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Breast cancer survivor stories: ‘Cancer is still taboo and silenced’

Editor’s note: October is National Breast Cancer Awareness Month, and the Chicago Sun-Times invited breast cancer survivors to share their stories. We’ll share these first-person accounts throughout the month.

I call them the Voice, the Tree and the Key. Collectively these three entities saved my life. Prior to 2007, I was the faithful patient of a very intelligent and respected male doctor for eight years, routinely performing my annual exams with the same precise schedule and task resulting in the same positive results year after year, when suddenly the “Voice” within spoke and told me to change doctors.

The voice boldly proclaimed this new doctor must BE a woman and of like age, who is in tune with a woman’s body as she approaches 40. My spiritual voice led me to Dr. Diana Chicos. Our first scheduled meeting for my March 2008 annual exam involved a great deal of dialogue, so much dialogue that I thought we might not have time to perform the physical exam. Ten to 15 minutes into our conversation about my life, my mental well-being and my health goals she began to construct a “Tree” of sorts, constructing the branches of my medical history based on the major cancers of my direct aunts and uncles.

Upon disclosing the prior breast cancer diagnosis of two aunts (one on my mother’s side, one on my father’s side) Dr. Chicos insisted it would be in my best interest to schedule my first mammogram at age 36 as a precaution. Two weeks later, the results of my first mammogram revealed a spot that was too small to properly diagnose.

Upon my six month follow-up, I was informed that the spot had grown and progressed into breast cancer. There were never lumps, no pain or bruising, so I would be just as unaware and oblivious to my own health crisis in September as I was in March. I concluded the “Key” in the discovery of my diagnosis was my awareness of my family’s medical history.

Many women in my African-American age group can attest to the lack of knowledge of their own medical history because cancer is still taboo and silenced within their families, specifically among the older women and family matriarchs. I implore the women of my generation and generations thereafter to inquire, initiate or force these difficult conversations with the women they love and the women that love them. Single moms, know your daughters (and sons) father’s medical history so that none of them have to suffer in silence.

Listen to your spiritual inner voice, construct a family medical history tree with your trusted medical professional and know your family medical history like your life depends on it.

Sonji Ward, Chicago