Welcome to Doctors’ Notes, our newest contribution from Urban Health correspondents and husband and wife physicians Dr. Rob and Dr. Karla Robinson. The dynamic duo will be fielding questions about health, as it relates to African Americans. Please feel free to send them questions via firstname.lastname@example.org. We promise to keep it anonymous.
It was 2014 and Melisa Wilson recalls living the good life. A professional, African-American woman in the prime of her life, Wilson had so much to be grateful for. In a successful career as a nurse practitioner, a thriving marriage of more than a decade, and the mother of a healthy, two year old miracle baby who had been born four months premature, Melisa was excited for her future. After overcoming many challenges in life, Wilson says “I felt like the hardships were finally behind me”. Then breast cancer came.
Melisa didn’t think she fit the profile of a breast cancer patient. She was 36 years old, with no family history of breast cancer, no significant risk factors and no warning signs that anything was wrong. In fact, it was only while cuddling and watching a movie one Saturday night, that Melisa’s husband noticed the abnormal lump in her breast and urged her to get it checked out.
After various tests, Melisa Wilson ultimately learned that she had HER2-positive, Stage IIB breast cancer. This was important because there are many types of breast cancer. African-American women most often have the types of breast cancer that are aggressive, advanced at the time of diagnosis and difficult to treat. With this type of cancer, she was fortunate to have target therapy options available to her for treatment. Wilson admits being stunned by the news and immediately thought of her son. She then remembered that she had many reasons to fight and was determined to never give up hope.
Melisa chose to undergo six rounds of chemotherapy and then opted for a double mastectomy. Even though it wasn’t required, she made the choice to remove all of her breast tissue because she didn’t want to go through a lifetime of wondering if the breast cancer would develop again. She later found this decision to be a blessing. Given that Wilson opted to have her surgery after the chemotherapy, doctors were actually able to see the remarkable effect of the treatment on her breast tissue. Even with an advanced stage of breast cancer, she had such an amazing response from the medications that she didn’t have to undergo the effects of radiation therapy.
Since completing her treatments in July 2015, Wilson’s life now as a breast cancer survivor is good. She says, “Life is normal again. The farther away I get from it, the more I really feel like cancer is in my rear view mirror. I’m not stressing as much about what if it comes back”. Her oncologist helped to play a role in her accepting the diagnosis and moving on with her life. A breast cancer survivor herself, Dr. Rebecca Moroose was very encouraging every step of the way. Frequently speaking to the community about breast cancer awareness, it was Dr. Moroose who introduced Melisa to the Sisters Network—a national breast cancer support group for women of color.
Although breast cancer is behind her, Melisa still continues the fight. But this time it’s to help other women that may ever have to face breast cancer. She’s an active participant in a clinical trial and encourages others to consider the benefits and importance of research. Although unpopular in the black community, Wilson states she didn’t hesitate when given the option to participate in research because “it was important to be able to use what I had gone through to give back to those that may be faced with this diagnosis in the future”. She also points out that one added benefit of research is the close surveillance. This has helped her to be reassured that cancer isn’t still lurking.
Through her faith in God, and a host of family and friends, Melisa Wilson was able to get through the diagnosis and treatment of her breast cancer. She now encourages others to break the culture of “secrets” that we have in the African-American community about our health issues. “Embrace the support of your family, friends, and loved ones”, she says. The moment she began to heal was the moment she stopped pretending everything was normal and began to tell people about her diagnosis.
While Melisa didn’t seem to fit the profile of one at risk for breast cancer, the truth is that this disease can strike at any age and most women have no family history of the disease at all. If you are 40 or older, don’t delay in getting your screening mammogram. If you’re under 40, and/or you have other risk factors for breast cancer you can still be proactive. Even though Melisa was too young to have had the screening mammogram that most women begin at age 40, she was still familiar enough with her breast tissue to realize that something may be wrong and she acted on it.
Today, Melisa Wilson is a survivor. Her best piece of advice, “Never wait to get checked out. Pray about it while you do something about it”.
For more information on breast cancer, please visit the American Cancer Society.
It’s a health thing…we’ve got to understand!
About the Doctors:
Dr. Karla and Dr. Rob are the founders of Urban Housecall, a multimedia health and wellness resource, and also hosts of the Urban Housecall Radio Show. For more from the doctors, visit their website at www.urbanhousecall.com, like them on Facebook, and follow them on Twitter @urbanhousecall!