Anita Banks found herself repeatedly pressing her blouse against her chest as her daughter, Shakinnya Malissa Jones, braided her hair. Shakinnya peeped over her mother’s shoulder to understand what motivated her mom’s preoccupation with her dÃ©colletage.
Scabby sores with a gushy middle, which secreted some type of fluid, resided on her mother’s left breast. At that moment Shakinnya’s heart dropped. She knew that her mother’s breast cancer was serious. Anita Banks died at the age of 48 on April 26.
Anita made church her life. “Everything revolved around church,” Shakinnya, 20 said. “She always asked me, ‘Malissa, are you saved?'”
Anita was a strict mother but still joked with her three children. “Even though she whipped me,” Shakinnya laughed, “she was a great mom.”
Shakinnya, a junior elementary education student, found out near the end of her first semester at Florida A&M University that her mother had breast cancer. As she walked across campus one day she received a phone call from her cousin.
The call began as a regular conversation, but Shakinnya knew something was wrong.
“I have something to tell you,” her cousin said. “Remember when we were telling you moms was going to the doctor? Well, she has breast cancer.”
Shakinnya, at a lost for words, told her cousin she was OK but broke into tears once the call ended.
Nothing looked different about Shakinnya’s mother when she saw her during Christmas break that year. By that time, the news of the cancer had been “put back into the closet” and hardly discussed by her mom.
“She hid it a lot,” Shakinnya said. “She didn’t want anyone to worry about her.”
Shakinnya received information about her mother from her aunts, and in turn, she would tell her older brothers C.J., 25, and Corey, 22, about their mother’s condition.
“I felt like I was the oldest,” Shakinnya said about the responsibility of updating her brother on their mother’s condition.
By spring 2006, Shakinnya could visibly tell that her mother was really sick. When Shakinnya went home to Palm Beach for her grandfather’s appreciation anniversary, she noticed an obvious change in her mother’s appearance.
“She was so skinny,” she said. Her mother was wearing wigs due to the hair loss that resulted from her chemotherapy.
Anita could not accompany her family to church because of her frail condition. That was the first time she ever missed a church service; it was also the last time her daughter would see her alive.
Without stopping back home to see her mother, Shakinnya drove back to Tallahassee directly after the church service. Her cousin asked her if she wanted to see her mom “just in case something happened,” Shakinnya optimistically declined.
“No she’ll be all right. I’ll be back over the summer to look after her.”
“Are you sure?” her cousin asked.
“Yea I’m sure, I’ll be back.”
The last thing Shakinnya remembers her mother telling her was how nice she looked on her way to the church service. Anita passed away three days later.
“(Breast cancer) is so devastating and so massive, so unnecessary,” said Phyllis Reaves, assistant professor of physical therapy.
Cancer in general is caused by a malignant tumor that is developed from undifferentiated cells that are non-functional cells, Reaves said. These cells begin to rapidly reproduce.
Because the growth is so fast, said Reaves, the cells easily break away from the rapid cell growth mass and spread throughout the body, infiltrating other surrounding normal tissues and creating more tumor cells.
The cells’ membranes become altered and result in inflammation and necrosis, the deadening of tissue. The tumor cells begin to impede on the lymphatic channels and veins in the body begin to secrete an enzyme called collagens, which breaks down protein and causes further destruction to the surrounding tissue.
Reaves explained that the tumor cells travel throughout the body looking for more areas to create secondary tumors. “It is an evasive, deleterious process,” Reaves said.
Peggy Reinhardt, assistant community health nursing director at the Leon County Health Department Breast and Cervical Cancer Early Detection Program, said black women are often diagnosed so late in the process of checking for breast cancer.
“African Americans die from breast cancer more than any other race,” Reinhardt said.
The early detection program teaches women how to examine their breasts every month. Reinhardt said women who still have periods should examine their breast one a week after having their cycle because that is when hormones are at their lowest levels.
Post-menopausal women should pick a day to have a doctor examine their breasts and have them examined on the same day each year.
Mammograms are able to spot dark spots or abnormalities in women’s breasts. Reinhardt, along with the American Cancer Society, encourages women ages 40-49 to get a basic mammogram every two years. Women 50 years of age and older should have a mammogram every year.
But Reinhardt said, “Breast cancer doesn’t select. Younger women can get it too, but it is rare.” Abnormalities are hard to spot in young women’s breast because they are dense and sit up high on their chest, Reinhardt said, so mammograms may not pick up the existence of abnormalities.
Reinhardt said younger women should look at their family history and “learn their own breast.” Young ladies should examine their breasts in the mirror and look at them thoroughly, she added.
Reaves explains that although black women have fewer incidents of breast cancer, their death rate is greater. “A lot of women are not receiving information about mammograms.”
Six months have passed since Shakinnya’s mother died. “God is comforting me,” Shakinnya said. And now she thoroughly examines herself and rushes to the doctor if she detects something abnormal.
She still experiences instances where she wants to call her mother between classes, but has to force herself to realize her mother is no longer here.
Shakinnya said she gets through by listening to her mother’s favorite Christian radio station. She laughs, remembering when she used to ask her mother, “why do you listen to this white music.” But the music now gives her a sense of comfort and lets her know that “everything is alright.”