Denise Roberts was just 34 when she was diagnosed with breast cancer. Although her doctors told her she was too young to worry about the disease, she knew something wasn’t quite right.
“I was really tired, more than normal, but I was told to rest more,” she remembers. But when her symptoms didn’t go away, she advocated for her own health and forced her doctor to give her a mammogram.
Roberts found out she had breast cancer, and she fought aggressively to beat the disease. She went through chemotherapy and had a mastectomy to remove one of her breasts, a move many young women are scared to undergo.
“I went through a mastectomy and looking at my body every day with no breast and the other one looking like a raisin, feeling like the other breast was infected,” she recalls of her experience. “I didn’t feel any sex appeal and I felt like my husband was with me out of pity because all of my sex appeal went out of the front door.”
Despite Roberts’ husband encouraging her to have a mastectomy to increase her chances of survival, she felt unwanted; a fear that keeps many young women from following vital, yet aggressive, treatments could save their life.
“Women, I find, that are single and have a mastectomy they have bigger problems. They rush to get a reconstruction because they want that normal back and a prosthesis isn’t going to give it to them,” she explains of the young women she counsels. “They don’t want to explain to their partners that they’re not dating. So they get that security back. But it’s a false sense of security.”
Roberts counsels men and women on how to support each other through the disease. While she’s seen her fair share of men who have left their wives or girlfriends because they were afraid their she would die, Roberts says offering support for families and allowing them to speak openly about their concerns helps everyone involved.
Encouraging women is why Roberts started the Denise Roberts Breast Cancer Foundation in the first place. While many organizations like the Susan G. Komen Foundation focus on finding a cure for the disease, Roberts’ organization focuses on prevention and insuring minority women have greater access to health care.
“Nobody wants to talk about prevention,” a frustrated Roberts says of the money being funneled into cancer organizations. “Our concern should be telling women and men that if you exercise you can be healthier. You can be mentally ready for anything that will hit us because we don’t have a cure.”
Instead of fighting for a cure, Roberts advocates for aggressive prevention.
“Take some of the money put it in billboards, put it schools, pay for materials for us to have support groups for women who are curious because their friend died from breast cancer and they don’t know what to do. It could be just as simple as changing your diet,” she explains.
“I used to tell women who came to the clinic who felt lumps to try this: no fast food, no processed food, just eat vegetables and fruit, and exercise for 30 days, then come back to the clinic. They come back and about 90 percent had no lumpy breasts anymore from just that 30 days of changing.”
Although breast cancer affects black women in lower numbers, we die from the disease at higher rates than our white counterparts. Why? Roberts says it’s due to inadequate access to health care.
While there are resources for women without insurance to receive mammograms and other preventative services, the problem is most women don’t know about them and hospitals aren’t clamoring to inform the public.
To combat this disparity in access to preventative treatment Roberts advises women pay attention to their bodies.
“Stop worrying about your age and concentrate on what’s normal for you and your body,” the two-time cancer survivor recommends. “Stay conceited. If you like the way you look, be proud of that. If you feel good about yourself, maintain that. Start having a little bit more conceit and vanity about yourself. Because if it ain’t right, get it fixed. Get checked.”