In recognition of Domestic Violence and Breast Cancer Awareness this month, we are sharing stories of women whose lives have been affected by these issues as part of our Survivor Series. For more stories of breast cancer survivors, click here.
After a self-exam at home, Mollie Diggs, 49 years old at the time, found out the lump she had in her breast wasn’t just a cyst, but breast cancer. Though Diggs credits early detection and a positive attitude as one of the reasons she’s here to tell her story today, the miracle doesn’t end there.
It’s been almost 20 years since Digg’s first diagnosis and now, as a five-time survivor of the disease, she’s living life better than ever as a mother, grandmother, friend and much more, which, sadly, is a rarity. A survey taken by the Avon Foundation in 2016 found 43% of African American women are more likely to die from breast cancer.
Beating cancer time after time hasn’t been easy, but it’s a fight Diggs has been well equipped for. Her faith has kept her strong mentally and emotionally, as has the support of her family, friends, job, and the Cancer Treatment Centers of America (CTCA). Diggs spoke to Madame Noire about going through treatment, not letting cancer defeat her, and why knowledge is truly power when it comes to beating breast cancer.
What was life like before finding out you had breast cancer?
I was first diagnosed in 2001. I was working as a banker, and life was normal for me. I had three kids I was supporting. Then I did my breast exam one morning, found a lump, and went to the doctor. It turned out to be breast cancer.
Did you regularly perform self-exams?
Because I have fibrocystic breasts I’ve always checked my breasts. Fibrocystic breasts are little cysts that are in your breast, but I was told back in the day they weren’t anything to worry about and they wouldn’t turn into cancer. At that particular time the cysts felt kind of different so I saw my OB/GYN doctor, and he referred me to a surgeon. I was thinking it was going to be a regular surgeon, but when I pulled up and saw the sign said “cancer center” I asked, “why am I here?”
The surgeon did a biopsy, and the results showed cancer. I was glad I did my breast exam because I probably would’ve never noticed the cancer and continued to think it was a fibrocyst.
What stage were you at the time?
I was stage 1 the first time. I went through 10 weeks of radiation, and was put on a hormone therapy for five years. The hormone therapy was called Tamoxifen, and I had 15 lymph nodes removed on my left arm. After that, life went on for me. I continued to work, enjoyed spending time with my family, and continued to do my breast exams.
How much time passed between the end of radiation and your second time having breast cancer?
It returned in 2006. This time it came back a little bit aggressive, stage 2. That’s when I had a reconstruction with a mastectomy; I had the left breast removed. That was kind of tough for me. I was in surgery for about 10 hours. From there I went to ICU for 2 days. I was in the hospital five days with the mastectomy and treatment.
After I healed from the mastectomy I went through treatment again with a form of hormone therapy that only treats that particular lump because I came back HR-negative, PR-negative and HR-positive. When you’re diagnosed with that type of cancer there’s a certain type of treatment that you get to target that area only, and that particular tumor.
I went through that for about maybe three years. There were no side effects, it didn’t make me sick. I actually worked while having that treatment as well. I worked in the morning, and had treatment in the afternoon.
Did doctors explain why your cancer recurred?
It’s hard to say because there’s no cause for cancer. There is a gene (BRCA), but I don’t carry the gene. I have a daughter and I wanted to make sure she would be okay. It’s something I can’t explain. In the beginning I almost asked God “why” but then I stopped and didn’t question him. There’s a reason for everything, and I realized I wasn’t going to give cancer control. I was just going to beat it. I wasn’t going to give into it, and I wasn’t going to give up. I wasn’t going to let it take anything from me. I wasn’t giving it power over me because I believed it was just passing through, and had no papers on me.
I decided to fight. And I don’t know why it keeps coming back. I eat properly, exercise, but I guess it just chooses who it wants to get. There’s no rhyme or reason why we get this disease. We just have to stay on top of everything. Do your breast exam, have your mammogram, and be very proactive.
Besides your faith, what else helped you multiple diagnoses?
I have a strong faith. I have a strong family- my three kids have been my support. I have my church family. I have good friends, and I have my CTCA family as well. I travel there every three weeks for treatment of breast cancer. Dr. Citrin is my oncologist.
The cancer came back again in 2009 and I had chemotherapy. That was the time I lost my hair and lost a few pounds because your appetite leaves you, but I kept the fight. I believed cancer wasn’t going to win.
I went through a bad marriage and got through that. I got through [breast cancer] three times, and God said, “I’m going to bring you through a fourth and a fifth time as well.” My job was very helpful. I had a strong mother, strong grandmother, and that’s where I get my strength from. My faith is strong.
A lot of us women when we’re diagnosed with this disease, your life flashes before your eye. The first thing, if you have children, is what am I going to tell my kids? Am I going to be here to see them graduate? Grow-up? What am I going to do?
The doctor was talking to me and I couldn’t hear anything. I just saw his lips moving. But first time, second time, third time, and fourth time I said, “you know what, there must be a purpose for this. I’m still standing. Cancer hasn’t taken me out, and I believe cancer won’t take me out.”
If something takes me out I don’t believe it’s going to be cancer. I don’t give cancer citizenship, its passing through. That’s my pledge: I will fight, I will not give it life, and I won’t let it take my life. I go from day-to-day like nothing is wrong.
If you look at me you won’t know anything is wrong with me because I don’t carry it. I try to inspire people. I’m a banker, and when they come to my desk to talk to me and are feeling down, I start telling them my story. When they walk in they’re crying, when they walk out they’re smiling, thanking me, and hugging me. “How can you do it?” It’s not me, it’s God. You just have to have faith, and make sure if you’re not satisfied with what the doctors are telling you, always get a second opinion.
What gave you the courage to get a second opinion?
I was watching television at 4 in the morning and there was an infomercial talking about The Cancer Treatment Center of America. I said I was going to make the call.
I didn’t know if anything was going to happen, but I just had to make the call. I had been praying to God for an answer, and made the call. I just changed my insurance from PPO to HMO, and they said, “we don’t accept HMO you may have to try and change insurance, but I don’t know if you can. I called my job and spoke to Debbie (in HR), and she said, “Mollie, I don’t know if we can switch it back because you just changed it, but give me until 4 this afternoon I’ll see what I can do.”
She called me back in less than 15 minutes, and was able to change it back to PPO. I made the call, and ended up at CTCA with Dr. Dennis Citrin.
Knowledge is power. I knew nothing about the disease. There are so many different types of breast cancer out there. When you say you’re diagnosed with breast cancer I think it’s important to find out what kind of breast cancer you have. Know how you’re going to be treated, and what they’re going to treat you with. Make sure that’s the best course of treatment for you because we don’t all have the same type of breast cancer. The type I have is aggressive, and sometimes it comes back aggressive, but I was blessed this time.
You might think I’m crazy for saying I’m blessed, but I say that because it came back HR2-positive, and it’s easier to be treated. Dr. Citrin didn’t find a problem treating me with the medicine I’m on now, and it’s FDA approved. The hospital had to research to get that approved.
I started that treatment on a Friday. I went in with a 4 ½ inch lump, and on Monday the lump was gone. And it’s still gone. The treatment is working with me. I have no bad side effects or side effects at all. I call it my vacation of healing. You may think that’s kind of crazy too, but I know where I’m going, I know what I’m facing. And even though all of us are there for different reasons — but the same cause — we’re smiling. We’re being treated; our mind, body, and souls are being treated and that’s helping us heal.
When I tell my story I’m not trying to get sympathy, I just want every woman to be aware of what’s going on with their body. I want to live a message or courage and hope. I want them to feel blessed to be able to share their story after listening to my story. If it can help just one woman that’s a lot. Perform your self breast exams and get your mammogram. My life has been a roller coaster, but I’ve been riding it and I’m riding it for life. I won’t give up or give in to cancer.
After surviving cancer five times I’m sure you have a new sense of purpose.
I do. It has changed my attitude. It has given me more patience, more faith, and I don’t get angry at small stuff anymore. I pick my battles, number one. It changes everything. You don’t take life for granted, you can’t take life for granted. I hug my grandkids and tell them how much I love them. I tell people “good morning, how are you doing?” I get on the elevator with people and say “hi, how are you?”
One thing you should know is cancer doesn’t have to be a death sentence. You can die from something else quicker than you can die from cancer. We shouldn’t be afraid. We should turn that fear into faith, and take care of ourselves. Anything that doesn’t feel right check it out. If you’re not happy with that go to another doctor.
Are you still working?
Yes, I’m still working. I’m going to retire December 29. Once I retire I’m going to try and get involved in breast cancer activism. I believe there is a calling for me. I love my job, and my customers, but I feel like I need to do more. I need to help someone.
There are so many women being diagnosed with the disease. I lost so many friends, some of them close friends. Some of them because they didn’t go to the doctor when they should’ve or they waited too late. It’s really sad. I want to be there to inspire, talk to them, be there for them.
Where are you at right now with your cancer treatment and diagnoses?
Right now I am in remission. I had a scan 3 months ago, a mammogram 3 weeks ago, and everything came back good. I was fighting with calcium. I couldn’t get it where I wanted it to be. Its supposed to be 3.5 but its always at 3.2 or 3.3, but today I did a holy dance it came back at a 3.6. My doctor was excited. That was good. I’m in a good place with my treatment now. My doctor says you don’t mess with success. I’m responding well to the medicine.
How many years are you in remission?
It came back for the fifth time March 2015, but I’ve been taking treatment since April 2016.
You mentioned your kids, friends and family, but did cancer have any effect on your romantic life?
Having chemo, I’ll be honest with you, it doesn’t have you in the mood all the time. But if you have a man that cares about you I’m sure he can wait. It’s just temporary.
I’m involved in a relationship now, and I’ve known him since 1999. We don’t have any problems at all. Sometimes I’m in the mood and sometimes I’m not. Sometimes he’s not in the mood either. What works for him works for me too. To make a long story short, it doesn’t interfere with my sex life, but it does mess with your mind.
I believe it’s a mind thing because we think we have cancer and are not beautiful, but you have to stand in the mirror and tell yourself “I am beautiful and I love me even if no one else loves me.” Of course you’re going to go through changes with your body, that’s natural, that’s the human part of it. And if you have a husband I’m sure he’ll understand.
I have gone through changes, but I have to keep convincing myself who I am and what I am. Cancer hasn’t changed me at all, it’s just made me a better and stronger person. You are able to tolerate more, even in relationships you can’t have things your way all the time, but when it doesn’t go my way so be it. It used to piss me off. Sometimes I used to cry at the drop of a hat- I don’t cry anymore like I used to. I look at things that I’m going through, my friends are going through, and it just makes me feel different. You appreciate life more and don’t sweat the small stuff anymore.