My breasts may be on the small side, but until a scary situation a while back, I never had to request – let alone, beg – anyone to pay attention to my “little friends.” After the humiliation of being turned down, darn-near staging a one-woman protest, and crying my little eyes out in public, my breasts and I finally received some attention.
If I was selfish, I’d deal with the results of my situation, and leave it there. But that would be too easy, and I want your breasts or you’re loved-ones’ breasts to get their much needed attention as well – particularly, if you’re a young woman of color and under the age of 40. (CLICK HERE TO LISTEN: TJMS’ Sybil Wilkes and I get very personal and direct about breast cancer.)
You see, for about a year, I had very painful lumps in my breasts. At first, I just chalked the pain up to the soreness that women get monthly around our cycles. But as the pain and lumps persisted over a period of time, I began to get alarmed. It was clear that I had to see a doctor.
Dilemma #1: I’m sorry to say that, like millions of other Americans, I didn’t have health insurance at the time. Gone are the days when only the indigent and lower class of our country are without sufficient health care coverage. Those of us who are middle-class, hard-working and ambitious often find ourselves in a rut for a variety of reasons – most of them economical and political. So, I decided to make an appointment with a recommended black female physician at one of the highly-esteemed hospitals where I lived.
I expressed my concerns to the doctor and told her that I thought I needed a mammogram.
Dilemma #2: Before even checking my breasts, she declared, “How old are you? Oh, no – you won’t need a mammogram. You’re not 40.” Then she felt my left breast, and her face changed. She told me that I needed an ultrasound, the procedure normally recommended for women 40 and younger because it gives a better view than the mammogram due to dense tissue mass. The doctor told me not to get the lab work done at her hospital because without insurance, it would cost an arm and a leg. Instead, she recommended that I look into programs that were geared toward women to assist me.
Dilemma #3: I started with the Health Department; moved onto the Black Women’s Health Project who turned me onto a few health programs for women of color that give mammograms. With each call, I received the same response, “You must be 40 or over to get a mammogram.” But I’m not 40! I’m in my 30’s, and my breast hurts!
Despite the prevailing opinion that young women don’t get breast cancer, the reality is that they can. And they do. Black women under the age of 50 are 77 percent more likely to die from the disease than white women of all ages. Breast cancer is the leading cause of cancer death in young women ages 15 to 40. Black women get breast cancer at younger ages than white women. Black women with breast cancer have faster-growing, more aggressive tumors than white women.
Beyond that, according to the Sisters Network, Inc. an estimated 20,000 newly diagnosed cases of breast cancer are expected to occur among African-American women, and 5,700 of them are expected to die with the disease. Breast cancer is the most common cancer among African-American women and the second leading cause of cancer deaths among this ethnic group. Having made the point about the statistics, young women and young women of color need more attention, research, and programs geared toward them.
Eventually, I got an appointment to be examined at a county hospital, in the hopes of getting a referral for an ultrasound. After spending three hours in the waiting room, my name was called. Sixty seconds later, an overworked physician told me that I was fine; that I had cysts and that was normal. She told me to get dressed, and away she went. Somehow, I expected a little more attention, but to no avail.
After a month or so, the cysts went away, and the pain subsided. That is, until a few months later, and this time, it was worse than ever.
My girlfriend Jalila (CLICK HERE TO LISTEN: Sybil and I discuss the need for girlfriend support) told me about a free health fair sponsored by a local radio station that was providing free mammograms. Reluctantly, I went.
Dilemma #4: This is getting old. The program offering the service told me that their policy was only to service women 40 and over; I did not qualify. Needless to say, I was irritated – and that’s putting it nicely. Tell a person with some drive and dignity ‘No’ long enough, and you’ll get, at the very least, a challenge and at the most, an all-out-war. I’m not sure where that leaves me, but after passionately protesting about how hurt and outraged I was – with threats of going to the press – wouldn’t you know? I got some attention after all.
The next week, I received both a mammogram and an ultrasound. Thankfully, I do not have cancer, and what I experienced was a result of too much caffeine. (CLICK HERE TO LISTEN: Sybil and I discuss caffeine and cancer and the need for advocacy). However, for too many of us, by the time we get the attention that we need, it’s too late. The good news is that early detection saves lives.
Please check your breasts, and if you feel something abnormal, get it checked by your doctor. And do not accept no for an answer if you want tests done.
For more information on breast cancer, please visit Komen.org.
Deya “Direct” Smith is a producer on the Tom Joyner Morning Show, creator and host of Girlfriend FM. She can be reached at DeyaDirect@aol.com.