Breast Cancer Living Well Living Well

Survivor Stories: Rev. Alethea Smith-Withers

She is a breast cancer “overcomer”

I am a woman … a daughter, sister, wife, mother, granddaughter, grandmother, cousin and sistafriend. I am a woman … a barrier breaker and bridge builder. I am committed to ministry, pastoral care, life coaching, social justice and liberation.
I am a woman … I pray in the heat of the day; meditate in the early morning; cry while watching romantic comedies; sing in the shower and dance in the rain! I am a woman who has learned that the divine mandate is to touch, heal and love those who are broken, including myself.
In 2010, I was among more 200,000 women diagnosed with breast cancer and I had a mastectomy. Blessedly, I survived. I am a breast cancer overcomer. Yes, I am woman who is an overcomer!
When it comes to breast cancer, I honor every woman or man who embraces the moniker of survivor, for, I, too, am blessed to have survived the ravages of breast cancer. However, I choose to refer to myself as an overcomer. Breast cancer pushed me to examine the faith, family and cultural values I hold to be true. For me, overcomer is a power word that is a testament to my faith and self-determination. I am a Christian, and I take seriously the promise that everyone born of God overcomes the world. (1 John 5:4a).
Overcoming involves more than surviving the physical challenge of cancer and the looming threat of death. Cancer, any cancer, is an assault on life as you know it. In an uncanny way, cancer threatens reality of the past, the power of the present moment and hope for the future. Overcoming is an invitation to embrace the ultimate higher meaning of life: God, salvation, peace and spiritual empowerment. As an African American, self-determination reflects my determination to speak for myself and name and define my reality. I’m always looking for a “shoe that fits”—a shoe that will enable me to walk the distance—and overcomer is a shoe that works for me.
I also talk about blessed breasts and anointed anatomies. Why? I talk about blessed breasts and anointed anatomies because black bodies are precious, and we need to increase the significance of bodies that have historically been devalued and used as commodities, particularly black female bodies. Although I have one breast, now, my breasts were and remain a part of my life story. Make no mistake, I realize that my body is more important than the sum of its parts. But the parts—limbs, eyes, ears and breasts—have singular value that we should not ignore.
My breasts served me well. As a young adolescent, my budding breasts heralded the coming of my womanhood. Wearing a bra was a rite of passage, in much the same way as was wearing makeup for the first time. As a young woman, my breasts were a symbol of beauty and sexuality, and later, a source of life sustaining milk for my infant son. My breasts are blessed, more accurately, my one breast is blessed and my anatomy is anointed. Moreover, I profess that women have blessed breasts and we all have anointed anatomies. Each of us and all of our body parts matter to God. Hence, I invite you to honor your blessed breasts and anointed anatomy and commit to do those things that lead to breast health and early detection of breast cancer. We need to create a culture of awareness and conscious protection of our body.
The following is an excerpt from my personal journal, written April 4, 2010, Easter Sunday:
Today I awakened and saw blood on my bra! I looked at my breast to see where the blood had come from. There was no apparent scratch or wound. I was ready to dismiss it, thinking that the blood had come from some minor scratch on my husband’s body. (We like to cuddle at night.) Yet, there was a nagging awareness. During the past months, I have infrequently seen small spots of blood on the bed sheets (I rarely wear a bra at night). This time I had a bra on and the blood was on my bra. I looked at my breast, again. I still can’t say why, but I squeezed the nipple on my breast but I did. I saw blood! And then I saw stars and almost passed out!
Despite being dazed and terrified, I managed to report all of this to Charles (my husband) with a calm and almost casual tone of voice. I can’t recall what he said, but I can remember his face. His eyes were focused on me and seemed to hold and steady me. I was so blessed not to be alone. After many years of marriage, Charles knows me. I can share my fears with him. The bigger blessing is I don’t have to speak my fears aloud…. He hears my unspoken words and sees unshed tears. It was 9:15 a.m. and worship starts at 11 a.m. I couldn’t seem to stop thinking about the blood that had come out of the nipple of my right breast. It was horrible and incomprehensible. I was shaken to my core….
Beloved, the time has come for African Americans to break the silence about breast cancer. We need to make it plain: We need to tell our stories of pain, fear and confusion so that no one on the breast cancer journey ever feels alone. We are not alone! We need to share the victories of survival, overcoming or conquering. Our tears and our laughter connect and empower us. I’m every woman and so are you. We are the same and, yet, we are different, and each of us is unique.
Our humanity and worth can be seen in our faces, hair and clothes and in our art and architecture; our humanity and worth can be experienced in our creative intelligence and masterful accomplishments. Our humanity and worth are a testament to our history and to potential and promise contained in every new day. Now is the time to turn the tide of incidence of breast cancer. The incidence of breast cancer in the African-American community is 48 percent; the mortality rate from breast cancer in the African-American community is 52 percent. Together, we can make a difference.
Take your hand, place it over your breast (or, if you have had a mastectomy, where your breast used to be) and make your sacred promise to do wise things for your health and your breast health. You matter!

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