by Alexa Spencer, Word In Black
After breastfeeding all four of her children, finding out in 2020 that she had breast cancer was the biggest shock of 32-year-old Tulsa, Oklahoma resident Aisha Patterson’s life.
She’d now become a part of the 9% of American women diagnosed with the disease before age 45. And, as a Black woman, Patterson was among the estimated 12% who develop breast cancer at some point in their lives.
Patterson waited about six months to see a doctor after discovering lumps in her breast. At the time, she “genuinely did not think it could be cancer.”
“I was like, ‘this is an older woman’s disease. It couldn’t happen to me,’” she says.
When her doctor first read the test results, the diagnosis didn’t fully register in her mind. Her husband shook her shoulder, and that helped her realize what had happened.
That wouldn’t be the last time he and other loved ones stood in the gap for Patterson during her journey through chemotherapy and recovery.
In an interview with Word In Black, the “breast cancer conqueror” shared how healthy relationships helped her overcome the disease and how other survivors can advocate for themselves too.
WORD IN BLACK: How did you move forward after receiving the diagnosis? What were your next steps?
AISHA PATTERSON: I just started reaching out to my family and my friends, and letting them know what was going on.
I asked them to give me some space while I processed it, but you can’t really take a lot of space because things move very, very quickly when you’re diagnosed.
I met with my breast surgeon two days later, which was the hardest meeting I’ve ever had in my life. It was worse than even hearing I had cancer. I met with them, met with my oncologist, and we pretty much put a plan in place on what treatment was going to look like.
WIB: How did your family support you throughout your treatment and recovery process?
AP: I was extremely fortunate. My parents — they wrapped me up in love. From the moment I was diagnosed, they were by my side. They took care of me — and my siblings as well.
I did have some challenges with family members. And I think just a lot of the trauma that we were already facing through life began to show, and they couldn’t be there for me in ways that I needed — and that was OK. I had to make hard decisions and distance myself.
WIB: What did you do to advocate for your needs?
AP: Very early on in the process, I created a document called Aisha’s Code of Cancer, and it was a list of over 20 different things that addressed my boundaries, my needs, the things that I did not want them to do or say.
And it was things like, “please don’t call me. Text is easier.” Or telling my mom, “I cuss now. Sorry, that is what it is.” Or, “if you want to do my laundry, just do it. Don’t ask because I’m going to try to talk you out of it.”
So, small things like that really helped me to deal with them better. And I gave them all that document on Thanksgiving around a fire and I read it to them and said, “you know, I need you guys and here’s how you can help me the best. And I hope that at the end of this, that we can be stronger.” And I truly, truly believe that it did help and serve its purpose.
WIB: What advice would you give to someone who’s navigating breast cancer and seeks to advocate for themselves?
AP: People act real different when you get diagnosed with cancer, and so you really have to meet people where they are, but not really meet them. It’s like, understand and acknowledge where they are and then say, “OK, well, I still have to look at myself. So, you do you over here, and maybe we’ll get back to that eventually,” ‘cause it’s really a time to focus on yourself.
WIB: And what would you say to family members who are supporting a loved one who’s navigating a diagnosis?
AP: Ask them exactly what they need and deliver on that. But ask, and don’t ask them once. Continuously ask because the needs change through every single part of the journey.
I mean, my needs, from chemo to surgery to radiation, were so different. And then lastly, when they’re done with treatment, keep asking that question because, for most people that go through cancer, the hard part actually starts when they finish treatment.
WIB: What was life like for you post-treatment?
AP: When you’re going through treatment, it’s like this surreal experience, at least for me. It was this surreal experience of just adrenaline and survival mode. Like. straight-up survival mode. Emotionally, it was very, very hard. But when treatment actually ended, that’s when all the dust settled…all the emotions set. So then, I had time to really be like, “oh my gosh, I went through that.”
I started having bad anxiety and panic attacks, PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder). Going back to the cancer center was so incredibly hard. So, it’s just like you don’t have time to really sit with it — the magnitude of what’s happening — until it’s over.
WIB: I understand that you weren’t offered any mental health resources after you finished treatment. From your perspective, what should have happened?
AP: They would’ve sat me down and told me what I may experience, because, to me, it was all a shock. I was like, “oh my gosh, here I am done. I should be so happy.” When in reality, I was at the lowest place of my life.
So, they could have set better expectations. They could have given me really good resources, like cancer support groups. And tell me the options that were available, like therapy, medication, meeting with other survivors one-on-one, talking to a cancer specialist.
WIB: On your journey with cancer, relationships mattered. But not just with family or doctors. Your relationship with God was also important. How did that impact your healing?
AP: I would not be sitting here without my relationship with God. I wouldn’t be in my right mind.
I think the most profound thing is that when I got diagnosed, my relationship with God immediately changed. I went from this performative, “I have to be perfect, you can’t sin, go to church every Sunday,” to finding a relationship with a loving father. Somebody that just was like, “I am obsessed with you. I love you. I’m going to heal you, and I’m going to show you favor through this experience.”
And that’s it now. There’s no religion in my relationship with God. It is just “I love God,” and he loves me. I’ve committed my life to this work and whatever he puts in front of me.