Mattie Underwood of Acres Homes has been a model patient for getting her annual mammogram exams. She never skipped one. When she had her exam in 2015, the radiologist noticed some suspicious spots in her lymph nodes.
Two months later, she had a needle biopsy and was diagnosed with stage I breast cancer in her lymph nodes. Fortunately, an early diagnosis proved to be good news for her.
“I never had pain. I never felt bad—never had a bad day,” said Underwood. “I wasn’t worried. I believe in God, and know worrying will do more harm than good. I knew God would give the doctors the knowledge to do what they could.”
Underwood saw a surgeon at Harris Health System’s Lyndon B. Johnson Hospital at the recommendation of her daughter, a hospital employee. Doctors removed the cancerous lymph nodes and administered seven weeks of radiation treatments at the system’s Smith Clinic.
The thing she missed most when she was recovering from surgery was “being in the thick of things” among her family. Her family is everything to her and she’s the center of it: seven children, a bevy of grandchildren, 38 great grandchildren and three great-great grandchildren.
“I love the fuss,” said Underwood. “Being surrounded by all of them does me all the good in the world. They keep me going. I’m happiest when I’m cooking for them.”
Underwood doesn’t know why she had breast cancer, because no other family member has had it. One of her grandchildren, a triplet, was diagnosed with leukemia at nine months old. He went through a tough time, but recently graduated from pre-kindergarten with his brother and sister.
“It seems strength and determination runs in the family,” said Underwood.
For 34-year-old Lakeisha Jermany, finding out she had cancer made her mortality top of mind. She had already experienced great loss in her family, after the death of her brother and both parents, occurring only a year apart.
“I went home and cried for two days,” Jermany recalled. “I prayed, and I talked with my family. I didn’t want to give up. I have a 4-year-old daughter and a 9-year-old daughter by adoption. I decided to fight for them. I told the doctors, ‘Do whatever you have to do. I’ve got two girls depending on me’. I never wanted the girls to know what I was going through. When my hair fell out, I made an excuse.”
Jermany found a lump while doing a breast self-exam and told her doctor at Harris Health System’s Squatty Lyons Health Center. She was referred to the system’s Lyndon B. Johnson Hospital for a mammogram and biopsy, where doctors diagnosed her with stage II cancer in her right breast. After five months of chemotherapy, she had surgery to remove the tumor. She followed up with six weeks of radiation treatment at Harris Health’s Smith Clinic. She’s now taking medication for five years with a 95 percent assurance of the cancer not returning.
The most unwelcomed side effect of her treatment was early menopause. Jermany also had to deal with the added complications of anxiety and diabetes. Thankfully, her Harris Health care team coordinated and ensured all treatments worked well together.
Jermany stated that the nurses checked up on her and that her oncologist went out of his way to help her manage her diabetes. Cancer changed her attitude for the better.
“I learned to be stronger and be patient,” said Jermany. “I used to be angry, but my sister taught me to be calm. I laugh things off now. My family lets me know everything will be okay. Today, I smile more, and I enjoy life more than ever before.”
Jermany has taken on the role of inspirational leader.
“I tell women to get checked,” said Jermany. “But more important, if you have cancer, don’t give up. Do whatever you have to do. You can push through it. Stay away from stress. Keep only positive people around you. They will keep you going.”
Lucille Taylor went to an emergency clinic last November when her right breast became swollen and painful. It was eventually diagnosed as stage IV breast cancer. She quickly scheduled an appointment with an oncologist at Harris Health System’s Lyndon B. Johnson Hospital. She received seven months of chemotherapy through infusion and now continues with pills. She and her doctor have been pleased that her tumor is shrinking. Two days after meeting her nurses for the first time the day before Thanksgiving, Taylor joined the crowds on Black Friday for early Christmas shopping to be around happy people, which set the tone for her treatment. When she started losing her hair, she shaved her head and liked it. According to Taylor, there hasn’t been a day she hasn’t wanted to get dressed up because it makes her feel good.
Taylor isn’t the only person in her family dealing with cancer, in that her two sisters are currently in remission also. One cousin has thyroid cancer, and another has prostate cancer. A self-professed fighter, Taylor has chemo on Wednesdays and is back at work on Thursdays as a caregiver for mentally-impaired patients.
“I’m going to continue to fight and be positive,” said Taylor. “I don’t want anything negative around me. I take care of myself. I have faith and as long as there is hope—there is life. I plan to see my 12 grandkids and step-daughter graduate. I plan to grow old and become even happier. I also plan for some wealth and travel.”
In 2005, Sheila Fant was diagnosed with breast cancer of her right breast and had a lumpectomy and radiation treatment. But early in 2015, when she went to Harris Health System’s Smith Clinic for her routine mammogram, doctors saw something suspicious. She had an ultrasound, then a biopsy. Doctors found cancer, a different kind, this time in her left breast. Because the cancer was fast-growing, Fant was relieved to have a mastectomy at Harris Health’s Ben Taub Hospital and, in quick succession, six months of chemotherapy at Smith Clinic. Side effects of the chemotherapy were difficult. In addition to losing her hair, she suffered nausea and was tired. Worse was the memory loss.
“At that time, no one in my family had ever had cancer,” Fant says of her first breast cancer diagnosis. “Maybe it was work-related. For 22 years, I worked in a hazardous waste facility. I wonder if that figured into it.”
After having successfully battled breast cancer and winning, Fant thought she was done with the horrible health issue for good. However, last year, a decade after her last bout, she was diagnosed again; this time an aggressive cancer at stage III.
“I felt a void in my thoughts,” said Fant. “I still have it.”
Being the oldest of seven children, Fant has always been a caregiver, and stays very busy caring for her mother and sister, who both have dementia and require care. Now her mother has cancer, and Fant takes her to radiation treatments. A Jehovah’s Witness, Fant says that she depends on her faith for strength to deal with the cancer, and to care for herself and her family.
“When you have Jehovah in your life, life isn’t hard to deal with,” she says. “Being spiritual got me through this. No matter the consequences, I had hope. I worried more about my friends and family than about myself.”
Fant says that she is grateful that cancer is no longer a death sentence and encourages her acquaintances to take care of their body because it is the only one they have.
Gwendolyn Stewart has battled cancer for more than a decade. Her first bout with the disease was for herself, but the latest fight is for her young live-in granddaughter. Stewart was first diagnosed with cancer in 2005 when she noticed a suspicious lump in her breast. She had a mammogram, biopsy and lumpectomy at Harris Health System’s Ben Taub Hospital, and thought she was done with cancer. Unfortunately, that wasn’t the case. In 2013, doctors discovered cancerous cells in the margins of her first surgery. Stewart had another lumpectomy and started six weeks of radiation at Harris Health’s Smith Clinic. Today, she’s taking Tamoxifen and returns to the clinic every six months, and shows no signs of complications.
“At first, I was scared to death,” said Stewart. “I thank God I had no side effects. I’m different now. I take my health seriously. I make all my appointments, watch what I eat, maintain a healthy weight and watch my blood pressure and cholesterol. The worry never truly goes away. It’s always in the back of my mind. It can affect my attitude.”
Stewart has the perfect attitude adjuster, her 4-year-old granddaughter who lives with her.
“This beautiful, spirited little girl keeps me active,” said Stewart. “She’s busy until it’s time for bed. I love dressing and taking care of her. She’s my pride and joy.”
Stewart uses her experience to encourage women to do regular breast self-exams and be diligent about getting mammograms.
“Pay attention to your body,” warns Stewart. “I wasn’t taught to pay attention to my breasts. I knew that lump was there two years before I did anything about it. I’ve met women who are in worse situations than me. I try to encourage them and tell them that God has them.”
Breast cancer is the most commonly diagnosed cancer among Black women. Among younger women, under the age of 45, the mortality rate of breast cancer is higher in Blacks than in Whites. The median age of diagnosis is 57 years for Black women, compared to 62 years for White women. A woman’s best overall preventive health strategy is to reduce her known risk factors as much as possible by avoiding weight gain and obesity, engaging in regular physical activity and minimizing alcohol intake. Women should consider the increased risk of breast cancer associated with combined estrogen and progestin menopausal hormone therapy when evaluating treatment options for menopausal symptoms.
All five of the ladies aforementioned – Underwood, Jermany, Taylor, Fant and Stewart – will join hundreds of breast cancer survivors on October 28, as Harris Health honors their perseverance and heroic fight against cancer at its annual Breast Cancer Survivors Luncheon. This event is being held in October, which is National Breast Cancer Awareness Month, and will be hosted by affiliated partners Harris County Hospital District Foundation, Baylor College of Medicine, The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center and McGovern Medical School at The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston.
For more information about breast cancer, you can find the American Cancer Society publication Breast Cancer Facts & Figures, available online at www.cancer.org or you can visit the Sisters Network, Inc. website at www.sistersnetworkinc.org; Sisters Network is an organization headquartered in Houston that is committed to increasing local and national attention to the devastating impact that breast cancer has in the African American community.
During National Breast Cancer Awareness Month, the Forward Times salutes Harris Health, these five courageous Black women, and the many other individuals, who are committed to boldly sharing real life stories of people who have beaten the odds and have become breast cancer survivors, along with their commitment to educate, equip and empower others about the importance of finding a cure for this horrible disease called breast cancer.