What Black Millennials Need to Know about Breast Cancer

What Black Millennials Need to Know about Breast Cancer

Breast cancer is often associated with older women. However, young women are not exempt.

Although October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month, an annual campaign to raise awareness of the disease, many women still take their health for granted, particularly millennials. However, breast cancer, a form of cancer that originates in breast tissue, is the most common cancer among women worldwide.

In fact, according to the National Breast Cancer Foundation, 1 in 8 American women who reach the age of 80 will be diagnosed in their lifetime. Each year, over 246,000 women will be diagnosed; that’s one woman every 2 minutes. Roughly 25,000 patients under the age of 45 will be diagnosed this year alone, which includes millennials, the largest generation since baby boomers. Millennials were born between the early 1980s and late 1990s, making them between ages 18 and 35 now.

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Christina Best, 24

Christina Best, a 24-year-old North Carolina schoolteacher, is one of those young people. She was recently confronted with some of the toughest news of her life. Earlier this year, Christina discovered some irregularities during a regular self-exam, then visited a doctor who broke the news: She had Stage 2 breast cancer.

“The most challenging thing for me was the period of not knowing after my initial diagnosis,” she says. “I had a lot of plans for the summer that I eventually had to cancel. I experienced a lot of anxiety by not knowing my stage of cancer initially and what my treatment plan was.”

During the summer, Christiana underwent surgery to remove her cancer and discovered that it hadn’t spread. She’s currently undergoing chemotherapy, which has presented its own challenges: losing her hair, living at home again for the first time since leaving for college and being on extended sick leave, which has given her more free time than she’s had in years.

“What has helped are the small goals I make for myself – walking around the neighborhood every day for exercise or going to see friends when I feel up to it. Additionally, my post-treatment plans of [going back to school to pursue] a third degree gives me a lot of motivation to finish my treatment and get on with my life and goals.”

For African-American millennials, the risk is among the highest of all diagnosed cases among women of all ethnic backgrounds. More Black women under the age of 45 are diagnosed than their Caucasian peers. While genetics and first-degree relatives (mother, sister, daughter) can influence a woman’s chances, 85 percent of women with breast cancer have no family history. And awareness about the disease in younger women is still hard to find. Christina wrote a blog post about walking into the cancer treatment center to find women much older than her who seemed surprised to see her there.

“I personally don’t know any millennials with breast cancer. It’s certainly not common at this younger age, but there is a growing presence and, thankfully, the Internet is allowing us to connect with each other and share our experiences.”

Painted Pink Breast Cancer Awareness Portraitis one of those organizations helping to raise awareness of breast cancer among millennials. With a mission to “Educate, Support, Empower and Survive,” the Atlanta-based group focuses on preventative measures and funding for cancer patients. Founder Ann-Marie Appiah is a millennial and survivor that hosts an annual luncheon in Atlanta during Breast Cancer Awareness Month.

Christina emphasizes living a healthy life, knowing your body, maintaining regular self-exams and doctor’s appointments and being proactive about your health. While there is no single cause for breast cancer, doctors say that exercising, eating healthy, not smoking, taking caution around chemicals, and managing alcohol consumption go a long way to giving you the best shot at a cancer-free life.

If you do know someone who was recently diagnosed, Christina says to “be present and treat the person regularly. Also, listen to what it is they want and need but give them the time to know what it is they want or need. If they want to vent, let them do so. If they want encouragement, give them encouragement. If they want to be happy, let them be happy.”

Another is one of the biggest tools that people like Appiah and Christina credit for getting them through their diagnosis and treatment. “Faith has been the center of my treatment,” Christina explains. “I am naturally an optimistic person, but keeping my faith has been essential to peace and healing. I know that everything I go through in life is for greater, and I have much to offer through the blessings that I am given.”

Henrietta Everlasting

 

Henrietta Everlasting for Urban Faith

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks uncovers the heartbreaking story of the woman behind one of the most important discoveries in modern medicine. But it’s also a book about the intersection of race, science, and a family’s faith.

On a basic human level, most people desire to leave a legacy. I’ve found myself wondering what kind of impact my life will make on generations to follow. In our families and in our work, we spend a large portion of our lives trying to leave some sort of legacy, often in the form of monetary or material inheritance. But that seems so limiting, like life has been reduced down to money and things. Most of us would agree that we want to leave something far more meaningful than just stuff. But what if your legacy spurred some of the greatest medical discoveries? Most of us would be pleased with this. But what if this legacy had been left completely without your knowledge? How would your descendants approach such a gift? This is the scenario found in the bestselling book The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot.

Skloot, a science writer whose work has appeared in The New York Times Magazine, O, The Oprah Magazine, and Discover, gives the reader an intimate look into the life of Henrietta Lacks, an African American woman born in 1920 who, without knowing it, helped transform medical history. In February 1951, she was diagnosed with an aggressive form of cervical cancer. During a medical visit, her doctor took a biopsy of the tumor growing on the outside of her cervix without informing her. Henrietta died later that year, but by that time scientists had discovered that her cells had a very important trait: they didn’t die. The HeLa cells (pronounced hee-lah) reproduced at an astounding rate and had already started yielding scientific data before Henrietta’s death. Her life had ended, but the tissue she left behind soon earned designation as the first strand of immortal cells.

Skloot’s fascinating book is not only the story of Henrietta’s life, but the life of her immortal cells and their journey through the medical community. And an incredible journey it was.

HeLa cells are directly responsible for the development of multiple medical breakthroughs, from the Polio vaccination to in-vitro fertilization. Despite all that her cells have done, many people, including the medical and scientific community, had no idea who she was. Skloot does an impressive job of relaying complex medical truths in a way that doesn’t stall the reading. Told in an alternating-chapter format that shifts between the story of the HeLa cells and the lives of Henrietta Lacks and her family, the book is as gripping as it is informative.

I found myself heartbroken over the struggles of Henrietta’s husband and her children, who paint a stark picture of a dysfunctional family. They endure a string of health and financial challenges after Henrietta’s death. None of her children developed cancer, but they were riddled with a number of other health problems. Unfortunately, they lived most of their adult lives without the benefit of health care. Their mother’s contribution impacted millions but never fully trickled down to her own family.

Though Skloot’s primary goal was to tell the story of Henrietta and her cells, she also accomplishes another feat. She offers a glimpse into how medicine has been practiced throughout history. Like me, readers of this book will gain a greater appreciation of the blessings of modern medicine. Skloot not only exposes what we would consider barbaric medical practices, she also reveals how African Americans perceived doctors and medical treatment over the years. In the past, most went to doctors but did not question the diagnosis or opinions that medical professionals gave them, in part because of the legacy of slavery that spawned a passive and compliant demeanor toward authority figures. Several times in the book it becomes clear that Henrietta’s children never outgrew this mindset, as they repeatedly stated that they simply accepted whatever the doctor said because they felt they couldn’t ask questions.

There are some who might hear Henrietta’s story and cry injustice. Most of the procurement of Henrietta’s specimens happened without her or her family’s permission. Skloot takes a neutral stance on the issue of medical consent, but she does raise some thought-provoking issues. As of right now, it is completely legal for doctors to use anyone’s biological material for whatever research they desire. Scientists and even former President Bill Clinton have pushed for some kind of consent form that notifies patients that doctors will be using their specimens, but the idea hasn’t taken hold.

As I read this book, I found myself torn regarding the issue of consent. On the one hand, it is disturbing to think that the biological materials we leave behind at a hospital could be harvested and exploited by a biotech company that goes on to make untold millions off of our cells, as was the scenario in the Henrietta Lacks case. On the other hand, if our specimens can contribute to advancements in medical research that will benefit the greater society, then shouldn’t we embrace that — as long as no one unfairly profits from it financially?

As of this date, Henrietta’s children have received no financial benefits from anything her cells did. How much money biotech companies have made from her cells over the years is still a mystery.

I wanted to believe that I was reading a page from the distant past when I picked up The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. Unfortunately, as the book progressed, I realized the subject is still very relevant to us today. Race and consent are ongoing issues in the medical community when it comes to scientific research. But perhaps with Skloot’s book these issues will come to the forefront of our discussions in the African American community. Then maybe Henrietta Lacks’ story will do as much for the cause of justice as her cells have done for science.
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‘I Read the Bible for the First Time’

How Henrietta Lacks’ story changed Rebecca Skloot.

Author Rebecca Skloot (right) recently talked to the Atlanta weekly Creative Loafing about the making of her bestselling book. In the interview, she explained how the religious beliefs of Henrietta Lacks’ family affected her personally.

SKLOOT: [Writing the book] was an 11-year process and it has changed me and affected me in ways I’ll be trying to figure out for years. I came from a non-religious background, a completely different culture than [Henrietta’s daughter] Deborah. The religion was so surprising to me. It was such an important part of their story and their lives and their understanding of the self. I just knew nothing about it and in the process of learning I read the Bible for the first time. I went to the church with [the Lacks family] and I saw faith healings; things I had never been exposed to. I spent a lot of time learning about what their religion and spirituality meant for them and how that interacted with the science.

I think I learned a lot about religion just in general and about lots of different ones and the roles they play in people’s lives and the ways they can be incredibly positive and helpful. With the family that’s a lot of how they came to terms with what happened with the cells: They believe she was chosen and came back as an angel in these cells to cure diseases. In terms of the family, it’s still happening. They are still responding to the book and there are now generations of Lackses that have read the book. Several of them have read it many times. The grandchildren have been reading the book out loud to their parents cause they don’t read so much so that’s been a great thing for them. Now they’re able to see the full story — what are these cells and how are they used. To see how people are responding to the story serves as some kind of validation to what they’ve been through that they’ve never gotten before.

Source: CreativeLoafing.com; photo by Manda Townsend.

Giving Back

To thank the Lacks family for their trust and help in the writing of her book, and as a way to thank Henrietta Lacks for the cells that have done so much to further science, author Rebecca Skloot has set up the Henrietta Lacks Foundation to provide financial assistance in the form of scholarships to the descendants of Lacks. Skloot is donating a portion of the book’s proceeds to the foundation. You can read more about it or donate at henriettalacksfoundation.org.

‘Letters to God’ Misses the Postmark

LettersToGod163x215.jpgA young boy with a tragic diagnosis. A mailman who has lost his way. A powerful message of Christ’s love and forgiveness. Sounds like the perfect Christian movie, right? Sadly, no. As much as I wanted to like this film, I just couldn’t. Now before you call me the Tin Man (no heart) and say that I kick puppies for fun, just hear me out.

Letters to God is about an 8-year-old boy named Tyler (played by Tanner Maguire) who writes letters to God during his battle with cancer. These letters impact the boy’s family, which includes his mother (Robin Lively), grandmother (Maree Cheatham), and older brother (Michael Bolten), and the life of a spiritually broken mailman (played very well by Jeffrey S. Johnson). Other cast members include Ralph Waite, L. Derek Leonidoff, and Bailee Madison.

I have two big problems with the movie. My first problem is that there really is no story. A boy with cancer is not a story. That’s a character. A boy with cancer writing letters to God is not a story. That’s a gimmick. Some will disagree with me because this film is based on a true story, but that doesn’t necessarily mean you have enough elements for an engaging movie.

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