As infuriating as this story might be, chances are, you’ve heard one like this before. When LaToya Williams found a lump in her breast, she went to see her doctor right away, but her concerns were dismissed on multiple visits. Months later, she was told that she had stage III cancer.
LaToya’s experience may not come as a surprise to many Black women. Statistics show that due to a number of factors, Black people are often diagnosed with cancer at a higher rate than most other racial or ethnic groups. Sadly, we also tend to have a lower survival rate than most other racial or ethnic groups.
This trend is very apparent in breast cancer, the most common cancer among Black women. Black women are approximately 40% more likely to die of breast cancer compared to white women. Black women also have a higher incidence of early-age onset breast cancer before age 50, and when it comes to cancer treatment, not being taken seriously in the doctor’s office can come at a price.
LaToya was first diagnosed with cancer in 2007, the same year she earned her MBA from the University of Phoenix, after graduating from Grambling State University.
“I was in my 20s, and just like everyone else, I was trying to find my way in life–trying to find myself, find my passion,” she tells Blavity.
LaToya’s first personal experience with cancer came when she was just 13, around the time both of her grandmothers were diagnosed with advanced breast cancer. At that time, breast self-exams were often taught to young women and LaToya started doing them. During a self-exam, LaToya discovered a lump. It ended up being a non-cancerous tumor known as a fibroadenoma, which are fairly common among women in their 20s and 30s, but for LaToya and her family, finding a lump was a harrowing experience.
“When you’re developing breasts and you don’t know what that is, of course, quite naturally, I was scared,” she recalls. “In my young mind, cancer equaled death. The whole ordeal taught me to be more mindful about my body.”
A little over a decade later, that hypervigilance and awareness of her body ultimately saved LaToya’s life. While she was just a couple of years shy of 30–the age at which the American Cancer Society recommends women who are at high risk for breast cancer start getting annual screenings– LaToya found another lump in her breast. Because of her previous cancer scare, she was familiar with how her breasts looked and felt in their healthy state, which allowed her to quickly recognize when something did not feel right during a self-exam.
While research is not conclusive about how effective regular breast self-exams are at finding breast cancer early, self-exams can help people keep track of changes in the look and feel of their breasts, which can be reported to a healthcare provider right away.
While LaToya took immediate action, the path to an official diagnosis was longer and more difficult than one would hope. LaToya made an appointment to have her doctor look at the lump, but her doctor did not think it was serious. He suggested it might just be another fibroadenoma or fatty tissue.
“I was dismissed. I was told, ‘You’re too young to have cancer.’”
At LaToya’s insistence, months later, her doctor did a core needle biopsy. It came back negative, but by the time she got those results, the lump had doubled in size. While her medical team insisted that she had nothing to worry about, LaToya knew that the rate at which the tumor was growing was cause for concern. She pushed for a lumpectomy–a surgery to remove the lump and a small amount of surrounding tissue.
When she returned to her doctor’s office for what was supposed to be a routine follow-up visit after her surgery, LaToya got the news she had feared to be true all along–a diagnosis of invasive ductal carcinoma. “My doctor started running off this list of [other] doctors I needed to see from oncologists to radiologists; and it was just too much. For the first 10 minutes, I had no idea he was trying to tell me that I had cancer.”
In the midst of that life changing diagnosis, she became determined to make sure that her experience could help other people as well. “I don’t feel anyone should have to go through what I did. It all could have been avoided with more knowledge and more advocacy.”
As LaToya went through her treatment, she found community in the growing number of advocates, grassroots organizations, and the American Cancer Society. She found many of these organizations offered support to cancer patients and survivors, as well as information aimed at increasing patient awareness about treatment options, the cost of care, and how to navigate challenges they may face during cancer treatment.
One thing she’s learned through her advocacy is that “cancer doesn’t discriminate [but] the policies and practices do.”
“It wasn’t until I started challenging doctors and policy makers through my work here at the ACS that I realized the power of the voice,” LaToya explains. As her mother taught her, “a closed mouth don’t get fed.”
LaToya advises patients to speak up for themselves to ensure the highest level of care, and to be vocal about their personal or socio-economic challenges in order to find resources that might not be suggested by their medical team.
Knowing her body, seeking out information about the disease, and having the courage and support to advocate for herself saved LaToya’s life. And now she’s using her experience to not only encourage people to be as vigilant and aware as she was, but to spread the knowledge to their loved ones as well.
Regular cancer screening is safe, effective, and can save your life. The American Cancer Society has screening guidelines for women at average risk of breast cancer, and for those at high risk for breast cancer.
There are also screening tests available for many other types of cancer. Talk to a doctor about which screening tests are right for you or visit cancer.org/get-screened for more information.
This article is brought to you by Blavity in collaboration with Novartis.
About Novartis: Novartis is reimagining medicine to improve and extend people’s lives. We deliver high-value medicines that alleviate society’s greatest disease burdens, including many types of cancer, through research, development, and novel access approaches. In 2021, the company established the Beacon of Hope initiative, a 10-year collaboration with 26 Historically Black Colleges, Universities and Medical Schools, the Thurgood Marshall College Fund, Coursera, and the National Medical Association, to co-create programs that address the root causes of disparities in health and education, and create greater diversity, equity, inclusion, and trust across the research and development ecosystem. Find out more at https://www.novartis.com/us-en/esg/beacon-hope.