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