Society

Black Women And Breast Cancer: A Tale Of Racism, Sexism And Redemption

When the author, a black Cuban immigrant living in Spain, was diagnosed with breast cancer, she had to overcome not only the physical toll but also the daily humiliations by a medical system and society that treated her as a second-class patient. But then she decided to say, enough.

Black-and-white photo of a woman looking out a window

"I would like to say that everything can be overcome, but it is not true."

Antoinette Torres Soler

I have beaten cancer and I am grateful for that every day. I'm a 46-year-old mother of a beautiful nine-year-old Afro-Spanish girl, and with my professional aspirations half-fulfilled, I felt it was not fair to leave so many things undone.

So I have defeated breast cancer, but not racism, xenophobia or machismo. I've been quite stunned by the sheer volume of instances of prejudice I had to confront throughout this journey.

Among the bad habits brought on by COVID-19 is the irremediable lack of contact, the distancing from people and, consequently, the coldness in human relationships. When I received the news about my disease, I had to enter the medical appointment alone and, three meters away from me, the doctor and nurse dropped this little piece of news on me.

However, up to then, everything was normal within a pandemic context. Horribly normal.


But when the citations arrived for all the tests I had to face before my surgery, the engine of dehumanization picked up speed. Nobody was explaining anything to me. It seemed like I had to come to the hospital having already acquired the knowledge — and having already cried. During the tests, several people were speaking to me at the same time: One was asking me to sign papers that I could barely read, another informed me about the days when I had more tests while another prodded me before entering an MRI machine where I had to listen to the most overwhelming sounds in the world, absolutely petrified.

Viewed as an ignorant migrant

All of these people knew the tests I would face, but they didn't care. Meanwhile, I was more terrified every day.

I progressively became an inert body that was given orders. It went on like that for several visits, until I decided to stop everything.

Being a black, Cuban and migrant woman in Spain, I knew very well that for all those people I was just a "poor ignorant migrant who doesn't understand anything." It was embarrassing to see all those white women (yes, they were all white women) boasting about their doctor degrees, and then offering care that left much to be desired.

Knowing what happens when oppressions intersect is great, and deconstructing ourselves as victims is even better. Because reality shows that while we reserve much energy to educate and encourage the humanization of "others," the system and need for empathy often fail.

I was just a "poor ignorant migrant who doesn't understand anything."

But in practical terms, what can happen to someone in my position? How could I defend myself from the malpractice of those who saw me as an "ignorant migrant" without also becoming a "violent black woman?" In other words: Intersectionality makes it easier to understand others, but if you are in a context of oppression, and you also lose the right to be helped, what happens then? How do you get more vulnerable than that?

Well, we have ourselves. But to be honest, when I had cancer, I didn't want to be an activist. I didn't want to defend myself because I thought that the doctors around me were there for that. However, I believe that the idea of imposing our limits, within the debate on intersectionality, is vital to understand all possible frameworks.

Setting limits, defend myself

I remember arriving for one of the medical appointments, and as usual, the professionals disregarded me, telling me to "just lie there." It was then that I woke up and insisted that, before continuing, they give me explanations because it was my body, it was my pain, and that should be respected. It is outrageous that while you are suffering from cancer, you have to take all of this into account.

I used the old trick of using their own words — the ones they tend to use in medical conferences and hardly put into practice. I told them that so far no one had explained to me who was going to accompany me throughout the process and that there hadn't been any mention of psychological support.

I also asked them if they were going to fight for my life, and if I could trust the hospital. Because, being black, I don't take anything for granted. Just look at history.

From that moment, the change was radical. Every action they took with my body was explained, and if I was going to be in pain or discomfort afterward, I was notified. From that day on, they asked me how I was doing. I was beginning to feel that I had taken control of the situation, of my body and my fears. I felt empowered.

All kinds of scars

Still, unbeknown to me, three operations and the complete loss of a breast awaited me. And as I learned by living it, in addition to how physically painful cancer can be, it also has an overwhelming psychological component, where simply uttering the word "cancer" is already terrifying.

Yet as I took back control of my life, I had time to enjoy my family, despite the uncertainty. I decided to tend to my garden to redirect the anxiety of waiting for the surgery. I have to say that at that time I often burst into laughter with my husband and daughter. It sounds strange, but the truth is that if you are in control, and have a healthy relationship with your thoughts, everything is better.

Being black, I don't take anything for granted.

A few days after that conversation, I was summoned for surgery. I was so calm — the nurses were amazed. After a while, they told me that although there was no metastasis, which was great news, they would have to operate again, and they would have to remove the whole breast, due to a problem with the location of the cancer.

Photo of an empty hospital corridor

"I went from being scared of scars to calmly accepting the loss of a part of my body."

Gonzalo Kenny via Unsplash

Wounds of machismo

Sometimes life has other plans ... I think about it and smile. In the first operation, I was afraid of the small scars that would remain. But, when they told me I would lose my whole breast, I remembered my Yoruba sign "By losing I win" I received when I was twenty in the ceremony of Orula, the advice deity adored in Cuba. And so it was, I went from being scared of scars to calmly accepting the loss of a part of my body. I even said goodbye and accepted my grief process. I felt at peace.

After these moments of tranquility came the part of my medical process in which I had to face machismo. Apparently, the protocol establishes that after a full mastectomy, they immediately place an expander to begin the reconstruction of the breast. I was assigned a plastic surgeon (whom I reported to hospital patient care) who assumed he was dealing with a person looking for aesthetic plastic surgery rather than a person who had just lost their breast to cancer. And these are two very different things.

Seven days after my second operation, he saw me and even scolded me because he understood that "I couldn't be in pain." He probably hadn't even read my medical history. His rudeness and the language he used gave the impression that without plastic surgery there would be no beauty or dignity possible. All of this ended in a third operation to remove the expander, ending the reconstruction process.

Interrupting breast reconstruction

I must tell all the women in my case that there is the possibility of a great life after interrupting breast reconstruction. There are people who come to terms with their reality, who use bras for mastectomies and who continue to live without having to face the hard situation of general anesthesia, another surgery and the long recovery that breast reconstruction implies. There are people who even take pictures with their new bodies.

I had surgery in February and in the months that followed, I went to the pool and had a fantastic vacation. They did not give me chemo or radiation, but I do have to take a pill for the next five years. Despite all that has happened, I feel very well.

Having cancer is a very serious thing indeed, but facing abuse while suffering from the disease is unacceptable. If you find yourself in a similar situation, do not forget to set your limits: You are the patient, you must be taken care of and everything that needs explanation must be explained. The burden that life has imposed on you is more than enough.

I would like to say that everything can be overcome, but it is not true. What I will say instead is that vulnerability does not have to take away your dignity.

*This article was translated and published with permission by the author.

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Pro-life and Pro-abortion Rights Protests in Washington

Anne-Sophie Goninet, Jane Herbelin and Bertrand Hauger

👋 Håfa adai!*

Welcome to Thursday, where new Omicron findings arrive from South Africa, abortion rights are at risk at the U.S. Supreme Court and Tyrannosaurus rex has got some new competition. From Germany, we share the story of a landmark pharmacy turned sex toy museum.

[*Chamorro - Guam]

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🌎  7 THINGS TO KNOW RIGHT NOW

• COVID update: South Africa reports a higher rate of reinfections from the Omicron variant than has been registered with the Beta and Delta variants, though researchers await further findings on the effects of the new strain. Meanwhile, the UK approves the use of a monoclonal therapy, known as sotrovimab, to treat those at high risk of developing severe COVID-19 symptoms.The approval comes as the British pharmaceutical company, GSK, separately announced the treatment has shown to “retain activity” against the Omicron variant. Down under, New Zealand’s reopening, slated for tomorrow is being criticized as posing risks to its under-vaccinated indigenous Maori.

• Supreme Court poised to gut abortion rights: The U.S. Supreme Court signaled a willingness to accept a Republican-backed Mississippi law that would bar abortions after 15 weeks of pregnancy, even in cases of rape or incest. A ruling, expected in June, may see millions of women lose abortion access, 50 years after it was recognized as a constitutional right in the landmark Roe v. Wade case.

• Macri charged in Argentine spying case: Argentina’s former president Mauricio Macri has been charged with ordering the secret services to spy on the family members of 44 sailors who died in a navy submarine sinking in 2017. The charge carries a sentence of three to ten years in prison. Macri, now an opposition leader, says the charges are politically motivated.

• WTA suspends China tournaments over Peng Shuai: The Women's Tennis Association (WTA) announced the immediate suspension of all tournaments in China due to concerns about the well-being of Chinese tennis player Peng Shuai, and the safety of other players. Peng disappeared from public view after accusing a top Chinese official of sexual assault.

• Michigan school shooting suspect to be charged as an adult: The 15-year-old student accused of killing four of his classmates and wounding seven other people in a Michigan High School will face charges of terrorism and first-degree murder. Authorities say the suspect had described wanting to attack the school in cellphone videos and a journal.

• Turkey replaces finance minister amid economic turmoil: Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan appointed a strong supporter of his low-interest rate drive, Nureddin Nebati, as Turkey’s new finance minister.

• A battle axe for a tail: Chilean researchers announced the discovery of a newly identified dinosaur species with a completely unique feature from any other creatures that lived at that time: a flat, weaponized tail resembling a battle axe.

🗞️  FRONT PAGE

South Korean daily Joong-ang Ilbo reports on the discovery of five Omicron cases in South Korea. The Asian nation has broken its daily record for overall coronavirus infections for a second day in a row with more than 5,200 new cases. The variant cases were linked to arrivals from Nigeria and prompted the government to tighten border controls.


#️⃣  BY THE NUMBERS

¥10,000

In the northeastern Chinese city of Harbin, a reward of 10,000 yuan ($1,570) will be given to anyone who volunteers to take a COVID-19 test and get a positive result, local authorities announced on Thursday on the social network app WeChat.

📰  STORY OF THE DAY

Why an iconic pharmacy is turning into a sex toy museum

The "New Pharmacy" was famous throughout the St. Pauli district of Hamburg for its history and its long-serving owner. Now the owner’s daughter is transforming it into a museum dedicated to the history of sex toys, linking it with the past "curing" purpose of the shop, reports Eva Eusterhus in German daily Die Welt.

💊 The story begins in autumn 2018, when 83-year-old Regis Genger stood at the counter of her pharmacy and realized that the time had come for her to retire. At least that is the first thing her daughter Anna Genger tells us when we meet, describing the turning point that has also shaped her life and that of her business partner Bianca Müllner. The two women want to create something new here, something that reflects the pharmacy's history and Hamburg's eclectic St. Pauli quarter (it houses both a red light district and the iconic Reeperbahn entertainment area) as well as their own interests.

🚨 Over the last few months, the pharmacy has been transformed into L'Apotheque, a venture that brings together art and business in St. Pauli's red light district. The back rooms will be used for art exhibitions, while the old pharmacy space will house a museum dedicated to the history of sex toys. Genger and Müllner want to show that desire has always existed and that people have always found inventive ways of maximizing pleasure, even in times when self-gratification was seen as unnatural and immoral, as a cause of deformities.

🏩 Genger and Müllner want the museum to show how the history of desire has changed over time. The art exhibitions, which will also center on the themes of physicality and sexuality, are intended to complement the exhibits. They are planning to put on window displays to give passers-by a taste of what is to come, for example, British artist Bronwen Parker-Rhodes's film Lovers, which offers a portrait of sex workers during lockdown.

➡️ Read more on Worldcrunch.com

📣 VERBATIM

"I would never point a gun at anyone and pull a trigger at them. Never."

— U.S. actor Alec Baldwin spoke to ABC News, his first interview since the accident that killed cinematographer Halyna Hutchins on the set of the movie Rust last October. The actor said that although he was holding the gun he didn’t pull the trigger, adding that the bullet “wasn't even supposed to be on the property.”

✍️ Newsletter by Anne-Sophie Goninet and Jane Herbelin

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