects and explains medical bills. Do you have an interesting medical bill you want to share with us? Tell us about it!
I’ve seen too many women die over the past few months. Women that had so much life left to live. Women that had virtually conquered the world and transformed lives. Women who were gone too soon. I took their deaths personally.
I was angry that I didn’t know about their cancers before they died. I was angered by their secrecy. I was angry at the disease that caused them to turn inward and remain invisible. Could they have been saved? I took it exceptionally hard because, just a few years ago, my own life was saved because of my sister.
February 2007, at the age of 35, my sister was diagnosed with breast cancer. She decided to visit the Emergency Room for a migraine headache and requested a mammogram due to a feeling she had. Not an actual physical feeling, but a gut feeling.
She almost dismissed that gnawing in her stomach and came close to chalking it up to her being somewhat of a “hypochondriac” but she pushed past her own internal judgment to ask the doctor to give her a mammogram. It was in her self-advocacy that she learned she had breast cancer.
My sister elected to have a mastectomy and began her journey to survivorship March of that year.
Too Close to Home
My sister’s diagnosis raised my awareness to the disease. I knew about cancer, as many of my aunts died of the deadly disease. However, this time, it was a little too close to home.
I shared my sister’s diagnosis with my doctor and she advised me, at 32 years of age, to get a baseline mammogram. I’m glad I did.
Three years later, in 2010, before my 35th birthday, I was diagnosed with breast cancer. Two years earlier I had a lumpectomy as a mass was discovered but it was benign. But it was due to that discovery that routine screenings began for me.
My routine mammogram in 2010 was one of the most difficult ones I had. The squeezing, pulling, and tugging of the technician to get a good picture was unpleasant. Waiting in a room for a few people to look at my results also caused great anxiety. The repeat exam caused great alarm. The letter in the mail carrying the news that I needed a biopsy was mortifying.
The fine needle aspiration and the diagnosis later sucked all the air out of my lungs. I was diagnosed with Stage 1 breast cancer…#worldstop!
My doctor advised me to have genetic counseling and it was through a blood draw and genetic testing that I learned I had the BRCA2 gene mutation. My doctor encouraged me to use that information to make an informed decision about my treatment. I decided to have a double-mastectomy.
There is a more technical term for it but essentially one breast was removed due to cancer and the other was removed as a preventive measure.
My Sister’s Keeper
The same BRCA2 gene mutation also increased my chances of having both breast and ovarian cancer so in 2011 I also had my ovaries removed. Everything had to go!
I am sharing this story because I want to save a sister. My sister did for me what I hope to do for you, and that is to encourage you to become an advocate for yourself and take charge of your health. I was diagnosed with cancer but not given a death sentence. I am still here, 7 years later, sharing my story with you because I want you to live, too.
Get tested. Early detection is the key.
Share your story. Let someone else know what steps you took for survival. Let them know your journey so that they too can become vigilant in their health.
Break the silence. It’s time to stop hiding.
Going Beyond Breast Cancer
I am pleased to announce that another sister of mine is breaking the silence related to a health issue experienced by thousands of women, infertility. The Rev. Dr. Stacey L. Edwards-Dunn is the founder and president of, Fertility for Colored Girls, NFP (FFCG).
FFCG has been around for roughly four years and has made its mission to be a resource, advocate, and fertility coach for men and women looking to create the families of their dreams.
FFCG has been bringing awareness to the issue of fertility among black and brown women across the nation. The organization has 7 chapters in 7 metropolitan areas and is looking to open 5 more chapters this year.
The fight to bring awareness to the most commonly diagnosed cancer among Black women is highlighted in September, but it’s a year-long battle.
That is why women like Ann-Marie Appiah have made it their mission to promote educate and promote early detection of the disease among women. “You shouldn’t wait until something bad has happened before you’re ready to fight,” Ann-Marie says. The founder of Painted Pink, an organization dedicated to increasing breast cancer awareness among millennials, shares a few tips for our readers below:
The earlier you receive an exam, the better.
Research shows that 25% of new breast cancer cases are among patients under 40, which is why early detection is so critical. In addition to performing monthly self-exams a few days after your menstrual cycle, Ann-Marie recommends that you also request a breast exam during your annual gynecological exam. “Do not leave that table until they have also done a breast exam,” she says.
Then, of course, there is the traditional mammogram, an x-ray exam used to screen for breast cancer. In many cases, medical professionals do not recommend that women begin receiving regular mammograms, until they are at least 40 years of age. However, having a history of breast cancer in your family may warrant the need for earlier testing. “If you do know that someone in your family has had breast cancer, you can call your insurance company to make sure that they code you correctly [in order to receive a referral for a mammogram,]” Ann-Marie says.
And, don’t worry. The Painted Pink founder recognizes that mammograms can be a bit painful for some women, but the pain is so worth it. “Would you rather have five seconds of your life in pain, or would you rather have to fight for your life?” she asks.
Ann-Marie Appiah, founder of Painted Pink
A healthier lifestyle does make a difference.
There are several factors that can contribute to the development of breast cancer, but one factor that many medical professionals agree on is your lifestyle. Certain foods have been linked to the disease, so monitoring your intake of snacks that are loaded with sodium, caffeine, soy, and cholesterol may be your best bet.
You should also make it a priority to remain physically active. Some activities that Ann-Marie suggests is soul-cycling, hiking with girlfriends, or even yoga.
But, regardless of how you choose to maintain a healthier lifestyle, the bottom line is to start today while there’s still time. “A lot of the warriors who are fighting for their lives now talk about how they are cutting out the [unhealthy foods] now,” Ann-Marie says. “They are now saying, ‘Had I known what I know now, I would’ve done this a lot sooner.’”
Being diagnosed doesn’t mean it’s all over for you.
“Having cancer is nothing to be ashamed of, and it doesn’t indicate a death sentence,” Ann-Marie says. As if being diagnosed isn’t stressful enough, deciding on what to do next can be even more overwhelming. “The first thing you should do after being diagnosed, particularly for a woman of color, is to find a doctor that [you love],” Ann-Marie says. “It needs to be someone that you can almost consider as part of your extended family.”
The second step is to find someone to serve as your constant support throughout the entire process. It should be someone that you are able to be completely vulnerable with about what you are going through. “There are so many millennials who are sick, who aren’t letting people know, and aren’t taking the days off,” Ann-Marie says. “They are literally fighting for their lives at their desk or cubicle [for many reasons], and it’s really sad.”
Black women are often taught to be strong for others, but Ann-Marie says being diagnosed with Breast Cancer is one of the few times when you are allowed to get support from someone else for a change. “It’s all about your mindset,” she says.
There’s a seat for all of us at the table.
Perhaps you are someone who would love to participate in the fight against breast cancer but have no idea where to start. Well, Ann-Marie says sometimes it’s as simple as expressing interest and being supportive. “Solange [Knowles] has a new album that is about having ‘A Seat at the Table,’” the Painted Pink founder says. “Invite yourself to have a seat at the table.”
The bottom line is that you don’t have to be directly affected by breast cancer in order to promote awareness. It can be as simple as volunteering at a local clinic or participating in a fundraiser. “It’s all about loving yourself to the tenth degree and doing everything you can to support yourself and the people you love,” Ann Marie says.