In a perfect world, doctors would be able to make precise diagnoses based only on the presentation of symptoms. These clear-cut textbook cases would disregard the messy human biases that each of us has, whether or not we have contended with them. As I met Maxica, a woman of articulacy and a background in the medical field, she knew what she was talking about. And she knew her body even when others refused to listen.
It was not too long ago where women were unable to make medical decisions, and even today, implicit bias against women, even more so with black women, is alive and well in exam rooms. Healthcare professionals often assume that a woman’s tolerance for pain is lower, resulting in women not being taken seriously when reporting symptoms.
Hearing Maxica tell me her story of beating breast cancer, this theory quickly lost its abstractness. Counting on self-advocacy in healthcare decisions and just a bit of luck may have been exactly what saved Maxica’s life.
Maxica is a single mom of 4 outstanding kids. Seeing her face light up as she talked about them was telling of how proud she is to be their mom. Her fight wasn’t faced alone, and she continually recognized her kids and mom as the driving force, allowing her to get across the treatment finish line.
At 37 years old, Maxica went to the doctors complaining of a rash under her breasts. Her primary care physician quickly dismissed her concerns, even after she asked for a mammogram to rule out cancer. Though she had a history of breast cancer in her family, because she wasn’t yet 40, she fell into a coverage gap for her insurance to cover the test. The doctor refused to give her a mammogram.
“Every time I asked him something, he brushed me off. He didn’t want to do it”.
But Maxica was persistent. After antibiotic treatment didn’t clear the rash, she switched insurance providers and became a patient at the University of Indiana Hospitals and Health Sciences.
Through the UI Cancer Center (UICC), Maxica received a mammogram and ultrasound, revealing stage I breast cancer that had spread to her lymph nodes. She was booked for surgery to remove the cancerous cells, but soon found out that the progression was worse than expected.
“I was prepared to fight stage I. But they came back after the surgery and said it was stage III. They immediately gave me a double mastectomy and removed 10-14 lymph nodes.”
The severity of the diagnosis threw a wrench in the plans that Maxica had told herself. With stage III, she would be given chemotherapy and would lose her hair. Looking back at it now, Maxica knows it was never a choice between hair and no hair. Though she may have felt like she had lost a part of her, she remembered her mom’s support saying, “Your hair doesn’t make you – that hair will grow back. But being here for your kids, seeing them grow up, those milestones are more important than hair.”
Perhaps the worst experience this survivor and her family overcame was a period of homelessness. During chemotherapy, Maxica was unable to continue working two jobs with increased tiredness. As a Certified Nursing Assistant and Home Health Aide, she began to understand the burden of illness that impacted each corner of her own patients’ lives. She told me, “I felt everything that my former patients would tell me. I was helpless and hopeless”.
Through the assistance of Patient Navigators at UICC, Maxica learned of transportation and housing opportunities to alleviate these additional stresses during treatment and recovery. Imperative to her healing, both physically and emotionally, was keeping her family together in nearby housing provided by the American Cancer Society. In what would become the most trying period of her life, Maxica considered it a blessing to have advocates fighting to keep her family together.
“There’s somebody out there going through this, and I want them to have everything I received with the resources and tools to stay out of shelters.”
While she received treatments within the guidelines of western medicine, it was important for Maxica to have a voice in the traditional treatments within her cultural roots. Years before, during her grandmother’s cancer journey, Maxica’s family used the power of natural herbs and supplements before modern therapy.
While other doctors had laughed this suggestion off, her oncologist at UICC became committed to finding benefits and dangers of such practices through academic research. Maxica recalled that having a voice in her treatment plan allowed her to believe that fighting this was a team effort, and her team at UICC wanted what was best for her on the individual level.
Ringing in the bell after the completion of radiation treatment
Since November 2018, Maxica finished chemotherapy and radiation and has been declared cancer-free. Grateful for her second chance, she has changed her lifestyle and attitude for the future, and is now working to mentor future cancer survivors through the UICC Patient Brigade.