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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January 22-23

  • Navalny saga & Putin’s intentions
  • COVID’s toll on teenage girls
  • A 50-year-old book fee finally gets paid
  • … and much more!

🎲 BUT FIRST, A NEWS QUIZ!

What do you remember from the news this week?

1. Which two words did U.S. President Joe Biden use about possible scenarios in the Russia-Ukraine standoff that upset authorities in Kyiv?

2. What started to mysteriously appear on signs, statues and monuments across Adelaide, Australia?

3. What cult movie did U.S. rocker Meat Loaf, who died Friday at age 74, star in?

4. What news story have we summed up here in emoji form? 🇬🇧 👱 💬 💼 ❌ 🥳 🦠

[Answers at the bottom of this newsletter]

⬇️  STARTER

Toxic geopolitics: More than ever, we need more women world leaders

The world is watching the Russian-Ukrainian border. Russian President Vladimir Putin threatening an invasion finds an ally in Iran’s Ebrahim Raisi, united against their common enemy: the United States. Back in Washington, U.S. President Joe Biden — marking his first year in power with painfully low approval rates (higher only than Donald Trump’s) — sends his Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, to Kyiv to reassure President Volodymyr Zelensky who worries that France’s Emmanuel Macron might undermine Ukraine. And we haven’t even mentioned Xi Jinping!

It’s an endless theater of world leaders beating their respective chests — and they have exactly one thing in common: they’re all men. It’s by now a decades-old question, but worth asking again: What would happen if women, and not men, were running the world? Would there be less conflict, more prosperity? More humanity?

In 2018, the World Economic Forum released a study that showed that “only 4% of signatories to peace agreements between 1992 and 2011 were women, and only 9% of the negotiators.” The report shows that in several conflict zones in the world in recent decades, citing Liberia, Northern Ireland and Colombia, women have been instrumental in achieving peace.

In Colombia, where 20% of peace negotiators for the 2016 peace treaty were women, Ingrid Betancourt, herself a victim of the 50-year conflict, has announced her candidacy for the May presidential elections. Differently from previous bids, where she focused on fighting environmental abuses and corruption, Betancourt now is putting gender issues at the center of her political agenda. Bogota daily El Espectador questions whether the former hostage will be able to ride this important political wave, with feminist movements flexing their muscle around the region demanding more rights.

In Italy, next week’s elections for the head of state are monopolized by infamously misogynous former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, who is hoping to be elected for the seven-year, honorary function. There is no official candidacy, but Berlusconi’s name and that of current Prime Minister Mario Draghi are the two getting the most attention. Italian feminist writer and intellectual Dacia Maraini writes in La Stampa that, yes, the very fact of electing a female president will be progress for the country — and by the way, there are plenty of women qualifed for the job.

There was also a woman politician making the news this week for actually getting elected: Maltese conservative politician Roberta Metsola, became the new European Parliament President after the death of Italy’s David Sassoli. And yet the election of the first female president of the EU’s legislature since Nicole Fontaine in 2001 has been widely criticized by female politicians — primarily for Metsola’s stance against abortion rights. "I think it is a terrible sign for women's rights everywhere in Europe," French left-wing member of the European Parliament Manon Aubry told Deutsche Welle.

The women who have risen to power in history (Margaret Thatcher, anyone?) don’t necessarily make the case that gender is the silver bullet to fix politics. Still, after watching all the toxic masculinity on the world stage this past week, we can rightfully demand fewer men.

Irene Caselli

🎭  5 CULTURE THINGS TO KNOW

• Record-breaking online concert of Mahler’s “Symphony of a Thousand”: More than 100 musicians from around the world will take part today in a performance of Mahler’s epic 8th symphony consisting of 1,200 elements, including a double chorus, children’s choir, a full orchestra and an organ. The event is a culmination of a year of work; all artists recorded their parts in isolation besides the children’s choir. Tickets can be purchased here.

Yearly Japanese festival will set a mountain on fire: Today, the grassy hillside of Mount Wakakusayama in Japan will go up in flames as fireworks go off in the background as part of celebrations for Wakakusa Yamayak. The origin of the festival isn’t totally clear, but might relate to border conflicts between the great temples in the region or to ward off wild boars.

• New insights into antiquities taken by the Nazis: Scholars are looking into how German forces during World War II looted artifacts such as on the Greek island of Crete. Nazi officials pillaged these valuables for their own personal gain, but many were also destroyed, which is why researchers around the world are hoping to gain greater insight into this often overlooked aspect of German occupation.

Exhibition of Beirut’s restored artwork: The Beirut Museum of Art has inaugurated the exhibition “Lift” featuring 17 paintings by Lebanese artists that had been damaged by the port explosion in 2020, and have since been restored as a result of a UNESCO initiative.

The world’s first vegan violin tunes up: Berries, pears and spring water are just some of the natural ingredients relied on for the construction of the instrument by English violin-maker Padraig O'Dubhlaoidh. Traditionally, animal parts like horsehair, hooves, horns and bones are used, especially to glue pieces together. The £8,000 instrument is sure to be music to some animal lover’s ears.

🇷🇺  NAVALNY SAGA & PUTIN’S INTENTIONS


One year ago anti-corruption lawyer and politician Alexei Navalny was detained in Russia, marking the effective end of domestic opposition to Russian president Vladimir Putin. In the time since, more than half of the former coordinators of Navalny's headquarters fled Russia. Even Navalny's name is forbidden: Putin never says his name, calling him "this citizen."

At the same time, Navalny’s imprisonment and the de facto end of the opposition have changed Russia. The fear of persecution, the lack of alternatives and the total censorship and propaganda have caused Putin's ratings consistently downward.

An aging leader with no successors, no enemies and dwindling popular support is finding it increasingly difficult to explain why he must continue to rule forever. In such a situation, there’s nothing quite like an external threat to fuel the raison d’être of the authoritarian regime. In Putin’s eyes, the perfect threat right now is NATO expansion, and the perfect enemy is its neighbor Ukraine and its attempts to join the military alliance. Whether Russia's president is ready to engage in a real war is the great unknown, but its aggressive and uncompromising foreign policy — like his disposing of Alexei Navalny — is the latest legitimization of his increasingly absolutist rule now into its third decade.

Read the full story: What The Alexei Navalny Saga Tells Us About Putin’s Intentions On Ukraine

🇨🇴  FROM HOSTAGE TO POTENTIAL HEAD OF STATE


Íngrid Betancourt spent more than six years as a prisoner of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) terror group in Colombia, an experience that is sure to play a role in her recently announced presidential campaign. Betancourt, who is 60, is running as part of the Verde Oxígeno and is the only woman in the Centro Esperanza Coalition (CCE), a centrist alliance.

Betancourt could be a boost for the coalition and embody its goals of transforming, overcoming polarization and, as its name indicates, giving hope to Colombia. In particular, the centrist candidate who in the past has been largely focused on anti-corruption and environmental protection, has said she will make women’s rights a cornerstone of her campaign.

Read the full story: Ingrid Betancourt, A Hostage Heroine Reinvented As Feminist For President

♀️ 😔  YOUNG WOMEN FACE THE BRUNT OF THE COVID-19 MENTAL HEALTH CRISIS


A growing number of studies around the world show that COVID-19 and lockdown restrictions have prompted a disproportionate increase in mental health illness among teen girls. These include rising suicide rates among adolescent females in the United States, Germany and Spain and a higher prevalence of anxiety and eating disorders in Israel. But why are women being disproportionately impacted?

There’s a range of reasons. In India, for example, young women had increased difficulty accessing education resources when schools went online and shared a disproportionate burden of household tasks as opposed to their male peers. Around the world, social media also played a significant role; without access to in-person socialization and hobbies, young people spent more time online, often comparing themselves to others, impacting feelings of self-worth. The situation is particularly dire given the challenges of accessing mental health support resources during the pandemic.

Read the full story: Why The COVID-19 Mental Health Crisis Is Hitting Teenage Girls The Hardest

💡  BRIGHT IDEA


Norwegian mobility company Podbike has announced that Frikar, its four-wheeled enclosed electric bike, will soon hit bike lanes on home turf. The futuristic-looking vehicle does require the user to pedal, which powers a generator and drive-by-wire system that keep the Frikar running — with a speed limited to 25 km/h.

#️⃣ TRENDING

“Mãe De Bolsonaro” is the top query on Twitter in Brazil, after news that Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro’s mother Olinda Bonturi Bolsonaro had died at age 94.

😄📚 SMILE OF THE WEEK

Photo of the new President of the European Parliament Roberta Metsola

New President of the European Parliament Roberta Metsola

Philipp Von Ditfurth/ZUMA


London’s legendary bookshop Waterstones Gower Street tweeted a photo of a letter from an anonymous user confessing to having forgotten to pay for their books some 48 years ago. Owing approximately £100 ($136), adjusted for inflation, they had sent through £120 ($163) to make up for their tardiness. Touched by the kind gesture, the bookshop reciprocated by donating the money to the largest children’s reading charity in the United Kingdom.

👉   OTHERWISE ...

Dottoré! is a weekly column on Worldcrunch.com by Mariateresa Fichele, a psychiatrist and writer based in Naples, Italy. Read more about the series here.

Bucket of tears

I’ve been thinking and thinking about a patient of mine since yesterday. His name is Giovanni.

Psychiatrists, you might not know, are quite often asked the same unanswerable question: "Why does one become insane?”

When I was younger, I searched and searched for an answer, losing myself in scientific explanations about synapses, neurons and neurotransmitters.

By the end of my studies, I’d realized that the only thing that was clear was that I’d been clutching at straws to justify my work and give it a semblance of scientific dignity. In the years since, I’ve forced myself, in defiance of the authority of my position, to reply with a laconic but honest: "Sorry, but I don't know."

So when Giovanni asked me that same question, he was not happy at all with my answer. “Dottoré, how’s it possible that you don't understand why I became crazy?”

When he tried to ask me again one day, I tried a different response:

"Giová, do you cry?"

"No. Why?"

"Imagine that the tears that you don't shed, that you force yourself not to shed, because that's what you've been taught to do, all end up inside your heart. The heart is an organ that pumps blood, which brings nourishment and oxygen to the whole body. But over time those diverted tears accumulate to the point that the heart begins to pump them instead of your blood. Slowly your body becomes sick, but the part that suffers the most is your brain. Because tears don't contain oxygen and nourishment, just sadness."

I expected a reaction to this fanciful explanation, but instead Giovanni kept quiet and eventually left.

The next time I saw him, he said: "Dottoré, I've thought about it. I know you told me about the tears to make me feel better, but maybe you’re right. Because sometimes I feel that I have a lake, more than a heart. But it takes a very powerful pump to pump out all that water, and my heart alone cannot do it. And now that you've explained to me how I became crazy, can you also tell me if I'll ever get better?"

"Do you want another story or do you want the truth?”

"This time, I’d rather have the truth!”

"The answer is always the same then. I'm sorry, Giová, but I don't know this either. But I can tell you one thing for sure. I'll help you slowly, slowly with just a bucket. Because the truth is, not even I have that pump."

⏩  LOOKING AHEAD

• Italy's parliament will convene Monday to begin the process of voting for a new president to succeed Sergio Mattarella for a seven-year term.

• Qualification games for the 2022 FIFA World Cup will be held from Jan. 27 to Feb. 2 for South, North and Central America as well as Asia. Argentina’s national team will not be able to rely on superstar Lionel Messi, still recovering from COVID-19.

• Next Thursday will mark 100 years since Nellie Bly died. The American journalist is known for her record-breaking 72-day trip around the world in 1889, inspired by Jules Vernes’ book Around the World in Eighty Days


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