Some of my earliest memories as a child were praying at night with my mother. She would always include my aunt Diana, who was fighting through her first battle with breast cancer. This was my first introduction to the generations of breast cancer in my family.
I was curious. During family discussions, I would quietly listen, which is how I also learned of another aunt who passed away in February 1986, two months after I was born. Her name was Joan. She was the first in her generation to be diagnosed with breast cancer. In the 80s, information about breast cancer was not as readily available as it is today. At first, Joan brushed it off as a reaction to deodorant under her arm for a whole year. She passed away in February of 1986 in the arms of her mother and young son. While I have no memory of her, I was blessed enough to have a picture of her holding me as a newborn.
Unbeknownst to my family and myself, Joan wrote a note addressed to me. This letter was discovered with our family photos as we searched for pictures for my great-grandmother’s funeral back in 2018. I will never figure out what the message means, but I can speculate that she felt the end was near and she wanted to leave a piece of herself for me, because I was just born and she wouldn’t be able to see me grow up. I’ll never fully know. But it’s what ultimately inspired me to complete this photo shoot commemorating the strong women in my family.
Within six years of aunt Joan’s death, aunt Diana (Joan’s sister) was diagnosed with triple-negative breast cancer in her left breast. At this time, in 1992, information and science were a bit more advanced than back in the 1980s. Diana discovered a lump in her breast one month after a mammogram. As part of her treatment, she received a lumpectomy, chemo, and radiation. She fought hard to survive at a time when the chemo doses were much higher than today’s treatments. She was so exhausted and weary at her last treatment that her son had to carry her out of the doctor’s office. In 1998, a second battle with this disease occurred in the same breast, and another round of chemo, radiation, and a mastectomy were conducted. She has been cancer free ever since. Support groups and therapy were vital throughout her journey of healing.
In 1999, Betty, my maternal grandmother and sister to Joan and Diana, was diagnosed with triple-negative breast cancer in her left breast. From prior knowledge of her sister’s experience with this disease, Betty was laser-focused on self-examination. She also endured chemo, radiation, and a lumpectomy. At the end of her treatments, she was so weak her elderly mother had to drive her home, who had been by her side during all the treatments. Years later, in 2017, Betty was confronted with a second battle with cancer. She bravely decided to have a double mastectomy and radiation. So far, she has been cancer free.
In 2006, aunt Stacy was diagnosed with triple-negative breast cancer. She was the fourth and final sister to have this monster in her body. Watching her go through this was devastating. Not only for me, but our entire family, especially her children who were by her side every step of the way. Before our eyes, we watched the health of this bright, intelligent, stylish, art enthusiast, policewoman and number one Jackson family fan deplete as cancer wreaked havoc over her body. Devastatingly, she did not survive her battle. We gathered around her for what would be her last birthday celebration at 49 years old. It’s a memory I’ll never forget.
In 2016, 30 years after losing our beloved Joan, 24 years after Diana’s first diagnosis, 17 years after Betty’s journey with her diagnosis, and nine years after losing our dearly loved Stacy, my Mother, Wendy, was next. Through self-examination, a month after a monogram, she discovered what turned out to be two lumps in her beast on her left side. Wendy was also diagnosed with triple-negative cancer. She went through chemo and radiation, and since it was caught early, she has been cancer free since then.
This road has not been easy for the three surviving Queens in my family. The effects of chemo, radiation treatment, and surgeries have been mind-altering emotionally and mentally.
I have my own fears, especially for my two daughters. All I can do is pass down the wisdom bestowed upon me from the women who have come before us: Schedule a yearly mammogram, research the latest scientific findings, and keep a healthy lifestyle. I have learned self-examination is key to taking control of your life. Always get second opinions and fiercely advocate for yourself as all these women have done for themselves and each other. At 36, I decided to have my first mammogram, which is considered a baseline. I have to say, it was not as bad as I thought.
The only discomfort I experienced was the technician telling me I shouldn’t be worried about the breast cancer history of my family. But I learned my lessons years ago: We must advocate for ourselves no matter what people say. Breast cancer is not a death sentence if caught in its early stages.
Stylist: Jill Saunders-Betts
MUA: Maya Barksdale
Location: Studio 206