October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month. As a part of our survivor series, we share the stories of women and their fight against breast cancer. Tiffany Davis created the #TiffStrong tribe in order to create a community of survivors and loved ones. If you are interested in signing up to be a bone marrow transplant donor, you can register here.
As told to Keyaira Kelly
I was diagnosed with breast cancer on December 19, 2014. The evening before I was at work, I had a missed call from my breast surgeon at the time. He left a voicemail stating that my biopsy results were back and that I needed to come into the office first thing in the morning with a family member with me. Needless to say, the remainder of that day was filled with anxiety. I gave my mom the news, and we decided that she would be the one to accompany me to my appointment.
When we got to the office, I was told that I had breast cancer in my left breast. The surgeon already made the decision for me to have a mastectomy of the left breast followed by chemotherapy. He was not passionate at all. He used all this medical jargon, and I felt like he didn’t really explain my diagnosis and treatment in layman terms so both me and my mom could fully understand. My mom called my dad to tell him the news. It was just a very heartbreaking moment. That same day, I called my siblings and all the loves one that were close to me.
After my visit, I honestly felt as if my surgeon was more concerned with making money than my overall care. I ended up meeting with the oncologist he recommended, but I didn’t feel comfortable with the team overall. After not being able to reach my breast surgeon for additional questions prior to surgery when he said I would be able to reach him at any time, I got a second opinion.
This time I met with an oncologist, she reviewed my case and suggested for me to do chemo first. I initially had those same reservations like I did with my previous breast surgeon only wanting to do surgery first to collect money, but after telling the oncologist that I had an appointment with my new breast surgeon, she suggested that we wait to see what he would suggest before we proceeded.
The first meeting with the new breast surgeon he was very straight forward. I will never forget his first question to me “So what have they been telling you?” He was much more attentive; he even offered genetic testing. He also agreed with the oncologist that I should do chemo first to shrink the tumors before surgery. I was very confident in this team especially because they had work history together.
After chemo, I had one last ultrasound and my breast surgeon suggested that I could have a lumpectomy if I wanted. My mind was already made up that if I had surgery, I would do both breasts at once because if for any reason it was to return, I would not want to have to go through such an invasive surgery again. Having a preventive surgery is no guarantee that cancer will not return, but throughout my journey I’ve met women that had lumpectomies or mastectomy of one breast and it returned, and I was scared. I wanted to do everything that I could do for prevention, which also included changes to my diet.
In the days leading up to my diagnosis, I can’t say there were signs of what was to come. I was working out regularly, and I felt normal, but I knew that the lump was there. I do remember being strikingly tired after I went to Vegas that October, but I attributed my lethargy with the time zone change.
My diagnosis echoed my grandmother’s diagnosis back when I was an adolescent. Even though I was a young girl, I was aware of what she was going through. It wasn’t discussed because that’s beyond the scope of a “child’s” business. I’m sure that adults discussed what was going on, because I do have medical doctors in my family. My grandmother’s cancer did return, but as I mentioned it was just something not to talk about. She went about her life as if everything was normal. She reminds me so much of myself: independent and was not going to let cancer determine what she could and could not do. Even to her last days I didn’t realize how sick she was, I just saw her health decline. When my grandmother passed I was in the 10th grade, so I’m guessing I was about 16. During those times, it was not known for young women to get breast cancer. Breast cancer was the face of older Caucasian women. It didn’t seem like something we had to worry about as a young girl. It wasn’t until I shared my story on social media that I would meet so many young women that were affected by the horrible disease.
#Tiffstrong was created in 2014 when I was diagnosed with Breast Cancer as a way to document my journey on social media. It has become more than just a hashtag but a way of life. My tribe (support system) started off as family and close friends but has grown to include #Tiffstrong supporters who find strength in my story. Being this transparent through my most vulnerable times isn’t easy but the amount of people that I’ve been able to impact has been so rewarding and therapeutic in my healing. The amount of love that poured out during this time is remarkable. I credit my tribe for always giving me positive energy that I use as fuel to keep fighting.
I wanted to share my story because statistically, African American women are less likely to be diagnosed at an early stage and have higher mortality rates due to the lack of resources. I don’t think Black people are necessarily more silent about breast cancer; I think people in general are just private and don’t believe in sharing such vulnerable information because the world can be harsh–especially In the workplace. It’s easy for people to pass judgement, and I personally didn’t want a pity party. I worked throughout my entire journey and only shared with those that I was close with. I had a lot of support which I realize that many people are not as fortunate to have, but people did reach out to me and shared their experiences on what to expect. I can say more and more African Americans are starting to speak out and share their experiences, and I find that with sharing my story I’ve also encouraged others to share theirs.
Part of sharing my experiences included documenting the physical changes that came along with treatment. Losing my hair, I think was pretty tragic. I jumped the gun because the nurse practitioner told me by the third chemo treatment that I would lose my hair. I bought my first wig and had it shaped at a salon, while there I asked the stylist to give me a haircut and it would be one of the worst decisions I made. Eventually, I got over it and I started rocking my bald head. The main reason was because my hot flashes were on ten and the wigs were becoming too much so I would only wear them to work. This is a new age and so many African American women were rocking natural hair–low cuts down to bald heads. So I said, “Why not?” Losing my breast weren’t such a big deal because I had large breast all my life and have always wanted a reduction, but to my surprise this would be no ordinary breast reduction. It took a lot of getting used to. When I did my exchange for implants, I was very dissatisfied with the size and the stiffness. I’m still getting used to them. I’ve had 2 reconstructive surgeries, including nipples and fat engraftment. They will never be perfect or feel like normal breast again, so I’m just learning how to deal with the imperfections and my new norm.
My message for women who are currently undertaking this fight, is to find resilience in your fight no matter how hard the road looks ahead continue to push through adversity and have crazy faith! Strive and still find strength to go after the things you want, stay as positive as you can, and be careful of the words you speak.
The road has not been easy, but I was fortunate enough to receive my bone marrow transplant on August 29, 2018. What I did notice was the lack of options I had as a match, out of many people that are registered I only had 3 potentials and they were not perfect matches. The bone marrow registry is not very diverse which makes it difficult for African American to a perfect match or a match at all. Only 23% of African Americans find a matched donor. If you are interested in taking the steps to register as a donor, you can click here. You could save someone’s life.