“My Voice” by Yvette Griffin

Yvette Griffin - 'Survivor'

I am a four time Triple Negative Breast Cancer (TNBC) survivor. Triple-negative (Tneg) tumors are Estrogen receptor (ER) negative, Progesterone receptor (PR) negative, and Her2 protein negative. Probably about 40% of inflammatory breast cancers are likely to be Tneg.  Tneg BC is one of the most aggressive forms of breast cancer (excluding cancer that has metastasized), and it does not respond well to treatment. Black women are more likely to die from TNBC and the gap between death rates is increasing. Only 14% of Black women are alive five years after being diagnosed with TNBC. This alarming fact doesn’t change even when access to care, education and insurance are equal. This is a summary of my journey.

At 31, I had pre-cancerous major duct removal surgery at Cornell Weill Medical Center. At 40, I was diagnosed with Stage IIA, T2, N0, M0, (0/12) LN, invasive TNBC (Lumpectomy/Chemo/Six Wks (M-F) Radiation) at Long Island College Hospital (LICH). At 42, a recurrence, Stage IIA TNBC (Left Bi-lateral Mastectomy/Complete Hysterectomy/Chemo) at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center (MSKCC). At 43, a recurrence, Stage IIIA Tneg Chest Wall Cancer (Fascia (chest wall) Removal/Six Wk (M-F) High Dose Breast & Chest Wall Radiation). And, at 44, Stage IV Metastasized cancer in one Lymph Node and a cancerous mass in my lung. Thank God, the cancer disappeared three weeks after the PT scan. I did not include the biopsies, needle aspirations, MRI’s, PT, CT scans, x-rays, out patient procedures, etc. There are just too many to list. I tested negative for the BRCA1 & BRCA2 (hereditary) genes and there were no traces of gene mutation.

I am being closely monitored by MSKCC, and I have nothing but the highest praise for all who work there. It is no accident that I ended up at MSKCC. After losing my job after September 11th, 2001, I waitressed, re-upholstered furniture, did custom sewing, and held numerous temporary positions on Wall street. Since none evolved into a full-time position, a neighbor asked if I was interested in an entry level position at MSKCC. I survived breast cancer a few years before that and was eager to start over in a different industry. I applied for many positions in other fields to no avail. So, after 20+ years working in finance, I went to work at MSKCC.

Three months into my probationary period, I felt tired all the time. I had uterine fibroid tumors so I was weak and bleeding heavily. I was tardy (5-15 min) a lot, but no one really noticed because I was often the first person on duty. I admit that, I’ve never been a morning person. However, I really try to be honest with myself and others. I didn’t lie on my time sheets. My managers talked to me about this on a few occasions, and I tried my best to arrive on time. I continued to keep up the pace, often worked through lunch, and worked overtime most nights. Like before, I was a workaholic. I had no problem with being given the most difficult doctors, patients and schedules. It wasn’t just a job. I was starting over and I wanted to do my very best for those brave women.

At the end of the probationary period, I was called into the managers office for an evaluation. They commended me on my excellent work and honestly. They also said my services were no longer required. I did not make the cut. It was my fault but I hoped that my work ethic and professionalism outweighed the lateness. Also, I failed to meet the requirement of perfect attendance. I had missed two whole days. We discussed my health issues before and after I was hired. They said they understood that I might have to take a few days for doctors appointments. So, there I was, weak, barely able to stand, and unemployed with no health insurance. I felt like I was carrying the weight of the world on my shoulders.

The next week, a nurse in the GYN department called to get details on why I had canceled my appointment at MSKCC. A few days later, she called and told me that Dr. Mercedes Castiel, Head of General Gynecology at MSKCC, insisted that I keep the appointment. As I waited for the pathology/blood test results at home, my worries increased. I couldn’t get it out of my mind. I had no job, no money, and no health insurance. I closed my eyes and said, “God, you know what I’ve been through. I know you don’t give us more than we can bare, but I’m tired.. Father, if it is your will, please make a way for me to get the help I need to fight.” None of the other issues mattered if I died. I refused to stay with my parents and my sister lived too far away from the hospital. I didn’t want to see the pain on their faces. They wanted to help but I wouldn’t talk about it. It wasn’t an option. Plus, it would take time to liquidate stocks, sell the house, etc. They encouraged me to put my Trust in God. I would go to prayer service and cry. A few weeks passed and Dr. Castiel called with the results. The cancer had returned. She said she didn’t know how I was walking around. I had anemia from excessive blood loss (fibroid tumors). She gave me a list of doctors and their telephone numbers to call right away. She told me that keeping these appointments were priority and we would address the costs later. Through tears, I thanked her and expressed my appreciation for all she’d done. Later I found out that she contacted all of the doctors, surgeons, and social worker personally. I had a mastectomy and complete hysterectomy three weeks later. While still in the hospital, I was informed that all costs would be paid with philanthropic funds. There are no coincidences. Everything that I had been through brought me to that place. God revealed all and showed me that He heard the prayers. He never left me, and He constantly made a way when there was no way in sight.

My journey is like so many others, and I always remember that there are others whose journey was/is harder than mine. So many have fought hard and lost their battle with cancer. I am so blessed to have family (immediate and extended), and best friends who I know would walk through fire for me and continue to support me. And, my loved ones are quick to “pull my wig” when I’m depressed for more than a day or two.

This past July, I celebrated 3 years in remission. So many good things have come from my journey. And, it’s still not over. It will not be over until God says it’s over. I won’t try to sugar coat it. Treatment is harsh and it did a lot of damage. I suffer from long-term mental and physical side effects from the surgeries and treatments. Most of the time, I’m in pain but I can live with that, pardon the pun. Remission is not cured. I continue to pray for a cure or vaccine. The thought of a recurrence is terrifying but I am a survivor.

Via the internet, the world is at my fingertips. I look forward to getting into a Masters program and eventually, work from home. I continue to research breast cancer studies, encourage women to do self exams and get mammograms. I gather information from dietitians, and remain open to holistic and western medicine to improve my life after cancer. I surround myself with intelligent positive people who make me step up my game. I give back by participating in numerous support group websites and talking to others who need support. I cherish the strong, brave and courageous women that I’ve met. They understand what I’m going through. I know that I’m not alone. It’s a strange sisterhood. Individually, we are brave, strong, God fearing women. Together we are a force to be reckoned with. God wants me to pass on precious information. He wants others to know that, with Him, all things are possible. Even surviving cancer. All the praise goes to our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. I am so blessed.

When I wake up, I thank God for another day. No one is promised tomorrow. At night, I say a prayer for all newly diagnosed, those in the midst of battle, survivors, and those who lost loved ones to cancer. Growing in Christ made it all worthwhile. He is the love of my life. Like a fellow survivor said, “The only thing I’ve lost is my breast. I’ve gained: friends, love, opportunities, weight, and an ever increasing love of Christ!!”