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Gratitude in the Midst of Humiliation

Gloria Ladson-Billings

I recently finished up my last day of seven weeks of radiation for a recurrence of breast cancer. After living 27 years cancer-free, I was once again diagnosed with this horrible disease this past winter. I was devastated.

For 27 years I have been an advocate for breast cancer research and support for those who were diagnosed — especially Black women. Interesting, we have a lower incidence of breast cancer, but when we get it we have a higher mortality rate. We are more likely to get a more aggressive form and to get it at an earlier age. My first battle I was younger, stronger, and more fearless. I fought through every step of it — surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation. I went up against the breast cancer establishment in my town for not having wigs that were appropriate for Black women. I mobilized women in my church to participate in the breast cancer 5K race/walk. I became an advocate for Black women and breast cancer. This time I had a diagnosis of a much less aggressive, non-invasive cancer but aspects of these last 7 weeks have been among the hardest I have experienced.

Each weekday since July 22 I have driven to radiation therapy and back. My husband asks every day if he can take me. I always say, “No.” Other friends have called or texted to volunteer to drive me and again I say, “No.” My own sense of control makes me want to take myself. In the car for those 20 minutes there and back I think about what I have to face and how to face it. Wanting to have some modicum of control is something you crave when it seems things are spiraling out of control.

Once you become sick, you lose all access to personal modesty. Every day I had to enter a room with youngsters (some young enough to be my grandchildren) and disrobe. In a cold, brightly lit room I laid down for treatment trying to avoid eye-contact. In an attempt to make me feel comfortable the technicians engage in friendly banter, “What else do you have planned for today? Those are really cute shoes you’re wearing. What a pretty nail color you have!” Every morning as I prepared to go I had to make sure I had on a “good” bra (Black women know we have “good bras” and “bras”) to avoid judgment at the hands of young White women (and sometimes a man). I am embarrassed by the fact I cannot shave or wear deodorant on my left side. I’m constantly checking myself to ensure my underarm does not emit body odor.

As I lay there taking and holding deep breaths my mind wanders in different directions. As humiliating as this is, I wonder what happens to those Black women without adequate health care? Who is available to take them back and forth to therapy every day? Who buys them new bras so they don’t have to stand in front of young White girls with tattered underwear?

I also lay there thinking of my ancestors. In this 400-year commemoration of the first enslaved Africans arriving on these shores I can hardly imagine the humiliation they felt standing naked upon an auction block being picked at and prodded. Clearly, there is no comparison between them and my situation. Every woman with breast cancer who receives treatment, regardless of race and ethnicity, will undergo what I went through. Most will be grateful for the skill of the health care professionals and the technologies that will save their lives. But, I wonder if every woman will feel the humiliation placed upon Black women in this process? I am grateful for what the radiologist and radiation therapy personnel have done for me over the past seven weeks. However, I hope never to see them again!