Trusting My Gut: A Black Woman’s Journey Through Breast Cancer and Pregnancy, Part 1
A note from Molly: We first met Deana Jean on a Zoom call earlier this year and knew immediately she had a story that was important to tell. Her desire to educate and advocate for breast cancer survivors is something Pink Fund hopes to elevate an amplify through a three-part series of blogs. I encourage you to follow along the next three months as Deana Jean tells a story of fierce advocacy as a Black woman, mother and breast cancer survivor.
Seven years ago, if I’d followed the conventional wisdom that had been shared with me about healthcare and Cancer, I probably would not be here today. I was taught that if you have a health concern, you go to your doctor, you trust and follow their recommendations for treatment without question, and everything will work out. But, in 2016, I found out the hard way that for a number of reasons beyond my control, conventional wisdom would not work for me. For this journey, my gut would be my best compass.
In March of 2016, my life seemed picture-perfect. I was happily married with two healthy young boys, who arrived much closer together than we planned (a mere 19 months apart, but all in perfect timing)! My husband Marc was nearly 15 years into his military career, and at 34, I was the youngest and only Black Regional Vice President for a leading tech firm. Although we were still reeling from the news of expecting a 3rd (surprise) child, we’d settled into the excitement of bringing a little girl into the world to complete our family. Little did I know, my world was about to take an unexpected turn, challenging everything I thought I knew about health, trust, and resilience.
It all began with a routine breast exam in the shower, a flashback to my high school days at a private all-girls school. Our health teacher emphasized the importance of conducting self-exams on the same day every month to establish a baseline of our “normal” breast tissue. Fast forward two decades, and I found myself curious about a subtle but certain difference. What followed was a week of self-examination, hot showers, warm compresses and the inevitable Google search on Breast Cancer symptoms.
"No discharge, no red area, no pain, just a little lump, and I’m pregnant... Less than a 3% chance," I reassured myself. But that lump persisted, prompting me to seek the opinion of the person closest to me—my husband. His playful demeanor shifted to concern, validating the abnormality I sensed. Together, we faced the reality that something was different and that I should bring it up during my prenatal appointment the next day
After my exam I shared the concerns with my trusted OB-GYN. I’d been seeing him for nearly a decade at that point, and he’d delivered both of my boys with little to no complications in 2009 and 2011. He was an older Jewish man in his 60's and he had an exceptional bedside manner. He was kind and patient. He had a daughter my age. My mom LOVED him, and he and Marc always traded really bad dad jokes.
He saw my concern and immediately and carefully did a breast exam. He confirmed unequivocally that what he felt did not seem abnormal. It seemed like a cluster of small cysts that were likely due to the pregnancy. I asked if he was certain. Without hesitation he said that based on his more 30 than years of experience, he had no reason to believe this was a cancerous mass, and that scanning me would cause more risk to the baby than he was comfortable with
I left his office somewhat relieved, but not quite convinced. Especially when I still felt the same mass a week later. I didn’t want to overreact, but my mind kept going back to a data point a friend’s mom (also a physician) shared with me many years back about Black women being less likely to have their health concerns taken seriously when shared with their doctors. Although I knew and trusted my doctor, I also knew that our friendly relationship did not supersede the fact that I was certainly a Black woman.
I followed my gut and went back to his office once a week, for a full month. Each time I went, he examined me and he shared that he did not believe that what I felt was abnormal. He also reiterated that he did not want to send me for scans because the radiation might harm the baby. On my fifth visit, I calmly, kindly and firmly requested that he document in my file that he was refusing to send a referral for radiology despite my personal concerns.
The referral was submitted on a Thursday, leading to a rapid series of events that unfolded within a week...Scan on Tuesday, biopsy on Wednesday, and a life-altering diagnosis on Thursday. I was facing breast cancer at 22 weeks pregnant, staging at 2B. The news hit on Good Friday, March 25th. On April 8th, I began my first round of chemo, and a journey that would change everything that I ever knew about the power of being guided by my gut.
Check back next month for Part 2 of Trusting My Gut: A Black Woman’s Journey Through Breast Cancer and Pregnancy.