Denise Roberts was about to turn 35 when she was diagnosed with breast cancer, but she’d known she was sick for longer than that.
“I had insurance. I was educated. My husband is a doctor, and it took me almost three years before I could talk my doctor into getting me a mammogram because of the symptoms I was having,” Roberts said in a phone interview with CLUTCH.
Her doctors told her she was too young. They gave her Niacin for her hair loss. They told her she was exhausted because she was the mother of two. They told her everything but that what was robbing her of her youth, hair, and energy could be cancer.
And while Roberts would like to believe this was an isolated incident, 20 years and a modified mastectomy later, Roberts says it’s still happening – young black women getting breast cancer and everyone – from the patients themselves to the doctors are missing the signs.
Founder of the Denise Roberts Breast Cancer Foundation, Roberts’ mission is to spread awareness in the group most neglected during October’s Breast Cancer Awareness walks and fund-raisers – young, African-American women.
Roberts says doctors and patients are missing the signs because they still see breast cancer as an older woman’s disease. Of the quarter-million of women who get the disease, 11,000 of these women are under 40. And black women under 40 are the group most likely to die from the disease, but not because of any genetic factors, but because they are the least likely to be screened, seek treatment early, or be properly diagnosed by their doctors.
“We need to stop talking about age and start talking about prevention,” Roberts said.
But prevention can be hard to come by. Many minority women either have no insurance or are under-insured. And even those who do have doctors run into other hurdles – younger and younger doctors who focus more on treating symptoms than preventative measures that keep you out of the hospital completely.
Roberts blames the influence of money and the insurance industry for the emphasis on costly treatments over much cheaper preventive measures.
“If you’re curing everybody, no one is going to get paid. They’re not saying they don’t want to prevent, not diagnose,” she said.
For instance, Roberts said her doctor initially encouraged her to try to salvage her breast because he thought she wouldn’t want to lose the “look.” Roberts didn’t listen, opting for a modified mastectomy on her right breast that saved her life.
“There were seven more (cancerous tumors) that wouldn’t have been seen or treated if they hadn’t removed it,” she said, crediting having an aggressive surgeon and a second medical opinion that saved her life.
That second opinion argued that due to her age and background – and the fact three years had passed – there was a good chance the cancer had moved to other parts of her body. While it hadn’t, it was deeper in her breast tissue in the same breast where the initial lump was found.
Because the breast was completely removed, Roberts said she didn’t need chemotherapy or radiation therapy (she stresses that everyone’s case is different, so although removing the breast was a life-saver for her, results more than likely will vary with different women). Twenty-five years later, she’s still alive and still fighting for awareness.
Roberts says most young black women aren’t even aware of groups like the Susan G. Komen Foundation or Revlon’s Walk for the Cure awareness efforts because they often aren’t the target of October’s awareness campaigns.
When she asked a group of women at a Compton, Calif. beauty college why they weren’t participating in Revlon’s walk, one woman replied it was because, “I don’t use that makeup.”
Roberts says more black women and men need to become aware about the realities of breast cancer – that while not as frequent, it can happen in young women, it can happen in children, it can even happen in men. One of the youngest patients Roberts’ group was notified about was a two-year-old girl whose family initially thought the lump on her chest was a bug bite.
Roberts blames the chemicals and hormones in a lot of our processed and fast food for causing these hormonal and chemical changes in black women’s bodies, potentially increasing their cancer risk.
To prevent, breast cancer and a multitude other health issues, Roberts is encourage black people to exercise and take more care about what kinds of foods they eat.
Lifestyle changes could be the difference in life and death. Roberts compared it to moving out when a neighborhood has become too dangerous.
“If you get your car jacked on one block you just move it up the street you’re still going to get jacked. But if you move out of the neighborhood, just a couple blocks away you have a less chance of getting jacked,” Roberts said. “If you understand you’re at a high risk and you know what that means you can build up the better cells in your body to check and cancel out the bad cells that try to grow. That is changing your neighborhood of your body. Put better cells in my body so if anything tries to attack me I can get it out, crowd it out. That’s how it is with cancer, you have to crowd it with good cells. I’m crowding my body with fruits and vegetables and exercising. Building up the cells and working.”
Roberts said she hopes that one day she can meet with First Lady Michelle Obama to talk about her foundation and how, together through the First Lady’s pro-health initiatives, they can change the lives of black women. It’s all interconnected, according to Roberts.
“This is my passion and my hope. If we can get it out there about educating ourselves and empowering women of color, that’s our future,” she said. “It’s about obesity and food. It still starts with people who are young.”