While girls’ trips, especially ones to Las Vegas, are supposed to be fun, for Ragina Ireland, her getaway with longtime friends and family uncovered something very uncomfortable: a dangerous lump.
The Fort Worth, Texas native noticed a lump in her breast before she went on the trip, but because she had a mammogram a couple of months earlier that didn’t find anything, she didn’t think much of what she was feeling. However, she noticed it once more, a lot more prominently, and found cause for alarm.
“When I got to Vegas I felt it again and it continued to be there, so I told my cousin when we were there,” she said. “We decided, what happened in Vegas couldn’t stay in Vegas.”
When she got back to Texas, Ragina made an appointment to see her doctor. He didn’t think it was anything serious, but because of serious health issues she’d faced in the past, specifically a bacteria that affected her heart, causing two strokes, meningitis and more, he sent her for a diagnostic mammogram. Soon after, it was decided that she needed a biopsy. Before long, her results came in, and at 50, she found out she had Stage I breast cancer.
“I was really, really surprised because there’s no cancer in my family,” she said. “No one had died or been diagnosed or anything. I was a bit in shock.”
But she couldn’t stay shocked for too long. Ragina soon got proactive, and after a lot of discussion and research, she chose to have a bilateral mastectomy in 2010.
“It was aggressive, so I decided to have both breasts removed,” she said.
When asked about how she felt about choosing to move forward with the removal of both of her breasts, she said it was it was initially a tough decision to make, but she had to look at the bigger picture.
“I was single, I wasn’t married and I thought, wow, I’m getting ready to lose a part of my femininity,” she said. “And then your senses come in like, okay, this is my life. These are not that important. And then I found a positive in it. I’m going to be 50 years old, I’m going to have reconstruction, I’m going to have these new breasts and I’m going to be able to wear a halter top. I’m always trying to find the positives in it, so that’s what I did.”
She added, “Once I made the decision, I think it was the best decision I ever made.”
After the mastectomy, Ragina had chemotherapy, 11 rounds, to treat her aggressive form of breast cancer. For a year she had what she called “bad chemo,” lost her hair, gained weight, and found herself with sores in her mouth. Following that, every three weeks for a year she went for Herceptin, a medication which targets the Her2/neu receptors she was dealing with and isn’t as harsh as other forms of chemotherapy.
Still, Ragina considered herself cancer-free when she had surgery and removed the mass in 2010. By February 2011, she finished all of her treatment. Now 60, she may be cancer-free, but says she continues to work with doctors to stay that way.
“I’m still under the care of oncologists,” she said. “I still have to go every six months, which is fine with me, to get tested.”
The chances of the cancer returning for her is not very likely, but she’s still had some scares — figuratively, not literally.
“I’ve had two scares where I felt a lump, even though I had both breasts removed and had to go get a sonogram,” she said. “So you’re cautious all of the time, but not in fear.”
Looking back on her cancer battle and how she dealt with the aggressive treatment, Ragina says she has a sense of peace about it all, and some pride.
“I felt like I took charge of something,” she said. “You don’t get to say, ‘I’m not going to get cancer.’ Nobody gets to say that, but I felt like I took charge of doing whatever I could to make sure the cancer doesn’t come back. I did the same thing with my hair. They said, ‘Your hair is going to come out in 14 days,’ so I got it cut short when I first went to chemo and by day 11, my sister took me and I got a buzz cut. I wanted to be in charge of some aspect of what I was going to have to go through. It made me feel more in charge of my life, of what I can be in control of, what I could do. So it really brought me to a better place.”
Her ordeal and strength also Inspired her to create her organization, Making Chemo Bearable. At one point in her journey, Ragina says she was lying in the bed, at her sickest due to the accumulation of chemo in her body after four of what would be many treatments. She asked the Lord what he wanted her to gain from her experience. He gave her the idea for her non-profit.
“Out of all of that pain and suffering was born a compassion to serve others and help other people,” she said. “I created a booklet that just has simple tips for coping with the side effects of chemotherapy. Like use a plastic fork instead of a regular fork to help with the metallic taste in your mouth. Cut your hair if they tell you it’s going to come out. That’s how Making Chemo Bearable was born, just to really help people on the journey, to help people find joy in the journey.”
The organization also has educational seminars, survivor and caregiver fireside chats, line-dancing events, offers financial assistance and more to provide information, resources, the opportunity to get mammograms to women and men, and overall, to help increase awareness, specifically for Black people.
“I believe if you have knowledge and understand that this can happen to you, if you understand that your chance of survival is going to increase if you catch it early, then we can really decrease the mortality rate for our community.”
Ragina also works with Susan G. Komen, recently taking part in an advocacy summit to talk to Congress about increasing the amount of money going into research and providing more access to quality care for people to get better. In addition, she is getting the word out about the Know Your Girls initiative from that foundation and the Ad Council, which seeks to empower Black women to take charge of their breast health.
“Know Your Girls is know your breasts,” she said. “Know what’s normal, what’s not normal so when you feel something or you feel differently, then you know to go and get it checked out.”
She encourages women who are currently going through a journey like hers to do their research and to carry a journal to jot down notes of what their doctor tells them so that they can ask them questions, and overall, take charge of their situation where they can.
“Don’t just go to the first person and they say, ‘We’re going to do this, this and this.’ If you don’t trust that person, if you don’t feel good about it, you have the right to go to somebody else. So take charge of that. Do your research and know what’s going on with your body.”
And wherever or however possible, Ragina says it’s also very important to find a good support system that you can lean on.
“Talk to people and don’t keep it to yourself,” she said. “In our community, people tend to keep things to themselves. They don’t want people to know they have cancer. It’s not your fault. You didn’t do anything to make it happen, but you can make sure that you continue your life.”
Check out KnowYourGirls.org/GetInformation to get more information about Know Your Girls, and share the hashtag, #KnowYourGirls, with your girls and the public.