By Nayaba Arinde
In a time when eggs are nearly a dollar a piece, filling up a tank of gas is almost a monthly rent/mortgage payment, and everybody is walking around in ugly/practical/ultra-comfortable plastic shoes with coordinated holes in them—a yearly staple is the corporate pink drenched recognition of breast cancer survivors and fighters.
There is respect, gratitude, and hope tied into the annual walks, the ultra-produced documentaries, and special news reports. Some people want to note the corporate hustle, and others focus on the kitchen-table, survivor-created cottage industry born out of the need to recover, inspire and share.
Full disclosure this reporter is a 15-year breast cancer survivor, who created a survivor support group called Square Circles, and engages regularly with fellow survivors and fighters and supporters of folks wrestling with any number of the all-too-common ailments which particularly affect the Black community—perhaps disproportionately.
Early detection, maintaining a healthy lifestyle as best you can, personally researching your options, and being your own most powerful health advocate—especially in the hallowed halls of hospitals and doctor’s offices. In order to spread the word, be a resource, and be visible in the fight, in August 2008, after being done with chemo, I wrote “Survive and Thrive,” and “Respecting the Unexpected,” my personal cancer story, and had them published in the Amsterdam News.
In 2020, just before the coronavirus pandemic shut down the world, one of 11 co-authors of the Women’s Empowerment Breakthrough Edition I once again detailed the story of detection, and life during and after a breast cancer journey.
Deniece Mitchell-Delerme is a fellow survivor, and her organization Slay Cancer is about the work of doing just that. On Tuesday, Oct. 23 she told the Amsterdam News, “I am 6 years and four months and two weeks and three days cancer free.” She mentions the minutes and nano-seconds too.
Still determined to be “an open book,” Mitchell-Delerme introduced her breast cancer story to the world as the bald-headed, Blacknificent beauty Queen, former Miss Grenada/USA.
Whether it is getting her ‘No Mo’ Chemo crop tops, or her LDC–Last Day of Chemo tee, or logging on to her socials or podcast, Mitchell-Delerme of SlayCancer.org focused on how to combat that evasive specter which is cancer. Her events, her Caribbean girl Slay Cancer dishes declaring, “I’ve got 99 problems, but Turmeric solved like 86 of them,” are all designed to heal with love, humor, great holistic energy and informed hope.
Last year Mitchell-Delerme celebrated her “Five years, 60 months, 260 weeks, 1825 days, 43800 hours, 2628000 minutes, 157680000 seconds of #NoChemo. This five-year milestone.”
As any survivor will repeat, you can sometimes find joy in the simply glorious facts which you chose not to take for granted.
Thirty years old when her own mom was diagnosed with breast cancer, she was told that she was too young to get a mammogram herself. “I was told I was young. I was naive at the time. I know better now. About two years later I found a little lump while I was showering. I knew. I got a biopsy, and it was diagnosed as stage 2 breast cancer. I was 32 years old, a week from my 33rd birthday.” She did chemotherapy and radiation, and “I went homeopathic also. I used soursop which is a natural cancer killer. Where my family is from, Grenada, we have soursop tea. I drink it hot, cold. And I still do. I think that had a huge effect on shrinking the cancer cells. I had a double mastectomy and reconstruction.”
This reporter met Mitchell-Delerme at a Manhattan taping of an October 2016 panel on The Root with host ***** and cancer warrior Nacole Ali.
“I’ve always had a passion for fashion. After my diagnosis, I needed something to keep my focus on other than me having cancer and having to go through the process. So, with my passion for fashion and breast cancer awareness, I came up with Slay Cancer. Since then, I have been on a mission to promote proactive health care, preventative health care, and just knowing your body; and knowing what’s normal, and what’s not normal.” She says she wanted especially Black women to be comfortable with figuring out how to have “a normal conversation about our breast health and hearing our stories and experiences—and slaying cancer the whole time.”
She has raised money for breast cancer centers in Grenada, she’s worked with the American Cancer Society and Susan G. Komen, and held her Caribbean Slay Cancer Fest, where with food, fun, and music Mitchell-Delerme has raised money for the cancer center in St. Thomas after the terrible devastation caused by Hurricane Irma.
“I talk a lot because some people think that breast cancer is an old white woman’s disease, and that’s not the case. So, when people see me, and they hear my story, they’re in total shock. This could happen to you; it could happen to anyone. Cancer knows no sex, no sexual orientation, no race, no gender, no identity. It can strike anywhere at any time.
“I was still going through treatment, and I think Slay Cancer saved my life because I was focusing on helping, as opposed to what I was going through at the same time.”
At the time even those of us in the studio were in awe of her bright and beautiful approach while she still had more treatments to go through, but she was like, “Yeah, I know, but look at this great Slay Cancer hat, and t-shirt and tutu!”
She is selfless. “I am blessed,” she counters.
We have to help ourselves
While October is breast cancer awareness month, the disease takes no breaks year-round. The CDC states that breast cancer is the most prevalent cancer in women in the U.S., next to skin cancer.
“We are in a state of extreme emergency with our health issues,” with over 20 years of in-person experience, Enid Knight is a chronic disease care manager and a community care coach. She told the Amsterdam News this week, “But, we are not getting all the information we need because people don’t seem to have time to sit with us and give us all of what we actually need. We can challenge diseases like diabetes for example, which is a particular specialty. But we are not paying enough attention, and we don’t read labels to find out about ingredients and content amounts.
“We have to do as much as we can to help ourselves.”
Breast Cancer Prevention Partners (BCPP) note what has become a statement of fact after Black health advocates have pressed the point, “African American women face both disproportionate exposure to breast carcinogens and the highest risk of serious health impacts from the disease.”
As L’Oréal has been forced to withdraw a range of their haircare products after news this week of a lawsuit charging that they increase the risk of uterine cancer, BCPP has created a list of products to watch out for as “these products are often marketed to Black women yet contain some of the most worrisome ingredients in cosmetics.” They include hair relaxers, acrylic nails, skin lighteners, and Brazilian blowout treatments.
“A U.S. woman’s lifetime risk of breast cancer is 1-in-8,” BCPP states on its website: “Breast cancer has the highest mortality rate of any cancer in women between the ages of 20 and 59. African American women have a 31% breast cancer mortality rate—the highest of any U.S. racial or ethnic group. Among women younger than 45, breast cancer incidence is higher among African American women than white women. Younger women in general, and younger African American women in particular, are more likely to present with the triple-negative subtype of the disease, a subtype that is both more aggressive and associated with a higher mortality.”
The BCPP state that “over the past 20 years, despite the universal drop in mortality
rates, we have seen a rise in the incidence of breast cancer in African American women. In particular, disparities between mortality rates for white and Black women have grown significantly. The mortality rate for Black women diagnosed with breast cancer is 42% higher than the comparable rate for white women. Triple-negative breast cancer is diagnosed more often in American women of African descent than in those of European descent in the United States.”
BCPP focuses on environmental toxins which increase cancer risks. Also, how people can, “protect yourself and your family from exposure to toxic chemicals in everyday cleaning products.”
The “science-based policy and advocacy organization” declare that they “have achieved much in our first 25 years. We’ve passed critical state and federal legislation, issued 31 major scientific reports, and influenced multi-national corporations, such as Unilever, Procter & Gamble, and Johnson & Johnson to adopt safer chemical policies.”
A mission they proclaim is “working to transform how everyone thinks about and uses chemicals and radiation in order to protect our health, prevent breast cancer and sustain life.”
Preventing breast cancer can come down to changing lifestyle choices according to BCPP. They say that “cosmetic and personal care giant Procter & Gamble (P&G) data shows that 22.5% of Black women choose a product based on fragrance. A commonly used ingredient in fragrance is diethyl phthalate (DEP), an endocrine disruptor. Phthalates are linked to breast cancer, developmental issues, decreased fertility, obesity and asthma. Fragrance on a product label can mask countless carcinogens and hormone-disrupting chemicals.”
Highlighting that a breast cancer diagnosis can render a person in complete shock, but be fought gallantly, Queens Assemblymember Jessica González-Rojas determined that she wanted to share a personal story and information to spread awareness about breast cancer.
“When I was 16 years old, I found a lump in my breast during a health class that taught fellow classmates about breast self-exams. Thankfully, as a daughter of a hospital worker, I had health insurance and was able to access quality care. I caught it early and was able to get it removed by the health provider. The lump ended up being benign, but because I am still high-risk, I have become very diligent about getting regular mammograms. When detected early, many forms of breast cancer can be effectively treated. In order to detect breast cancer early, we have to know how to spot it and look for potential symptoms.”
González-Rojas pointed out that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention states the following as common symptoms of breast cancer:
• Changes in the size or the shape of the breast
• Pain in any area of the breast
• Discharge other than breast milk (including blood)
• A new lump in underarm or breast
For people going through the cancer journey
The business end of organizations like the American Cancer Society is to raise funds to be able to spread information, hold events, and keep running.
For people going through the cancer journey, they help in ways such as helping folk find a health center with low-cost or free cancer screenings with no insurance required.
There is a large segment of the population that does not adhere to chemical options and radical treatments such as chemo, radiation, and surgical possibilities. It is definitely personal choice, and truth be told, a person may vocally espouse opposition to one way to address the news that cancer has invaded their body, but only if one has faced it can their theories be tested.
The New York State Department of Health has a Cancer Services Program that provides free mammograms for women ages 40 and older (some programs serve women ages 50 and older only), or under age 40 at high risk for breast cancer.
There are times—no cap—when a survivor, of anything really, but talking breast cancer for now, when you don’t want to sit in that space and let that be your sole identifier. You might just not want to talk about it come Breast Cancer Awareness Month because you’ve had 11 other months of handling the trials and tribulations, or the residue thereof.
“Me too,” Deniece Mitchell-Delerme replied, happy for the acknowledgement and understanding. “We’re in the club that we didn’t ask to be a part of, but things brought us together. I am appreciative of this sisterhood, the strong women that I have met because there are times when you feel super alone. I have a great support system. I am so blessed, but there is nothing like talking to a fellow Cancer Slayer because we’ve known and been through things that no one else can know about but us.”
People must consider the environment, and, close to home—family history.
Mitchell-Delerme’s mom faced her own breast cancer struggle. “My mum is great. She is retired, living her best life.”
A family of Cancer Slayers! “Oh wow,” Mitchell-Delerme laughs! “When you say it like that! I know what I’ve been through, but sometimes you need someone to remind you, ‘You know you’ve been through some stuff. You overcame, and you did it with grace, and a sense of humor, and still being happy nevertheless.’”
After October, the designated Breast Cancer Month, November, December, etc. comes around. “It is a continuous process; the fight doesn’t end in October. People still going through it.” Mitchell-Delerme still deals with the painful twinges of chemo-created neuropathy, having to pull over as she drives sometimes.
And there are Cancer Slayers, Square Circles, and other breast cancer health advocates just plodding through the world inspiring someone else after all the pain, the bleeding, the crying, and the overcoming.
“Sometimes I want to put blinders on—leave me be!” Mitchell-Delerme said. But after working through that emotion, “I feel I have an obligation to share my testimony with anybody who wants to hear it!”
More information on cdc.gov, BCPP.org, Slaycancer.org, SquareCircles.org