CHRISTIANSBURG, Va. – Breast cancer is the second most common cancer among American women, but Black women are more likely to get an aggressive form of breast cancer and face death.
Debbie Sherman-Lee, a former teacher at Christiansburg High School, stands tall today smiling and laughing. But five years ago, an annual mammogram visit took a shocking turn.
“She had taken some X-rays and everything and she said, ‘I have some bad news,’” Sherman-Lee explained.
The doctor found a deep suspicious lump in the 3D screening, and it turned out to be cancerous.
“I did the monthly checks and everything, but I couldn’t feel it,” she said.
After undergoing surgery and six weeks of radiation, she walked out as a breast cancer survivor.
“I felt very blessed because not everyone can say that,” she said.
According to the American Cancer Society, Black women are 40% more likely to die of breast cancer than white women.
Dr. Alyssa Watkins, a general obstetrician-gynecologist for Carilion Clinic, said oppression and deep generational medical mistrust impact women of color more.
“I feel they are a lot more trusting of me because I am a person of color, so they feel comfortable that I will listen to them and I will steer them in the right direction,” she said.
The T.G. Howard Community Center is honoring women this Breast Cancer Awareness Month, including Sherman-Lee, for overcoming their battles in their Tinkled Pink campaign.
On Sunday, a customized gift basket draped in pink was handed to each one as a token of gratitude.
“My heart is full,” Sherman-Lee said.
Tamia Dallas was a student of Sherman-Lee in high school and honored her with handcrafted jewelry.
“All of the stress—the mental and the emotional—and for her to just put that on the back burner,” Dallas said. “Just whenever you see her, you just never knew about it. It made me appreciate her that much more.”
Catching cancer early was critical for Sherman-Lee’s life. So, she has one piece of advice for all women.
“Always make sure you do your mammograms. Every year. Don’t skip. Don’t put it off. Do it.”
Dr. Watkins encourages women to schedule mammograms once a year starting at the age of 40 and to take time every month to give themselves a breast examination.
If a woman feels an abnormal lump or anything else of concern, they should contact a doctor.