According to the Center for Disease Control, breast cancer is the second leading cause of mortality among women in America. While breast cancer deaths are declining among white women, black women are more likely than all other women to die from the disease.
Often our cancers are faster growing and harder to treat, and statistics show that we are less likely to get prompt, quality follow-up care when our mammogram results show irregularities. Add to that the normal fear of disease and our tendencies to keep things quiet and soldier on, and serious situations become even more dire.
That is why it is important for women to share their stories about breast cancer. They help us gain strength to take action. Actress Angelina Jolie’s New York Times op-ed regarding her decision to undergo a double mastectomy in light of her genetic predisposition to breast cancer opened the door for more dialogue about this illness.
Vanessa Bell Calloway opens up about her battle
Actress Vanessa Bell Calloway recently followed suit with her article on The Daily Beast detailing her battle against breast cancer.
The versatile stage, screen, and television actress has a range of work that has taken her from being one of the original Broadway cast members of Dreamgirls, to roles in What’s Love Got to Do with It, Coming to America, Lakeview Terrace, and Showtime’s current hit Shameless.
Now following in Jolie’s footsteps by continuing to tell her survivor story, Calloway is broadening her public presence to include breast cancer awareness advocacy. Calloway spoke to theGrio about her decision to share her experiences with the disease, her upcoming projects, and having a mastectomy and breast reconstruction in the course of her treatment.
Calloway’s journey through illness, and back to health
Calloway has always been a stickler for good health. As a former dancer, she exercised and followed a healthy diet. She was also diligent about her annual mammograms and pap smears, and was doing all of the right things. Yet, about four years ago, she knew something in her body was off. She just felt it.
“I thought they were going to tell me that I had some incurable blood disease – I’m very dramatic! I had missed my mammogram because the place I usually went to closed,” the actress told theGrio. “I had to find a new place, but life happened, and I got busy.
“However, breast cancer — that was the last thing on my mind because since the age of 40, my mammograms came back clear.” Still, Calloway just didn’t feel she was in full health.
“I went to the doctor and had him do everything, blood work and all kinds of tests. He asked if I had pain. I didn’t. He finally asked about my mammogram, and then sent me to get one immediately.” They called her back because they saw calcifications in her right breast, and a biopsy was scheduled.
Finding comfort during uncertainty through art
The actress went back to work, but waiting a week for the results was an extreme stressor. Yet, Calloway, who was in a theater performance at the time, was able to find comfort in a unique source — the gospel hymn her fellow actor performed each night, “His Eye is on the Sparrow. ”
“If God is watching a little sparrow, surely he’s watching me,” Calloway said. “That song soothed me and got me through that period.”
It was determined that the actress needed a lumpectomy, which was performed, but the doctor called her back because he wasn’t happy with the success margins of the results and wanted to do another one.
“I was fine with that because I didn’t think anything was wrong. I just thought, ‘let’s knock this puppy out the park!’ At this point I had told no one but my husband; not my kids, not my parents, because I just thought it would be a one-two punch,” Calloway continued.
“And I am planner. I plan everything in life; everything has a schedule, so once it was determined that I wasn’t going to die, I made a schedule. I thought, I’ll have this lumpectomy, then I’ll have radiology twice a day for five days, and be done before one of my daughter’s birthdays in September, and no one would know the difference. So when he asked me to come back that Monday, I wasn’t thinking a thing.”
Dealing with the difficult news: A mastectomy
The actress went back for her second lumpectomy on a Monday and was scheduled for radiation treatments that Wednesday. “So I decided I’d get my hair done beforehand. No sense in looking crazy!” Calloway took things in stride.
Her phone rang while she was at the salon, and she moved to a quiet corner off the main area to take the call in private, but the reception was terrible. That is when she got the difficult news.
“All I can hear is static and the word ‘mastectomy,’” Calloway recalled about the aftermath of the second lumpectomy. “The radiologist is trying to tell me that the margins came back unclear, and I wouldn’t be able to start my treatment that week. Here I thought he was calling to tell me to come in for treatment that afternoon.”
At the age of 52, Calloway was diagnosed with ductal carcinoma in situ (DCIS), the presence of abnormal cells inside a milk duct in her right breast.
Her hairdresser comforted her when she learned her diagnosis until friends picked her up and brought her home.
Benefits of early breast cancer detection
Fortunately, DCIS is considered the earliest form of breast cancer; it is noninvasive, meaning it hasn’t spread to other parts of the breast. While Calloway had so hoped that the lumpectomies would let her keep her breast, that was not the case. She had to plan a full right breast mastectomy.
Once she finally got home from the salon, the actress was a wreck. “I was hurt, I was mad; I wanted to break something. I like my house, so I didn’t want to destroy it,” she can now laugh, “but I was so angry I wanted to shatter everything, like in the movies. I pounded on my floors instead.
“What snapped me out of it was my sister,” the multi-talented thespian continued. “She looked me in the eye and said, ‘Vanessa, it’s a bad breast. Let it go.’ And my husband, who doesn’t’ cry, had tears in his eyes and said, ‘I love you. We have our daughters’ graduations and future weddings to attend, I need you here, I don’t care about that breast!'”
Getting ready for reconstructive surgery
So Calloway pulled herself together. “The voice inside of me said, ‘Get it together woman, are you crazy?!’ And then I didn’t cry about it another moment. We had a family meeting and broke the news.”
Calloway was interested in getting reconstructive surgery. Her husband, Dr. Anthony Calloway, an anesthesiologist, helped her find a plastic surgeon to perform lap flap breast reconstruction, in which skin from the soft tissue of one’s waistline is used to make a breast.
“I took lemons and made lemonade!” Calloway said, whose sense of humor is surely one of the factors that got her through this ordeal. “The surgeon took fat from the ‘muffin top’ I got from having my two kids, and used that to re-build my breast. And while he was there, did some contouring around my waist! A new boob and lipo!” she laughed.
Calloway feels fortunate, because, through this procedure, she never had to experience her body without her breast.
Learning patience, faith and strength
Calloway’s surgery was successful. For the past four years she feels blessed to have remained cancer free.
“It was wonderful,” she can now say of the experience. Calloway values such challenges because through them, “we are forced to reflect on things — for me it was patience and faith, the faith to know that God is going to work everything out, and the patience to let him do it. We have to remind ourselves of that.”
During her ordeal, Calloway found out just how strong she really is. “After my initial cry and my little pity party, I tried to encourage and inspire myself through laughter. I refused to look at the bad side. I really found the upside. I felt blessed, because I see how many women die. I was just a few months off on my mammogram. How blessed am I?”