Breast Cancer Health Conditions Hub

Survivor Stories: I Am Living With HIV and Breast Cancer

Joyce Turner Keller shares her story of juggling both diseases

In 2001, when Louisiana native Joyce Turner Keller, now 66, was told that she was HIV-positive, she was shocked. She was only tested for HIV after being in a car accident.

“At that time, I didn’t know anything about HIV, but I did know that I was sick and didn’t know with what.”

Keller was infected when she was raped during a jog near her house five years prior to her diagnosis. And while she truly believed that this couldn’t happen to a Christian woman like her, her own diagnosis completely shifted her way of thinking: This disease can happen to anyone—we are all at risk.

Soon after, she began doing HIV/AIDS advocacy in her state; started her own organization, Aspirations, to promote awareness, decrease stigma and encourage HIV testing; and has gone around the country speaking about HIV.

With her HIV in check, Keller is proof that you can live with HIV and live well. But in 2014, Keller was given a devastating blow: She had stage 1 breast cancer.

We sat down with the AIDS activist to talk about juggling both HIV and breast cancer, the importance of having a strong support system and why you can never give up.

Walk me through the day you were diagnosed with breast cancer.

Joyce Turner Keller: I had been having issues with my breasts for the past three to four years. I would keep having lumpectomies and the tests would come back as benign. But one of the smallest lumps they left in ended up being cancerous.

While my aunt died of breast cancer, I tested negative for the BRCA gene. But I also knew that having HIV could raise my risk for certain cancers. So I knew it might be a possibility. But I never thought it would happen to me.

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How did your family handle the news?

They were devastated and that devastation plays out in many ways—denial, anger and even avoidance. That’s the thing: Breast cancer doesn’t just affect the one with the disease, but the people in your life, too.

But this disease has really taught me that you cannot do this all by yourself. You need people and you have to let them in. I think about all the people who literally cooked for me, cleaned my house, bathed me, called me on the phone to check in on me and what a huge difference that made. I am so grateful for their help and love. Breast cancer has really made me see that friends are family.

How do you emotionally and physically juggle knowing that you have both HIV and breast cancer?

I thought I was strong when I was first diagnosed with HIV, but breast cancer has shown me just how strong I really am.

In what way?

I fear HIV much less. Yes, an HIV diagnosis can be devastating, but with HIV, you have control. You can find a regimen that works for you, take your medicine consistently and live a long healthy life. But you have no control over breast cancer. It’s completely unknown if treatment will work, and that is really scary.

But I also know that if I didn’t have HIV, living in Louisiana with no Medicaid expansion, I probably wouldn’t have insurance right now to even be treated for my breast cancer. So I always keep that with me and thank God for every blessing I have and the strength to get through this.

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How is your health right now?

We caught the cancer early, but I can’t have chemo or any hormonal treatment because it might make my cancer worse. So right now, it’s a “wait and see” approach. But I now have a great doctor, who is doing cutting-edge work around breast cancer. So yes, I am apprehensive about my next appointment, but I am clear that if cancer wants to keep playing with me, it has a serious fight on its hands.

What’s your advice for our readers when it comes to breast cancer?

First, know your body and understand the importance of taking your breast health seriously at a young age. Also, if you have breast cancer, know that your scars or your lack of hair does not define you. The key here is getting healthy.

But most important, don’t ever be afraid to stand up for yourself with your doctors. There was a lot of drama around my diagnosis. My breasts were swelling so badly and I was in so much pain, like excruciating. I went to the ER, and I never really felt like I was treated with the respect I should have gotten. It was like they didn’t take it seriously. But I kept pushing and fighting for myself. We have to remember that, no matter what we understand, our health and our lives matter.

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