Breast Cancer Awareness Month is an international annual campaign that aims to increase awareness of breast cancer that is officially celebrated in the month of October.
People all across the globe participate in various events to raise awareness of breast cancer. These events include breast cancer awareness walks, dinners for current women going through breast cancer along with survivors, and fundraising or donating money to organizations whose purpose is to aid, support, and educate women on breast cancer.
According to the United States Breast Cancer Statistics, 1 in 8 women in the U.S. will develop invasive breast cancer over the course of her life. Breast cancer is the most common type of cancer diagnosed in American women, besides skin cancer. Breast cancer is more common in Black women than White women for women under the age of 45. The death rate among Black women with breast cancer is higher than any other race of women.
Twquina Merriweather, a 55-year-old black woman native to the state of Arkansas, stated that she was first diagnosed with breast cancer at the age of 43.
“When I was first diagnosed with breast cancer, the doctors told me it was in stage zero,” Merriweather said. “I found out when I went to my annual mammogram at the Baptist Health Women’s Center here in Fort Smith.”
Along with providing breast cancer services to women, the Baptist Health Women’s Center also provides other comprehensive services such as pregnancy care, birth control, and routine wellness exams.
Merriweather says that she was overwhelmed with fear and anxiety when she first received the news.
“I was fearful of what was to come over the next few months,” she said. “I feared the unknown. However, once the news sunk in, I went into survival mode.”
Merriweather says that she had an 8-year-old daughter to take care of at the time.
“I just prayed to God that he would give me the strength to get through these treatments and be able to continue taking care of my baby girl,” she said. “Once I gave the situation to God, the fear diminished.”
Merriweather’s mother was also diagnosed with breast cancer at the age of 43. If a woman has a first degree relative such as mother, daughter, or sister, her chance of breast cancer nearly doubles, according to breastcancer.org. She says that she did not have to go through invasive treatments such as chemotherapy the first time she was diagnosed.
“I had to have a lumpectomy along with seven weeks of radiation,” she said. “I had to go to radiation treatments five days a week. It was like clockwork.”
Merriweather described her radiation treatment as “tolerable.”
“My experience with radiation wasn’t bad at all,” she said. “Thankfully, I didn’t have to have large quantities of radiation lasered into my body. I wasn’t in any pain. However, one of the side effects was fatigue.”
Merriweather emphasized that the fatigue made it difficult for her to do simple everyday tasks that she did before. She also mentioned that her doctor offered her services that would help her through the treatment process.
“My doctor offered massage therapy, but I never did it,” she said. “I think massage therapy was more for stress and tension, not cancer itself.”
She says that she didn’t face any tribulations during her time with cancer, except for cancer itself.
“Honestly, I was very blessed that my type of cancer didn’t require invasive treatments such as chemotherapy,” she said. “If it did, then my first diagnosis with breast cancer would’ve been a completely different experience.”
She says that it’s important for survivors to still maintain awareness of their breast because there’s a possibility for relapse for women who have had breast cancer once. Unfortunately, she was diagnosed with breast cancer again at the age of 54 after being breast cancer-free for 11 years.
“The cancer was in the left breast,” she said. “This is the same breast the cancer was in before.”
She also mentioned that the cancer was in Stage One, instead of Stage Zero like the previous time she was diagnosed. According to breastcancer.org, recurrent breast cancer is cancer that comes back in either the same or opposite breast or chest wall after a period of time when cancer was non-detectable. There are three general areas that breast cancer can come back. The associated terms for these areas are local recurrence, regional recurrence, and metastatic recurrence. In Merriweather’s situation, she experienced a local breast cancer recurrence.
For her treatment the second time around, Merriweather says that she and her doctor decided that a mastectomy would be the best option.
“Since I had already battled with breast cancer 11 years ago, a double mastectomy was the best option,” she said. “After the mastectomy, I had breast reconstruction surgery. That process was split into three surgeries with a two month healing period between each surgery.”
During the healing period, Merriweather stated she was not able to work or do any heavy lifting.
“I’m a press operator at Rheem, which means I lift heavy air conditioner parts all day,” she said. “My job wouldn’t allow for proper healing, which is why I was bedridden for a while.”
Merriweather says that she wasn’t shocked the second time she found out about her diagnosis.
“Like I did the first time, I turned the situation over to God,” she said. “I wouldn’t be honest if I said I didn’t worry. However, I refused to let the anxiety and fear control me.”
Merriweather emphasized the importance of women doing self-exams on their breasts
“I think that once a young lady grows breast, that is the time to do a proper self-check,” she said. “Breast cancer doesn’t happen in just older women anymore. Women in their early 20s are being diagnosed with cancer. It is extremely important to have mammograms every year. Mammograms can catch cancer at early stages.”
Women can do self-exams by lying on their backs and firmly pressing all over their breast and surrounding areas such as the armpit and collar bone. It’s important that women get annual mammograms once they hit the age of 40. It is not recommended for women under the age of 4o to receive mammograms. However, screenings can begin at 25 for women with genetic mutations that would make them more prone to breast cancer.
It’s important that women pay attention to their bodies as early detection is the key to surviving breast cancer. Please visit the Cancer Treatment Centers of America website for more information on breast cancer.