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Friends Don’t Let Friends Miss Mammograms

I put off having my first breast cancer screening for a year. When I finally put it on my calendar, inspired by Robin Roberts on "Good Morning America," it saved my life. Now a healing circle of my besties helps me beat the disease, one text, one phone call, one heart-to-heart, one hug and one appointment at a time.

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Photo from good morning america episode talking about breast cancer and woman getting mammogram
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I can still smell the freshly painted walls of the four-by-four-foot dressing room in my doctor’s office. I sat huddled in a corner one morning in December 2013, quietly crying with a mess of snot and tears strewn across my paper gown. Moments before, hunched on my oncologist’s exam table, I’d heard the sentence no one wants to hear: “You have cancer.” Little has been the same since.

Jasmine is not my real name. Revealing my true identity would mean that I, the granddaughter of a maid, a striver who hustled my way from the wrong side of the tracks to the bright lights of Manhattan where I’ve built a thriving consulting business, might lose clients. Some would, of course, be inspired by the fact that I’ve stared down cancer and triumphed. But others would pause before partnering with me on a months-long project — the bulk of my business.

Will the cancer strike again, and if so, when? That not knowing has permeated every part of my life.

As cancer battles go, I’m fortunate — I caught it early. In October 2013, on an episode of Good Morning America, Robin Roberts, a breast cancer survivor, encouraged her friend and fellow anchor Amy Robach to have her first mammogram live on the air. Amy, like me, was then just over 40 and had been putting off the screening. Seeing Amy, wrapped in a cute pink gown, step up to the machine, raise her arm, draw in a breath and then exhale as she completed the screening in less than five minutes, inspired me to schedule my own exam. I expected an uneventful checkup. How wrong I was.

Five weeks later, I found myself on the floor in a fetal position, choking on the smell of paint and rocking myself back and forth. The confirmed diagnosis: stage 1 malignancy in my left breast. I am thankful that it hadn’t spread to my lymph nodes, and I wouldn’t need chemo. I would, however, undergo a surgical lumpectomy that left me disfigured. And during seven weeks of radiation, the skin on my breast became so cracked and purplish-black that I hid beneath turtlenecks.

In spring 2014, after I finished radiation, I began taking Tamoxifen, a drug that may reduce the chance of cancer’s reoccurrence and that, oh by the way, might thrust me into early menopause. I’m still getting used to the night sweats. I’m also still reckoning with another blow: I cannot have biological children. At 40, I was already beginning to make peace with that possibility, but to be robbed of the potential is painful.

For nine years now, I’ve been cancer-free. Every six months I get checked. And right there with me — an encouraging text message, phone call or hug away — my army of sisters stands at my side, holding their collective breath, exhaling in unison upon hearing that my scans are once again clear. Though I only revealed my diagnosis to those closest to me, those women, and also some friends of friends who have taken this journey, became my second family. They gathered around me like a mighty, impenetrable fortress, showing up for radiation sessions and reminding me of just how many more sunrises I’d seen because I’d followed my instinct to get screened.

If you haven’t had a mammogram in a while, I want to be that encouraging friend to you. Whether out of fear, complacency, schedule overload or other reasons, many women delay their screenings and follow-up care. That reality takes its greatest toll on us sisters: Black women are diagnosed with more advanced cancers and have higher mortality rates than white women.

The old me, having heard this, would’ve put off things for another year, petrified at the possible outcome and already overwhelmed by a long to-do list. The new me, on this side of the fight, rearranges my life to get that screening. The truth hurts, but denial kills.

Thanks to early detection, I’ve experienced extraordinary moments I might’ve missed, like cradling my beloved niece, her little pink hat snugly circling her head, on the morning she took her first breath.

And yet alongside my deep gratitude lives a boogeyman I can’t shake: Will the cancer come back? The tiniest change in the texture, color or feel of my breasts is enough to send me, lower lids brimming, back to my oncologist’s office.

Then there’s the impact on my romantic life. While every single sister must decide when to tell a new love about, say, an ugly divorce, I now find myself calculating when to drop the c-bomb, praying it doesn’t become a deal breaker. That’s how this disease follows you. People pity you, but that compassion is often soon replaced by a desire, conscious or not, to slowly back away.

Once, a man I’d gone on four dates with seemed smitten, texting and calling frequently and sending a stunning arrangement of hydrangeas. On date five, while gripping the edge of my chair, I told him I’d once had cancer. I never heard from him again. Sure, he might’ve realized he was still in love with his ex. But the most likely reason he ghosted me: He couldn’t deal with the possibility that my cancer may return.

I’m now aware of time—how I spend it (carefully) and with whom (those who truly matter to me). My closest relationships have been strengthened by real talk in what I call the “no-BS zone,” that space where we figure out what we’ve been put on the planet to do and then get on with the business of doing it. I used to hesitate to say ‘I love you.’ Those three words have now become my conversational sign-off.

I also choose to experience my golden years not someday, but right now, as in booking a last-minute ticket to Cyprus or signing up to run a marathon in New Zealand. Though I’ve always been one to leap first and ask questions later, I’m taking even more chances and living my life in the present moment — the only one I have for certain.

*The author, an entrepreneur, has changed her name to protect her livelihood.