By Debra J. Stone
Reona Berry is a petite, quiet-spoken woman. She is a 22-year breast cancer survivor and one of the founding members, past president, as well as the executive director of the African American Breast Cancer Alliance, Inc. (AABCA).
AABCA is a nonprofit organization whose mission is to educate and provide an emotional and social support system for African American women and men diagnosed with breast cancer and their supporters, assisting them in their breast cancer journey.
During an interview with the MSR, Berry’s (RB) compelling personal story revealed how she became one of Minnesota’s strongest advocates for African American women, men and families in education and support for the fight against breast cancer.
MSR: Tell us about your experience with breast cancer.
RB: Well, on July 7, 1989, I noticed a dark shaded “rash” about two inches around my right armpit and upper part of my right breast. The skin appeared slightly wilted. I assumed it was a skin reaction to my deodorant and the heat or maybe a bruise. At the time, I didn’t think it was serious enough to have it checked by a doctor.
During the following months I noticed the “rash” was still spreading, like a water stain on wood furniture. It didn’t hurt or itch, but it seemed strange. The wilted skin appearance was still there, but I’ve had eczema so I thought nothing of it. However, if it didn’t change for the better, I knew I needed to make an appointment to have it checked.
Another night and I couldn’t sleep. The painful lump annoyed me too much. I checked my breasts. The right breast felt hot, so I searched my health books. It said, “A malignant growth emits more heat than the surrounding tissue.” I lay in bed trying to decide if this hot, painful lump could be breast cancer.
I called my health clinic and scheduled a mammogram. I later received a call for an appointment on Wednesday, January 31, 1989, to see a surgeon so he could check me further. I went to this appointment with a tight feeling in my stomach.
The doctor tells me he has scheduled a biopsy for Monday, February 5. I leave the office dazed and head for the nearest telephone to call my office supervisor. “I won’t be at work [today].” My mind was racing with this crashing news as I rode the bus home. I felt like a zombie with nowhere to go.
[During surgery] I have the lumpectomy. As I come out of recovery, the nurse tells me the lump was positive. Even though I’m groggy, I know what she means. She’s so sorry and says I’m taking it well. Well, what else was I suppose to do?
I must admit though, I felt better knowing the horrible mystery was over. My parents and sisters were with me throughout this ordeal. I saw the fear and love in their faces, hoping for the best for me.
By May I’m bald from the chemotherapy, except for this “Friar Tuck” ring of hair I kept because it helped to keep my wig on. “Come on Reona, it’s gone,” I remember saying and snipped off the fuzzy crown. I laughed. My bald head looked like a brown egg.
But I had mixed feelings. Part of me sadly missed my hair. I knew it would grow back, but dammit…it was for sure the easiest hairstyle I’ve ever had.
By October 1990, I had new fuzzy hair and a new goal: I joined with other African American women to plan strategies to establish the African American Breast Cancer Alliance, AABCA. We wanted to help bring Black women together and let others know we had been ignored in our breast cancer struggle. We wanted to educate the African American community about breast cancer and provide support to women and families.
Through collaborations with YWCA and the American Cancer Society, I learned more about breast cancer. I joined the National Black Leadership Initiative on Cancer and made presentations whenever asked. AABCA created our first brochure, Being There!, and it was a critical success.
Sometimes from a negative event come many positive, rewarding and ongoing life episodes. As one friend has said, “We are a phoenix, rising out of the ashes!” Oh yes!”
MSR: Reona, what final message would you like to tell us about your breast cancer experience?
RB: Don’t ignore any strange changes in or on your breasts. Go to your clinic immediately to have changes in your breasts checked. Take care of your breasts and your health. You deserve it.
Debra Stone is a member of AABCA. For more information contact them at 612-825-3675 or go to www.aabcainc.org.