Survivor Series: Tiffany Stewart Is Determined To Make Content For Young, Single, Black, Childless, Cancer Survivors
It was February 2016 when I first felt like something was wrong. I had grown accustomed to the long stressful days I put into my role at a major television network, even though it required me to sacrifice my personal life. I was living with a friend in Astoria, Queens, and was hustling to and from Manhattan like the average New Yorker. One morning, I was at my desk and felt sharp chest pains. Pains I’ve never felt before. I tried to brush it off but it was clouding my work productivity.
Fast forward to the end of March, I had just come back from visiting my best friend in Texas and the pains had returned. I wrapped my project at my prior job and had more free time, so I couldn’t blame the pains on stress this time. Not only did the pain return but I realized spots of blood started showing up in my shirts overnight. I went to an imaging center in April, and after a nerve wrecking ultrasound, the technician told me she found nothing. I was good. However, one random morning in June, I woke up and the occasional spotting on my shirt was no longer spotting but a full mess. I was scared and knew that something was up. I went home to Eastern Long Island to visit my gynecologist in person this time and much like the technicians at the imaging center, she felt and found nothing. However, she believed me when I told her something wasn’t right and she referred me to a breast specialist to run some tests. I went to the breast specialist on a Wednesday where she took some samples of the discharge. On Friday, I had two biopsies done on both breast. That Monday, I had another ultrasound, a mammogram, and MRI all done. I knew I couldn’t go through another month with these pains and bleeding without getting the answers I needed.
It took until the first day of summer, my favorite season, when I got the call. The breast specialist said oddly the ultrasound and mammogram came back clean but it was the MRI where they discovered a tumor 7.5cm on the back of my chest that was hiding behind my dense breast tissue. With tumors so big and so far back, nipple discharge is rarely a symptom but it was like the tumor wanted me to know it was there. Ultimately, the annoying bleeding and sharp pains saved my life.
That was a day or a phone call I will never forget. It shook me to the core. After telling my mom and crying for hours, I decided I wanted to be in control of this and I wasn’t going to allow cancer to ruin my life.
My breast surgeon and plastic surgeon told me I was a very special case. Although the cancer was causing rare symptoms such as nipple bleeding, it was all in one place in the tumor. They told me the board of doctors were exactly 50/50 on if I needed chemo or if I would be okay without it. I was going to consider radiation, but after doing research online and learning about the eternal damages it does to your skin/body, I didn’t want to do that either. So I spoke to an oncologist, and that’s when he told me I could go with the hormonal medication route for the next 5 years and get a checkup every 6 months instead.
I am on a hormonal medication which is called tamoxifen. This medication is usually prescribed to women who have a positive hormone cancer (which I did.) They ultimately refer it to women who have “lesser” cancers (stages 0-2) and those that are still in the childbearing ages.While on the tamoxifen, I cannot have children or it will be extremely difficult or even fatal for the fetus. I can try to have children once I’m done. I cannot drink excessive amounts of alcohol, I cannot have anything grapefruit, and I can’t eat licorice. Because I am under 40, my side effects are different than those that are above. The two side effects I get to this day are hot flashes and mood swings. At first, I was getting those two as well as a feeling of depression and nausea.
Two years later and I still go through that “Wow, you really had cancer!” moment at least once a day. However, I don’t dwell on it as much as i used to. Before I felt like I was robbed of something but now, looking back, it was a reset button. I was living a life to please others or because I felt I had to do certain things. Now I’m very intentional with the energy around, the company I keep, the decisions I make, etc. It’s like I got a second chance at life.
Despite my good intentions, I definitely still have fears. Every time I go for a check up, I fear they may find something else, or I fear it will return since I am so young. But I have faith and a strong praying mother so I’ll be fine.
I’ve always been a strong person but I realized how strong I truly am after going through all of this. There are people that didn’t know I was battling cancer until a year later when I finally announced it on social media. That’s how good I was at being low key and not playing the victim. I went through the intensive 4-week WEEN (Women In Entertainment Empowerment Network) Academy after finding out I had breast cancer. I asked the co-founders and the program director to let me go through with it and to treat me like the other girls. Which they did. The girls didn’t know I was sick until the Friday before my surgery. They were shocked to find out I was sick that entire time and was ripping, running and competing with all of them. They were even more shocked to see me at our graduation 5 days after my surgery. I started my gig as the morning news editor at Blavity two months after my surgery from my bed. I have been committed to not letting my prior diagnosis control my mind, career or my body. During my surgery, they found cancer cells in my armpit and had to remove 21 lymph nodes from my body right after. It took 3 rounds of physical therapy for me to regain complete range of motion. Now, I go boxing 3 times a week. I’m determined to not let this define me, and it’s going great so far.
When I look back over the personal changes I’ve undergone since my diagnosis, I realize I am more intentional on making content that is for us. It was so hard for me to find a support group or other women that are single, childless, and cancer survivors that are black and under 40. I felt like a unicorn. But a lonely unicorn. That’s partially why I made my story public. I wanted to be there for the next person that had to go through this and need that reassurance that life after this hurricane is possible. I’ve already heard from girls as young as 16 that are battling cancer. People now use me as an ally to reach out to their friends/family/loved ones and it’s a heavy burden but I love it.
Currently, I am writing a screenplay that deal with my situation. It’s my baby, and I’m nervous but I’m excited because that’s something that’s needed on TV. Black women are so many exceptional things, but we’re also humans. I think people (including us) tend to forget. So I’m excited to get this project out there. I am also writing a book that will include letters from young women that get you the real scoop on dealing with a life changing diagnosis.
I would tell other women that this does not define you. It’s just a part of you. A part that you will eventually look back and say, “Wow! I did that!” It’s okay to be sad. It’s okay to feel the pain, but this journey is honestly 40% physical and 60% mental. Don’t let the darkness win. Keep good energy around you. Learn to be the light that you want to enjoy for the rest of your life. I give myself 5 mins a day to be sad, but that’s it. Because although we’re going/went through this super terrible thing, we’re still here. That speaks volumes.
I am excited to try new adventures. I truly believe God has given me a second chance at life and I want to take full advantage. I want to move to a new city and start fresh, I want to see one of my screenplays come to life on a major network, I want to go skydiving, I want to climb Mount Kilimanjaro. I want to get married and become a mom! All these things that I once thought I would never experience, I’ve been given a chance to do it. And if you haven’t figured it out yet, once I have my mind set on something, i’ll get it done by any means.