From Racism to Cancer: My Fight to Survive

The new year began with such promise. From a safari in Nairobi to the white sands of Mombasa, ending with a glimpse into ancient civilization and the Egyptian Pyramids, I was living my best life. Sharing futuristic visions of retirement with my husband, Marvin, and grateful for the life we creatively blended. COVID was “only in China,” and racism was on the periphery of my consciousness. A wound I felt but kept buried.

That all changed in three short months. The country is on lockdown as COVID 19 rages through cities, killing 100,000 people, disproportionately impacting our black and brown communities.  Ahmaud Arbery is shot dead while jogging. Police murder Breonna Taylor and George Floyd, and the knee of injustice was on full display for 8:46 minutes, leading to riots and protests. “What could be worse?” I asked.

Diagnosis

The answer came right before Mother’s Day when I gathered my family around the laptop for a virtual doctor’s appointment, and he said, “You have chronic myeloid leukemia (CML).” A silent killer that left untreated would slowly take my life. As a black woman, the term “Black Lives Matter” rang true as its significance resonated in real-time. Mortality became more apparent to me as I faced my children. I want my life to matter; I want to continue making a difference. My job is not done. 

It all seemed surreal. The month leading to my diagnosis started with my regular annual physical. Following a virtual visit and routine blood draw, I was referred to a hematologist because my platelets and basophils were too high. For the next two weeks, we did the elimination dance. Two weeks of magical thinking, when you hold on to hope that this is a minor problem with a quick fix. We rule out autoimmune diseases: more tests, more blood work, mounting anxiety. By now, I have consulted with my close doctor friends who try to assure me all will be fine. Second virtual visit, my doctor gives it a name. Myeloproliferative neoplasm. “What the hell is that?” I asked. “Give it to me straight; do I have cancer?”

Fear

There was no quick answer to that question without more tests—blood tests, imaging, ultrasounds, MRIs, and waiting. Meanwhile, I was asymptomatic. Not an ache, pain, or clue that something deadly was coursing through my veins waiting to erupt. Similar to racism, I could be in denial, but fear was stealing my sleep. I simply did not want to die. Waiting for the results became worse each day, so of course, I took matters into my own hands. Armed with my WebMD medical degree, I narrowed the list of possible diseases based on my test results and fired off an email to my doctor at 3:00 am! “Timing is of the essence, and we are not moving fast enough. All indications are that we have discovered this in an early phase. When are you scheduling my bone marrow biopsy? What additional tests do I need? I do not want to feel like COVID 19 is undermining my access to quality healthcare. We must discuss this ASAP!”

Anyone who knows me should be smiling at the emergence of my overactive “A” type personality, which I will call, advocating for myself. Finally, at 9:00 am the next day, my doctor responds, “Cecilia, your remaining test results are not back. It will take 1-2 more days. I will call you as soon as they are available.” And there you have it; I had just been handled! I had to face the fact that I was not in control. As a self- empowerment artist and coach, I know all too well that the need to control will only heighten your level of fear and anxiety. I needed a mind-shift.

Hope

The first thing I did was pray. My mom taught me early to pray precisely for what you want. I prayed that whatever my diagnosis, let it be manageable. Let me continue to be wife, mom, sister, friend, and inspiration. Let my life continue to matter. I reached a place of acceptance by recognizing I am in the best place in my life to weather this crisis. I looked for all the positive things I have. Marvin matches my fire with calmness and patience. He is a 14-year survivor who suffered the loss of his first wife, Mary, to cancer. He simply looks at me and says, “Whatever this is, I got you. We will get through it together.”

The girls were with me when I received my diagnosis, but telling my boys was the hardest thing I had to do. They had already lost their mom to cancer, and I felt like I was betraying them. They had suffered so much already. Of course, these thoughts are just in my head. I have placed them in perspective and moved forward. My family is simply my rock. Their love is the strongest motivator and makes me smile daily. Although the pandemic forced us to all be home, I am thankful I can wake up and enjoy this time with them.

Treatment

My testing is complete. Bone Marrow biopsy confirmed we found this in the first stage. CML is one of the more manageable leukemias. Statistics indicate with medication people can live out their average life expectancy. These are the words of hope that I focus on as I work to get my disease into remission. From this perfect storm of the pandemic, racism, and cancer, I can take a pill to suppress the growth of my cancer cells. It may eventually return, but not before I have time to continue inspiring others and making sure my life matters. But there is no pill for racism. The country has suppressed it far too long;  it can no longer be denied.  Its time has come. My clients ask for help in what to say, strategies on how to manage. It begins with facing our fears. Racism is similar to cancer. As Paul Simon wrote in Sounds of Silence in 1965, “Silence like a cancer grows.” My reason for combining these messages is to emphasize we cannot be silent. When faced with a threat to your life, you must be willing to fight.

Gratitude

I did my coach certification with IPEC and launched my practice, The Strategy Chick, four years ago. One of the fundamental principles we believe is that we are where we are supposed to be.  Everything in my life has prepared me for this moment. My resiliency was born growing up in an all-white neighborhood in the 60s and remembering the first time I was called a nigger. It was born from being the first black girl to graduate from Hawken, a private prep school in Cleveland’s suburbs. It was born from the micro-aggressions of racism and sexism suffered during my corporate career. I am grateful I survived the white oppressors, whose knees held me back from opportunities telling me I was not good enough. Through that pain, I have grown, and I know I am a fighter, a survivor. I am grateful for these experiences because I am ready to win the fight against racism and to beat cancer.

I realize I write from a place of earned privilege. I was not given any handouts. I have access to many things, and for my life to make a difference, I must use my privilege to amplify the voices of the unheard. What began as a routine physical and blood draw, has given me a greater sense of urgency to make sure my life makes a difference. I know if I did not have healthcare, my leukemia might have gone undiscovered in time to stop its deadly march. How many black lives won’t reach their fullest potential due to disparities and racial injustice?

The Future

To my white colleagues who want to know how to help, remember it starts with a conversation. Speak up, speak out, and acknowledge our past and who we are today. It begins with you.

Despite the challenges in the country and my health, I maintain and indomitable spirit and positivity. My fight song for the moment is Sia’s “Unstoppable.” 

“I put my armor on, show you how strong I am

I put my armor on I’ll show you that I am

Unstoppable…”

To be continued…

25 Responses to “From Racism to Cancer: My Fight to Survive

  • Pam Harris
    4 months ago

    Wow. Your strength is amazing. Thank you for sharing this.

  • I am encouraged by your courage. You got this.

  • T. Renee Crutcher
    4 months ago

    Truly you are an inspiration and will continue to be. My prayers for your excellent health and may your joys overflow an overflowing cup of blessings! You are loved and admired by all of us who are fortunate enough to call you family! We fight alongside you and sing songs of victory for what will be your overcoming because indeed, you are UNSTOPPABLE!

  • Cynthia Wicker Williams
    4 months ago

    Cecilia,

    I am shocked! I am rarely at a loss for words, but I am fumbling right now. Your indomitable spirit is front and center in your post, and I know you are equipped for this fight. Know that I have already said a prayer for you, and will continue to pray.

    Blessings,

    Cynthia

    • CeciliakCarter
      4 months ago

      I love you too and know that you and the “family” have my back.

  • Deanna Senior
    4 months ago

    I loved you in person and love you just as much through your beautiful writing, Cecilia. My colleague, my friend, my neighbor – I stand by you in both of these fights!

  • Cecilia, thank you for sharing. Life is such a journey. We don’t have to walk it alone. I admire your honesty and courage. In the meantime, will keep praying for you and your family. Keep the spirit up!

  • to be continued indeed!!

  • Ren Wiebe
    4 months ago

    I am cracked open hearing this news. But I do not mourn. I know you are strong. I know your life matters. I know you will continue to live your mission. I know you and we will win!
    Sending healing energy your way Cecilia. Fight on warrior princess!

  • Jacqueline Jeffress
    4 months ago

    Dear Cece,
    Sending you hugs and prayers.
    Love,
    Jacquie

  • You are unstoppable! Beautiful piece. Stay strong cuz.

  • Beautifully written!

  • Myra Evans Lapeyrolerie
    4 months ago

    I know you are going to live a long and productive life. You are a fighter and a survivor.

  • My prayers are with you.

  • Theresa Bogus
    4 months ago

    God is with you & yes, the struggle continues. You are an inspiration to me. Thank you for this post.

  • Lauren Wint
    4 months ago

    Your life has definitely made a difference in my life. Thank you for sharing this powerful story.

  • Brilliantly written! You got this and we got you! And with love, compassion, conversation and action, I am hopeful that we can heal the world too!

  • Kris hanson
    4 months ago

    You have already made a difference and will continue to. You got this!

  • Claire Rodgers
    4 months ago

    Thank you for sharing all of your journeys so candidly and beautifully, Cecilia. Your fighting spirit makes the biggest impact.

  • Kevin Hodges
    4 months ago

    Cecilia – thank you for sharing. I can tell a lot of time, energy and thought went into this post. First, whatever the Hodges family can do for you please advise. I remember our lovely visit to your beautiful home and the time we shared with my long time friend Marvin Campbell and your awesome family. We hung out, talked about life, growing young adults we call children and then we broke bread at a wonderful restaurant in town. You and Marvin mentioned there could be a chance you would visit the Bay Area and Napa.. if that is still on the list, let us know . We are happy to host you and commit to a weekend of laugh, good food and excellent wine. Last, I will stand in the gap and pray for you . Our prayer will be blessings of healing, blessings of increased faith and blessing of trust that the Lord has a plan, he will unveil it to you in time and most of all he will pass understanding and peace of mind that can only come from knowing Jesus Christ. Please remain a beautiful spirit and a second chance of Love for Marvin. You both deserve a lifetime of happiness. Kevin & Ashleigh Hodges.

    • CeciliakCarter
      4 months ago

      Kevin, thank you for your love and support! And as soon as I can travel, The Bay area is on the top of our list! Love to you and Ashleigh!

  • Rob Hengelbrok
    4 months ago

    Cecilia,
    Most amazing thing I’ve read. What a message…truly inspirational.
    Feel fortunate to know Marvin and you…such an impressive family.
    Prayers to you and your family. Stay strong!
    Rob

  • Drew Logan
    4 months ago

    Stay strong my friend. Please call on me if I can be any help

  • Michelle Murphy
    3 months ago

    Cecilia, prayers for you and your family. You’ve been on my mind and now I know why. I read the post and can hear you speaking it. Thanks for always sharing your wisdom, humor and strength.

  • Stephanie Piccone
    3 months ago

    God bless you Cecilia and I know you will send CML packing!
    We are with you sister. Big hugs and love, Stephanie

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