This Is What It’s Like To Survive Cancer

Credit: The Good Brigade via Getty Images.

by Anissa Durham

Roughly 600,000 Americans die of cancer each year. 

Black people are at an increased risk of death from different forms of cancer due to structural racism and discrimination. But this isn’t a story about the tragedy of cancer. This is a story about the survivorship that so many experience. 

Between 2019-2022, more than 18 million Americans survived cancer.  

Source: American Cancer Society • Graphic by Anissa Durham

Some factors that increase cancer survival include access to health insurance, patient attitudes, and a support team, according to the American Cancer Society. Those who have personally dealt with cancer know that the treatments are painful, and keeping hope alive can be difficult.  

But surviving cancer is possible. Word In Black spoke with three Black women about what it means to be a cancer survivor and what they’ve learned from fighting for their lives.  

Here are their stories.  

Madeline Long, 60, Maryland, Executive Director 

I’ve been in the breast cancer space since 1999. In 2011, my mother, my aunt, and myself were all diagnosed with breast cancer. With the diagnosis, I didn’t see it as a death sentence. 

I was stage 1, so I was on tamoxifen. 

My mother didn’t handle her diagnosis very well. So, I couldn’t really be a survivor. I had to be a caregiver first. I wasn’t able to really show up in my own life because my mother and I were diagnosed two months apart.  

It was easier with my aunt because she was very proactive. And, she was recently diagnosed again with breast cancer.  

Courtesy of Madeline Long.

I’ve had two scares since my diagnosis. I ended up having a hysterectomy and an oophorectomy. But I realized I had not really been a survivor until I had to go through that situation. 

I’m a patient navigator, I have my own organization, and I’m always with breast cancer survivors. I’m learning how to show up for me because as a survivor, I have to show up for me.  

I became an ambassador for the American Cancer Society. I’m constantly telling women not to miss their mammograms. I’m always in caregiving mode. I had to learn to be able to balance it — where I’m not always caregiving at the expense of myself. 

I took Tamoxifen for seven years. Once I stopped, I felt like that’s when my remission started. 

I would tell Black women, you got to live a healthier lifestyle. What does your stress level look like? What does your tribe look like? Who are you rolling with? Surround yourself with people who will speak life into you. You don’t want to be with people who all they do is speak negatively.  

Black women don’t have to die from breast cancer. 

Erin Nickson, 37, Georgia, Senior corporate relations manager 

I was diagnosed in 2011 with stage 1 breast cancer. I was going in for my annual exam, at the urging of my mother. I was 24, and it was during Breast Cancer Awareness Month. I wasn’t thinking about breast cancer because I was so young.  

Courtesy of Erin Nickson.

My mother’s mother passed away from breast cancer many decades prior. I still didn’t think that at my age, I should be concerned with it. I don’t know if it was the initial shock, or being naïve, I was just like what’s the next step — let’s get this done.  

I was so optimistic. I don’t believe it hit me as much as it did my parents and my siblings. The perspective that there’s life not only after a cancer diagnosis but also during a cancer diagnosis helped me just tough through it. 

I had surgeries and did 12 weeks of chemotherapy. Then I went into remission six to seven months after the initial diagnosis. It feels like being a Black woman who has survived cancer is a special badge of honor.  

For Black women who are currently battling cancer, don’t stop. Don’t take no for an answer until you are at peace with the direction that your care is going. Have an ally or another advocate there who can push for you when you are too exhausted physically, mentally, spiritually, and emotionally.

Young Black women need to be super diligent about understanding their family medical history. We know that cancers are best treated when they are caught earlier. Forget everything else you’ve heard; you’ve got to start earlier.  

Michelle Sparrow-Walker, 60, Maryland, IT Consulting Services 

After three years of getting mammograms, I felt something, but I kept being told it was just that my breasts were dense. Then, in the third year, in December of 2016, I had a biopsy done.

They determined that I had Stage 3 breast cancer in my left breast. And it spread to 12 lymph nodes in my left arm. I went through chemotherapy from February through April of 2017. Then, I had surgery in May of 2017 to remove the cancer, and in September I had radiation.  

Courtesy of Michelle Sparrow-Walker.

I didn’t realize how many Black women that I knew had breast cancer. I felt blessed — it could have been worse. However, I knew I wasn’t alone because there are so many women who have gone through it. But when I heard the word cancer, it just stopped my heart. You don’t ever foresee that for yourself until it happens.  

I didn’t want to feel depressed or like a victim. I try to keep a positive attitude and keep moving — so people could see I wasn’t gonna let cancer stop me. Your attitude is half the battle. I had a good support system with family and friends. The most important thing is to stay positive — because if you think things are going to be bad, it’s kind of a self-fulfilling prophecy. 

Expect that God is gonna take care of it for you. My faith became very strong during that period. I’ve learned to lean a lot more on it.