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Cancer in communities of color
Waiting too long, Part 3

Special to the AmNews

“I was devastated, I was really hurt, but you know something I really didn’t feel sorry for myself, because I hadn’t gone to take the test in quite some time. Laziness – it was really laziness on my part,” said Sharon Clemente in an interview at the Breast Examination Center of Harlem.
A little over a year ago Sharon got the news that so many women fear: She was diagnosed with breast cancer. The story of Sharon – a healthy, newly married woman – is far more typical than it should be. With early detection and aggressive treatment, breast cancer is highly curable. But Sharon ignored and dismissed many of the warning signs of breast cancer, which nearly took her life, and did take her breasts.
“I’m quite sure I would have caught it earlier and I would still today have my breasts,” Sharon said, speaking about the importance of having regular mammograms and doing self-breast examinations. There were many reasons why Sharon should have gotten screened earlier. She had a family history of cancer and she had an earlier bout of another form of cancer. She finally went to have a mammogram at the Breast Examination Center, which she found out about through a friend, after she discovered that she had leakage from one of her nipples, a classic warning sign of breast cancer which she interpreted as her possibly being pregnant. When her right breast began discharging blood, she knew that she had to get screened immediately.
After she received her mammogram she was told that they had discovered a mass and that a biopsy was needed. That biopsy confirmed that Sharon had breast cancer in both of her breasts.
“I had to sit down and make a lot of decisions all at one time,” Sharon said of the process of choosing her treatment. “I was very nervous, very afraid. I talked about it with my mother and husband.”
Eventually she chose the most aggressive treatment of having a double mastectomy, which was not just a difficult choice because it was a major surgical procedure.
“It was a really hard decision for me to make because I was a newlywed, but I thought it was the best medical choice for me to be able to see my family and my husband. That was the decision that I had to make.”
After undergoing treatment at Memorial Sloan-Kettering, one of the best cancer treatment centers in the world, the doctors concluded that her breast cancer had not spread to the rest of her body. They had detected and removed it just in time. But her delay in being screened cost her both of her breasts.
Last year in New York City 1,218 women died of breast cancer, and approximately [???] of those were women of color. Most of those deaths were preventable, but many women over the age of 40 do not get their yearly mammograms. In neighborhoods like the South Bronx and Bedford-Stuyvesant, up to 35% of women who should be screened have not had a mammogram in the past two years. It is recommended that women should give themselves monthly self-examinations starting in their twenties and also receive a clinical breast exam every three years. Any one of these would have caught Sharon’s cancer earlier, when a less aggressive treatment might have been sufficient.
“I cried many days. … I was at wit’s end,” she said of the experience. For Sharon, it was her family and her church that helped her get through her ongoing battle with cancer.
“During the chemo process, my body broke down. I was weak, fatigued, I went through menopause, I lost my hair, I lost a lot of weight,” Sharon said, speaking about the post-surgical treatment. “I have a strong family. My mother, my husband, my daughter all helped. I have a support group at my church. Talking to my friends really helped.”
Not everyone knew what to say or do. “Some people began to shy away from me, that’s when I had to sit them down and say to them exactly what I was going through,” she said.
“It’s taught me a lot,” Sharon said of her experience with cancer. “It’s taught me to be closer to God. I have a personal relationship with the higher power now, because he’s the one who carried me through this situation and I know it’s only by the grace of God that I’m still alive.”
Not everyone has to only depend on the grace of God. With regular screenings and exams we can use the knowledge that has been given to us to fight this disease that every year takes far more mothers, sisters and daughters than it should.

The Breast Examination Center of Harlem is located at 163 West 125th Street (in the State Office Building), 4th Floor. The center offers free and low-cost clinical breast exams and mammograms. Call (212) 531-8000 to schedule an appointment for yourself, a friend or a loved one.

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