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As told to Margot Adams by Tiffany Reed.
I was diagnosed with Triple Negative in October of 2020, so it was in the beginning of the pandemic, and I was in the middle of grad school when I found out. They actually told me when they called me that I had Invasive Ductal Carcinoma. I didn’t hear the Triple Negative part until later.
It has always been my background to be a breast advocate. I’ve always been someone who’s encouraged other women to get their yearly mammograms. I had been getting mammograms about 9 years prior to my diagnosis, so I started when I was about 39 and I did that because my paternal grandmother had breast cancer and I wanted to have a baseline and some knowledge, but [because of my] background in healthcare, that’s always been my focus anyway.
[I was going to graduate school] for healthcare administration and I didn’t realize until later on [when I was] reading my paperwork that I had Triple Negative Breast Cancer. I had mentioned to the surgeon that it’s important for patients to understand their entire diagnosis. You have your type and your subtype, and the subtype is Triple Negative Breast Cancer.
Of course, when I saw that, I was just like, “Oh my god, I have Triple Negative Breast Cancer, my girlfriend died of Triple Negative Breast Cancer.” It messed me up a little bit. I actually decided to switch my paper for grad school [to focus on] breast cancer in women of color, focusing on clinical trials and Triple Negative Breast Cancer.
I don’t know how they found it, it’s nothing but a miracle. It was really, really tiny [and] I have dense breasts, so it’s hard to find tumors in dense breasts. This radiologist had a technique that she uses on women who have dense breasts. Another radiologist that I saw called her and said, “How did you find that?”
It was a shock because I guess I had been getting [monograms] for so long and I never felt nervous. To me it was a part of [being in] my 40s. This is part of what you do, you go get your mammograms. [So] when I found out it was like, “Oh snap.” It was like “I can’t believe I’m going through this.” Luckily I had a lot of family support. My teachers were supportive. I didn’t even stop grad school because I was very determined to finish.
[But, when] I got the cancer diagnosis, all hell broke loose. My husband got sick and he had a stroke. Then we had to be out of our house for three months because we had a leak in our kitchen. Then, right as we’re coming back to our house, we find out that my granddaughter was diagnosed with stage three colon cancer. I’m like, “Is this even real, are you kidding me?” Then I found out I had to have a hysterectomy and then my husband had to have another surgery. I just went back to work last month, and I’m just now feeling like we’re getting to the other side of everything.
The good thing is, I didn’t have to get chemo. I did do radiation. I did 20 rounds of radiation and when I found out my diagnosis it was about 3 days before my 48th birthday. I’ll be 51 next month, and I’ll also be a 3 year cancer survivor next month. I worked all throughout everything. I worked part-time during the radiation but I wish that I took a little more time. So when I had the hysterectomy I literally took the entire 3 months even though I didn’t need it. I did it for my own sanity. I took all the time for myself. I would say I’m at 80% [right now], which I don’t think is horrible. I’m getting there.
I did end up graduating from grad school at the end of 2021. I received a 4.0. I never would’ve imagined that I would get a 4.0. I think that [grad school] might’ve taken my mind off of thinking about cancer everyday because it was an accelerated program. You didn’t have time because you’re so busy with doing papers. I think it really helped.
It was a journey and it still is a journey. The journey’s never really over. You do things to try and stay healthy, keep mentally well, and I do that by [continuing] to do my groups and by continuing to be involved. I think it keeps me motivated. Even when you have those moments when you’re down, I just allow them to be moments [and] try not to allow them to linger on and on. When I got to my 40s I was like, “I’m not going to have pity parties for too long because it takes you into something else you don’t want to be in.”
I had some really great organizations that really helped me get through. I found out about Triple Negative [Breast Cancer Foundation] a little bit later [when I was] still getting radiation. It’s been such a wonderful organization. I actually have two organizations that are just very near and dear to my heart. Both CEO’s of the organizations know each other and I found out about Triple Negative through Unite For Her. I think it’s great that these organizations partner with each other because I learn so much from one organization about another organization.
When [TNBC Foundation] invited me to the gala, I got to see everybody. It was nice to be able to see some of the people I see and talk to all of the time in person. It was a good feeling. I walked through the door and everyone was like, “Tiffany!” They said it’s like I was a superstar. The other day I got a call from Kelly [asking me to hop on a zoom where they let me know that] they nominated me for the Courage Award. It’s an award that they give out every year and it’s not something to be taken lightly. They don’t just pick anybody for that award. They said, “It’s unanimous.”
I’m still involved in a lot of stuff despite what I may be going through. I still give back. I still donate. I still volunteer. I’ve been a volunteer since I was a teenager. It’s just always been in my blood to do that. For me personally, it’s just a good feeling. It’s motivating, it’s encouraging. It continues to give me hope even when I have those moments when I’m like “It’s the third year, I just want to make it to that fifth year [being cancer-free].”
I’ve been doing the support groups [one on Tuesdays, Metastatic Mondays, and Thriver Thursdays] for the past two and a half years. I think I’ve only missed two groups. [In the beginning] I didn’t think I needed it. My background was in mental health and you feel like “I have the tools that I need.” I had said to myself “Oh, I don’t think I need the support group” and, literally two seconds later, I was like, “You might need it and not know you need it.”
The thing about the support groups is that it’s a safe space, it’s not recorded. You can laugh, you can cry, you can curse, you can be mad, you can be angry. [When I joined] the support groups, none of us knew each other and now we have become this family. I do [the groups] every month and I love it. It’s my time away. Kelly, [host of TNBC Thriver chats], always comes on and always wants everybody to share a win first. Even if you don’t think you have a win… “I woke up this morning,” that’s a win.