Felicia Mahone has an important message for African American women with breast cancer, one that she has come to believe based on her own experience as a survivor. Felicia is the first in her family to survive the disease in twenty years, and since treatment has dedicated her life to building an environment of care and support for other women affected by breast cancer.
According to a recent study published by the Avon Foundation for Women, black women with breast cancer are more than twice as likely to die of the disease than white women with breast cancer, due in part to the disparity in access to quality screenings and quality treatment. Approximately five black women die per day due to disparities in breast cancer care.
Additionally, African American women are at a higher risk for triple-negative breast cancer (TNBC), an aggressive form of breast cancer that, compared to other forms, is harder to treat and is more likely to come back after treatment. African American women are three times more likely to be diagnosed with TNBC than white women, regardless of age or BMI. Women with the BRCA1 genetic mutation are also more likely to be diagnosed with TNBC. Felicia was diagnosed with triple-negative breast cancer, and tested positive for the BRCA1 mutation—the odds were stacked against her from day one. But, despite limited access to care, Felicia fought through.
Felicia is now an Individual Patient Navigator at Grady Memorial Hospital, and has been for the past six years. She works with various patients, in addition to being an early childhood educator. As a navigator, she checks in with her patients over the phone at all hours, providing comfort or helping them to understand their diagnosis. In addition, she accompanies them to appointments and treatments. She knows when her patients are going through a particularly hard time and does what she can to help—even using her own money to make sure they have food and other needs are met. The women she works with have to make tough choices every day, and without Felicia’s encouragement and guidance, many are unable to prioritize sufficient care.
Felicia navigates with empathy and honesty, and her message is this: that women, and especially African American women, need to value themselves and self-advocate despite overwhelming obstacles. Here, in her own words, Felicia speaks from her own experience and offers her wisdom and guidance to others.
Support from friends and family matters.
I think I knew what it was before I got the diagnosis.
I was diagnosed with breast cancer at 27. My mother died of breast cancer at 29. Two of her sisters died of breast cancer, one of them in her early thirties and another when she was fifty. I’ve had six maternal cousins have breast cancer. Two years before I was diagnosed, my first cousin—and best friend—died at 25 of breast cancer.
Until I was diagnosed, I never was involved. I never wore pink, I never did a breast cancer walk, and I never researched anything. I was not compelled to get involved, because it wasn’t me. I didn’t have cancer. When my cousin was in treatment, I didn’t want to be there because when I looked at her, I saw my aunt and I saw my mom. I was young, I don’t know if it was that, but it reminded me of something bad. It was scary, and it was sad. In my family, a breast cancer diagnosis was a death sentence.
And then I got cancer, and I had to be my own advocate. I learned how important it is for families to be a part of the treatment experience. My family figured that I was strong and I would be ok, so they really weren’t there for me. At first I was angry, I felt like they should have been there, but going through it alone helped me become strong.
I became a patient navigator because I didn’t want anyone to go through what I went through alone.
“The diagnosis of breast cancer often puts African American women in a Catch 22. The dilemma is, ‘do I feed my children or do I go to an appointment?’ More often than not, they chose to die so that others can live.”
Surviving is more than just being alive.
Surviving after a diagnosis is more than just being alive, it’s being able to go to work and being able to pay bills. There are a lot of aspects that come into play. It’s not all physical—it’s mental, it’s emotional.
As African American women, we are taught to take care of family above all else—so we put everyone before ourselves. And so we have people that need to go to chemo or have surgery, but they also need to work. It’s asking women to choose: do I feed my children or do I go to an appointment?
It’s sad and disheartening because we have people that have to choose between living and dying. And they choose to die because they choose for their family to live.
Many women also don’t have health insurance, so they’re not getting checked. I could’ve easily given up or gotten lost in the system. I kept having to take off work, move my schedule. I was that patient who needed someone to step in and help me financially and no one did that. I was tangled through the system, trying to get some type of coverage, trying to get some type of help.
Do everything in your power to survive.
I ask women if they want the truth, and the truth is: if you don’t get treatment you are going to die.
Do you value your own life? Do you want your children to grow up without a mother? I was raised without a mother, and you don’t want your children to go through that if you can help it. You want to see your children hit milestones, see them graduate, get married, have children, but the reality is if you don’t seek treatment then you won’t see anything.
I’ve been there. I’ve been not able to sleep. I’ve been afraid. I’ve been scared. I was you; I was terrified when it was time for me to have surgery. I had never had surgery before and I was so afraid that if they put me to sleep, I wasn’t going to wake up. But I went through it and I was okay. I received the treatment I needed.
Trust yourself. You have the right to get a second opinion. Don’t think that you’re stuck with a certain type of treatment just because you have Medicaid or you don’t have enough money. You still are human and you deserve to be treated that way. Don’t settle or believe you have to be treated badly for having breast cancer. Stand up for yourself.
Once you get diagnosed with cancer, you’re never the same. You value your life in a new way, and so you have to do everything you can to make sure you stay alive.
You do everything in your power to live.
To learn more about patient navigation, check out the rest of our Heroes in Pink!