Charity Bryan Shows a Side of Breast Cancer We Don't Often See, But Should
Editor’s note: This post contains graphic pre-and-post-op photos.
The moment you meet Charity Bryan, you immediately notice her genuine smile and uncanny sense of humor. You would never guess that just three years earlier, the same smile and sense of humor would help her through a difficult battle with breast cancer.
Bryan wouldn’t consider her breast cancer journey a traditional one. “I found a lump at the age of 26,” she told The Mighty, “but was uninsured. I went to a clinic, but was told I was too young for breast cancer, and with no family history, I should just ‘keep an eye on it.'”
Fast forward to eight months later, Memorial Day 2013, when “keeping an eye on it” suddenly turned into constant shooting pain in her breast and an inverted nipple. Even though she was still uninsured, once she noticed her breast leaking a blood-tinged fluid, she had no choice but to go to the hospital.
She would soon start sharing her breast cancer journey on her blog, Please, Keep the Pink! (The name comes from Bryan’s strong dislike of the color pink). She created it not only to be a voice for 20-something women of color, but to also share the honest day-to-day struggles and fears of her particular cancer.
Her first post reads:
I worked full time, and our generous benefits package offered medical coverage at the low cost of $399 a month. I couldn’t afford that, not if I wanted to live somewhere that didn’t have a sign reading ‘Park closed after dark.’ Part of it was fear, too. What if this was cancer? What if I’m sick? Would I die? How can I afford to pay for doctor visits? All of these were questions I asked myself over and over until one day I was basically forced to get checked.
After being admitted and going through a myriad of tests, Bryan was diagnosed with stage 3c inflammatory breast cancer on May 30, 2013. She had a tumor in her right breast and right axillary lymph nodes. She was also only 27 years old.
Bryan recounts hearing those dreaded words on her blog:
‘You have breast cancer.’ There it was, like a shot to my heart. 27, no family history, and I had fucking cancer! No matter how much I prepared for that moment it hurt like hell.
The doctors, fearing she wouldn’t be able to get treatment if she was discharged, kept her in the hospital for 10 days. She began chemo only a few days after being diagnosed.
She recounted her first chemo session:
Over 10 hours of this damn chemo session. (Luckily, the rest of my chemo hasn’t been 10 hours per session, only about 5.5 hours each time). During this time, I experienced nausea, cold sweats, orange pee (the red devil has to come out somewhere) and exhaustion. After 10 hours, anyone would be tired.
Then came the side effects of the chemo, and the head shaving, which she recalled in a post appropriately titled, “Sinead O’Conner ain’t got shit on me!” Her hair had always been “fucking fantastic,” but once it started to fall out, she finally realized she had to cut it.
One Saturday morning before going to brunch I thought it was as good a time as any to try a new hairstyle. If it didn’t work I would have to shave it anyways, so why the hell not. I went to the kitchen and grabbed a pair of kitchen shears that had a broken handle and chopped my hair off. Feel free to call me ‘Edwina Scissorhands.’
As hair continued to fall out, she finally decided to shave her head. With her best friend cutting away the curls, it happened. And it was liberating.
I got up from the chair and went to the bathroom to check out the finished product. I loved it! I felt beautiful. My head didn’t look like lumpy mashed potatoes. I took some more pictures and put some on my Facebook page with the title “Kicking breast cancer’s ass”. That’s what I was doing, kicking its ass. Shaving my head may not have been doing anything to the cancer directly but it was still a part of this long and vicious battle and a huge milestone in my journey.
Overall, Bryan had eight rounds of chemotherapy (AC-T regimen). She documented her sessions, sharing moments like lying in the hospital bed:
Getting her port removed:
And “just trying to be safe” while waiting for the bus:
She documented how she was feeling:
Lying in bed with a fever of 101.2 and freezing. The last time I had chemo I ended up in the hospital for three days and I really hope this isn’t the same outcome. I want to kick and scream and cry, but ultimately, I just want to feel better. I can’t afford to miss more work but I also cant risk my health. Cancer, I hate you!
As well as getting diagnosed with the BRCA2 gene mutation, which increases a female’s risk of getting breast and ovarian cancer. “Getting that diagnosis was a punch in the gut, but I knew I had to make the best decision for me by having a bilateral salpingo-oophorectomy (surgery to remove both ovaries and fallopian tubes) in 2015, at age 28,” she said. “This surgery launched me into medical menopause. Since my breast cancer was hormone receptor positive, I am on an aromatase inhibitor for the next 10 years.”
After all the bad news she had been receiving, the good news was that Bryan was eventually able to document her last day of chemo:
I did it! I completed 8 rounds of chemotherapy on 10/24/13. *happy dance, happy dance* I couldn’t stop smiling. And then came the tears. I hugged my nurse and sobbed into her shoulder. I just couldn’t believe I was done. For the last 4 ½ months I have spent many days sick, tired, and barely able to get out of bed… I have also spent many days laughing, loving and still living my life. But, some days I wasn’t sure if I would get through all of my treatments.
She even took advantage of her bald head that Halloween:
Then came the impending bilateral non-skin sparing mastectomy with right axillary lymph node dissection. She and her mom held a “boob funeral” to say goodbye.
And the night before surgery she shared her thoughts:
This is the biggest event of my entire life. After 19 years of having breasts, they will be removed tomorrow. No more motorboats, no more shoulder indentations from the straps of my bras digging into the skin, no more cleavage up to my neck, no more men ogling them like nursing infants, no more back pain; no more. It is a bittersweet moment.
Bryan then bravely shared her post-surgery photos to show the reality of what had happened.
Five days after surgery:
Wearing a surgical stuffed bra:
Four weeks post-surgery:
She then documented her radiation tattoos and first round of radiation on January 6, 2014.
And the blisters and burns received after 30 rounds of radiation therapy.
In a post titled 525,600 minutes, a la the musical “Rent,” she recalled the last year of her life:
In chemos, in hair loss, in radiation, in countless pills, in surgeries, in tear-soaked pillows and sleepless nights — that is how I measured the last year. One year ago today was the worst day of my life, I was diagnosed with cancer. I can still remember how it felt when those words fell upon my ears and also how it felt to fall onto my knees in complete devastation as I called my mom to tell her the news. It is still very surreal most times. I wake up some days thinking it was all a bad dream, and then I look down at my chest. A chest that no longer bears my breasts, but long scars that are a constant reminder of my battle. (One that is still ongoing.)
Even today, the scars still linger, but instead of every day feeling like a bad dream, every day feels more like it should, Bryan said, it feels good.
Now 31, Bryan has no evidence of disease. The Washington D.C. resident has a great job at the psychiatry department of a university and when she’s not working, she can be found watching scary movies (especially the corny ones), traveling as much as her bank account allows, going to baseball games with friends and writing and performing stand-up under the stage name Charity Sadé.
Although there was no point in time when Bryan told herself she wanted to be a comedian, it was always on her bucket list. So, one night she tried it, and then she was hooked.
“I have always used my sense of humor to get me through difficult situations in my life, and cancer was no exception,” she says. “When people hear the word ‘cancer’, they don’t typically burst out laughing. So, I decided to take to the stage and put a humorous twist to it.”
In her routine, she touches on topics that some may feel uncomfortable talking about, like sex, body image and what it is like dating after cancer. The cancer aspect takes it to a whole other level.
You can find the self-proclaimed “Kicker of Breast Cancer’s Ass” performing shows around the DC area. She recently became the co-host of “Black Card Declined: A Comedy Game Show,” where comedians have to answer trivia questions related to African American culture.
“Breast cancer isn’t your grandmother’s disease anymore, and it is time that we (society, medical professionals) stop treating it as though it is,” she said, adding:
I also think it is important to have a voice out there for women of color. So many of us are getting diagnosed at late stages because of lack of insurance, lack of resources, stigma, accessibility, or a combination of the above. I hope that my story can be a lesson to others of what not to do.
There’s one other thing she wants.
“I also hope to be Beyoncé, but I guess I can’t have it all,” she added.
We want to hear your story. Become a Mighty contributor here.
All photos courtesy of Charity Bryan