When we spoke with Filmona Moss Woodbridge, VA, she was in her second battle with cancer. Her first diagnosis was in January 2011 with stage 2 breast cancer, and it had come back with a vengeance almost five years later in August 2015. This time, the cancer had spread all over both lungs and the lymph nodes around them. At the time we spoke with her, the cancer had been removed from both lungs, but some tumors still remained in her lymph nodes and she was getting weekly chemo treatments.
Filmona had exercised regularly and ate a healthy diet previous to her cancer diagnosis. She reflects, “My number came up.” But a strong network of family and friends in Northwest Indiana was there to support her every step of the way. Her 26-year-old daughter moved from Dallas, TX to help Filmona’s husband with her care, and family coordinated visits so Filmona never had to be alone during weekly chemo treatments.
Filmona’s advice to those newly diagnosed with breast cancer is to get rid of all unnecessary stress and be an educated patient: do your own research to get your questions answered so you don’t have to take your doctor’s word on everything they say in reference to your treatment plan. She adds, “What has gotten me through my treatment is my faith in God and the support that I have with my family and my friends.”
Originally from Richmond, VA, Laronda Peterson was living a healthy life before her cancer diagnosis in October 2014: she had lost about 60 pounds over the previous ten years, and nobody else in her family had been diagnosed with breast cancer. At 37 years old, one month before her birthday, Laronda’s gynecologist noticed a lump during her breast exam and said “I think you need to go and get a mammogram now.” There were no other signs or symptoms present.
Laronda made an appointment to get a mammogram the next day, which was a Wednesday. The lab asked for a 3D scan and a biopsy. The following Monday, the results came back positive for stage 1 invasive breast cancer. It had not spread to the lymph nodes, but the tumor was aggressive. Laronda would need radiation and chemotherapy.
On finding a source of motivation, Laronda says “Prayer absolutely got me through my treatment, just staying rooted in the word and knowing that God had me definitely kept me on a positive track.” Having the support of her family and friends to help her navigate things like doctor’s appointments, picking up prescriptions and going wig shopping was also an immense help. Laronda’s aunt, who is “not a very emotional person and…doesn’t really deal with illnesses well,” expressed her love and support by making Laronda a quilt with a personalized inscription to keep her warm on nights when she wasn’t feeling well.
Laronda has plenty of advice for newly diagnosed patients: “It’s gonna be hard…Your port is gonna hurt…Chemo sucks. Radiation is exhausting because you’ve got to go every day…Know that you will come out on the other side and it will be okay.” She advises those with breast cancer not to be afraid to lean on others and ask for help. Based on her own experience, she shares that “always speaking positively about my situation and having a positive attitude was probably the most important thing next to prayer and having a supportive family to get me through.”
At the time we spoke with her, Laronda was in remission for 2 years. She had recently got a breast MRI and everything was good, scheduled to get her yearly mammogram. “If you were to look at me on the street,” Laronda said, “you would never know that I had eight rounds of chemo and 33 rounds of radiation less than two years ago. And I’m totally fine and life is good.”
Esther received her breast cancer diagnosis in 1999, when everyone was concerned about Y2K. For Esther, 1999 was about preparing for surgery. Her strong faith in God helped Esther get through her battle with cancer. “The bible says that not all sickness is unto death, and I did not have any kind of apprehension that this is it.” She contrasts her point of view with another older woman she spoke with who didn’t want to get a mammogram because her health was in God’s hands, so she would rather not know if she was going to get cancer. Esther’s reply was “I want to know.” She states, “I want to make an educated prayer.”
During her battle with cancer, Esther ran into some myths about what causes cancer to grow. At one time, she was under the impression that touching a tumor during surgery would cause it to grow faster. A doctor clarified this for her, stating that “cancer is not gonna run rampant on the operating table as soon as the oxygen hits it.” In this case, asking a question helped Esther find out the truth and get rid of a belief about cancer that wasn’t helpful.
Another kind of belief Esther speaks out against is a belief among some women that the size of their breasts determines how attractive they are. “Well, I know I’m sexy no matter what size my breasts are.” She can look at herself in the mirror and say “Oh, you look good. You are beautiful and wonderfully made, in God’s image.”
Angela went from being a passive Christian to an active one when she was diagnosed with breast cancer at 34. She found a lump in her left armpit, and a biopsy showed that she had infiltrating ductal carcinoma. She got a second opinion to confirm the diagnosis before going through with chemotherapy, a lumpectomy and seven weeks of radiation. Though faith was an important motivator for Angela throughout her treatment, she knew she had to advocate for herself because “faith without works is dead…it was a point of me praying, but also seeking out the assistance to help him in his works for me.”
Though Angela had lost her mother after a rough battle with breast cancer, she believes that experience strengthened her for her own encounter with the disease. She said, “I think that my mom’s death was part of the process of where God is placing me now, and it was really instrumental in developing who I am today.”
Throughout all of her treatments, Angela got tired but never once vomited. She was more prepared to seek out help from others because she had watched how the disease affected her mother, and Angela’s experience was very different. She notes that the advances in treatments and support for breast cancer since her mother’s time have made a big difference too. Angela met with a support group called Sisters Network, which is a national African American breast cancer survivorship organization. She reflects, “just having somebody that looked like me to understand what I was going through was paramount, and it really helped me through my process.”
In herself and other breast cancer survivors, Angela has seen that it’s important to find a “new normal.” She observes, “You know that you are a breast cancer survivor, that you have been through the fire and the storm and you’ve come out on the other side.”
At the time of this interview, Barbara was a 10-year breast cancer survivor. She felt there had to be a reason for her struggle with the disease, and she knew that God was always with her. She asked for healing, and in return, she promised that “I would do whatever I needed to do to make sure that no other woman had to go through this disease by herself.” Barbara believes that God gave her a second chance so that when another woman battling the disease feels like she can’t make it and that no one understands what she’s going through, Barbara can say “Oh, yes I do. I’ve been there.”
“You form a new family with the women that you take radiation with,” Barbara says. She remembers talking with women whose husbands were not supportive and didn’t want to look at them anymore because they were “fried.” Some men would speculate about how or why their wives developed breast cancer as if it was their fault.
“I went everywhere I could so that I could get the best scientifically-based research so I could take it back to my sisters and present it to them in a language they could understand,” Barbara said. She took it upon herself to address those myths and reassure other women that things like wearing an underwire bra or getting hit in the breast do not cause breast cancer. It was not about embarrassing anyone, but sharing the truth so these women could make their own decisions. She observes, “We fall down partially because of a lack of knowledge. We would rather listen to old wive’s tales than hear the truth.”
Tasha was 34 when she received her breast cancer diagnosis. Her pastor came to the hospital to pray with her, and one thing he said stands out in her memory: “I’m not telling you not to take the medical service because you have to do what you have to do to live.”
However, Tasha’s own doctor put pressure on her to get reconstructive surgery after her bilateral mastectomy, which she did not want. The doctor told her “you are too young to walk around like that. And how are you gonna feel about yourself? How is your boyfriend going to feel about you? What about your male friends? How are they gonna look at you?” Tasha’s response was “It’s not about them. It’s about me. It’s about how I feel about myself.” She told him “breasts does not make me. Hair does not make me. I’m still a woman, and I love myself. And at this time I’m focused on living.”
At the time of the interview, Tasha says “my attractiveness to me–it has not changed.” She is dating again, and she lets men know what she went through. She says that it’s still not about her breasts; men see her as a strong woman and say “you have so much pizzaz about yourself, I would never know…” Tasha says that now, “they fall in love with me first,” not her body.