Posts Tagged ‘breast cancer’

Surviving Breast Cancer: One Woman’s Story

Tuesday, October 16th, 2012

I first met and became aware of Kupenda Auset (born M. Joette Harland), as the super-talented writer she is, in the early 1990s. Kupenda is a native daughter and life-long resident of Atlanta, Georgia. At that time she was a recent graduate of Spelman College in Atlanta, the famous women’s college, and was among a large number of students from that era who were very gifted intellectually, artistically-inclined, community-centered, and, without question, unapologetically about the empowerment of women and girls. Indeed I can say that Kupenda had such a great impact on my life during those very wild 1990s that she was among the first who got me, a man, to think about manhood, about sexism, about how males relate to females (or not), in a very profound way. So you can imagine my shock and fear many years later when Kupenda announced that she had breast cancer. Ever the warrior, Kupenda has carried on and although we have not been in touch as much as we were in our earlier lives, she remains someone near and dear to my heart. Given that October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month, I asked Kupenda Auset if she would discuss what it is to have breast cancer, to be a breast cancer survivor, in her own words. She graciously agreed, and it is her first time ever speaking so publicly on the matter. If you’d like to send Kupenda a note after reading her very moving thoughts please feel free to email her directly at

KP: At what age did you learn you had breast cancer?

KA: Age 37

KP: What was your initial response to the diagnosis?

KA: I was terrified. I felt like I was doomed with a diagnosis that I could do nothing about. I was terrified of the possibility that I would die and leave my two school-age children without a mother. I didn’t want to die.

KP: How did your daughters, family members, and other loved ones respond to your telling them you had breast cancer?

KA: I don’t think my youngest daughter understood fully at first. My oldest daughter was scared. It felt like Doomsday. It’s not a diagnosis that anyone would want to hear.

KP: What steps did you take initially, emotionally, spiritually, and medically, to deal with breast cancer?

KA: First, I told a co-worker and then Stephanie Hughley, who is a cancer survivor. She told me about 3 important books and she made sure that I got them. One was “A Cancer Battle Plan” and another was “You Can Heal Your Life.” I also let my immediate family members know. After reading “You Can Heal Your Life,” I understood more the relationship between emotions and illness. I am not a person that tends to hold grudges but after reading that breast cancer is believed to be related emotionally to deeply held resentments, I made a list of everyone I could think of in the course of my whole life who I thought I needed to forgive.

Physically, I got a second opinion and then I chose doctors. I began to read everything I could to understand what was going on in my body. I did not want to do conventional treatment methods. So I educated myself as much as possible about all of my options on survival and research about conventional methods, alternative ones, and complimentary methods of treatment.

And I prayed. I didn’t ask “Why me?” but I did want to try to understand the meaning of the experience. I wanted to understand what the message was and what any deeper healing beyond the physical that needed to occur.

KP: Did you go through a period of shock, denial, fear, all of the above?

KA: Fear and shock, for sure. Not denial.

KP: What have you learned about breast cancer since your diagnosis?

KA: That question is so loaded that I could not possibly say it all here. So much!!! So much!!! I have learned that some cancers can be prevented. That food and lifestyle can factor in greatly to disease and to health. I knew those things but I know them so much more now. One of the most important things I learned is how precious life is. How much my family and living meant to me. I gained an incredibly deeper appreciation for everything. Like every morning I woke up or after taking a nap, I’d think “Yes! I woke up! Thank you, God!” I savor everything. I learned that many things we think are so important are nothing compared to things like health, love, peace, kindness, gratitude, and quality time with people we care about. I learned that one of the most important things in life is “to be happy,” but not while harming or at the expense of others. Otherwise, what is the point?

KP: How did you deal with the removal of a breast, with the mastectomy?

KA: The mastectomy was a scary idea at the time. But the chemotherapy is what scared me the most. The left breast, the one over my heart, or nearest my heart, is gone. That means I had radiation that could have affected my heart. One of the things I remember very vividly is that right before the surgery I was being so grateful for excellent caregivers. I was thanking all the people who were taking care of me every step of the way to surgery.

(Kupenda starts to cry)

I did not realize this was going to be so emotional. Feels like it was another life. Like a dream, then I woke up. When I was in recovery from the surgery, which lasted 6 hours, my family was there but my daughters were at school. My youngest daughter was so afraid she would be called aside at school and told I had died. (Kupenda cries again)

During the 6 hours I was there for my mastectomy a total of 18 different women had come to the hospital for the same surgery. Two were from my mother’s church. It is too common, so common. And it is largely preventable. So many people survive it, but so many do not. More emphasis needs to be placed, by the healthcare field, on the prevention of breast cancer.

KP: How old are you now, and how have you managed to continue on with your life and all your activities?

KA: I am now 45. It took me a long time to recover from breast cancer. It took time to regain my physical energy and functioning. It took me longer to recover emotionally and mentally. I didn’t know it would take me so long. I thought after treatment I’d just resume my life and the plans I had before the diagnosis pretty immediately. That didn’t happen at all. People who go through the experience of surviving cancer experience it in different ways.

KP: What kind of work or employment have you been able to do since your life was changed because of breast cancer?

KA: In retrospect some things that happened before breast cancer have taken a very very long time to move forward. Now I am perfectly capable of working a job but I feel like that breast cancer has led me to realize the work I have been most effective at is raising my two daughters. I do not qualify for any disabilities so I pay the bills very sporadically doing various projects, like writing, public relations, marketing, program coordination, and producing events. I am also a freelance blogger for, a local online publication. I also do consulting for a local organization that trains women small business owners. I have tabled House of Life for a few years. House of Life was my cultural arts presenting organization. It was tabled because I had to recover from my battle with breast cancer. I tried to do something after that and it was just too much for me.

KP: Are you or have you been a part of any circles of women who are also breast cancer survivors?

KA: Oddly, no. I did (and still do) have a strong support system of women friends in my life. That makes a tremendous difference in living.

KP: What advice do you give to women who do not have breast cancer?

KA: My advice is not to take health for granted when it is good. To focus on preventing breast cancer first and foremost. If women cannot be behind “the 8 ball” don’t. It’s much better to do everything possible to prevent it. To take great care in emotional health, balance, and especially in what they eat. And to not be afraid to go to the doctor to get anything unusual checked out. It might be nothing. But it might be something. If it is something, getting diagnosed early can make all the difference in the world. Learn how to live in more healthy ways (especially stress reduction and good eating, exercise, etc.) and teach our children and others, by example, a better way to live.

KP: What do you say to men who want to understand better what breast cancer is and how it affects women?

KA: I’d suggest that men educate themselves about breast cancer through independent research. One thing they may be surprised to find is that men can also get breast cancer, although it is far less common than in women. Also, if a man knows someone who has breast cancer and that person doesn’t mind talking about it, he could ask that person about it and find out what he can do to help support the woman who has it. Emotional support can go a long way and can help in the healing process.

KP: Have you been able to date, to relate to men, given all you’ve experienced?

KA: Some of the first things doctors ask is how old are you, do you have children, because chemotherapy puts women in premature menopause. So I was a little apprehensive about my dating life going forward. I talked to other women who had gone through it. It was helpful. But I have not had a problem with dating or my sex life. Besides, if it is not a significant man in my life there will be no sex anyhow. (Laughs) In many ways I am forever changed, and in many ways I am still me. Amputation did not remove that at all. For example, I had a non-sexual encounter with a man. He had had a terrible accident and parts of his body had been disfigured. So we had a moment when he showed me his injuries and I allowed him to touch where my breast had been. His disfigurement was a not a turn-off to me, because he was alive. When he touched me where my breast had been it was a moment of such joy and endearment. And understanding. Unlike somebody who had not experienced that kind of thing, who may have not have understood.

KP: What are your thoughts on how breast cancer treatment is done, traditionally, on alternative treatments, and how breast cancer awareness has become a very popular brand, to the point where major sports have their athletes wearing pink during games in October?

KA: I think it is important to use the best of “complimentary treatment” for breast cancer. At all times and not just when a person gets sick, it is important to do things that keep the immune system strong, such as rest, sleep, drink plenty of water, eat and drink lots of green food, get natural sunlight, take daily walks, take time for relaxation. These things may not sound like things that could help address or even prevent or survive breast cancer, but they are vital. A strong immune system can help a person to survive the harsh therapies of conventional breast cancer treatment. Alternative therapies can be effective but they are much harder to measure. They are not as well researched and documented in terms of their effectiveness. So relying solely on alternative treatments is a “slippery slope.” That is what someone once said to me, and it is true. I spent one year addressing breast cancer through very aggressive alternative and natural treatments that were based on lots of research and talking to people who had done the same thing. I do believe that it is possible to heal from breast cancer via alternative and natural therapies but the risk is great. I didn’t not trust how long it would take me to heal from breast cancer as compared to how quickly the cancer could spread. There is great risk in conventional therapies too. There is more knowledge about survival rates, effectiveness, diagnostic tools, etc., than alternative/natural therapies. That isn’t to say that alternative/natural therapies are hocus-pocus. I think the best thing that can be done to prevent, diagnose, eradicate, and survive breast cancer as an epidemic is for Western medicine and Eastern medicine to meet. There is so much ignorance and fear surrounding Eastern medicine and Naturopathy. That is a shame. Too many lives are being lost to all kinds of diseases because of economic profit and because of the lack of balance in our lifestyles. Some of the alternative treatments for me included Reiki Healing, sound therapy, and a Native American rock reading. And because I was so resistant to the idea of chemotherapy, I decided to perceive it as a healing elixir, rather than as a toxic implosion. I could say so much more. So much more… Especially about all of the natural things I did that were helpful to me. Sadly, sometimes people do the things I did both natural and/or conventional and they transitioned (died) any way. That saddens me greatly.

The Breast Cancer Awareness campaigns are beautiful expressions and ways to raise awareness. Many of them are also a marketing ploy to get consumers to buy products. For example, some foods that have the breast cancer awareness symbol on them are foods that have been linked to breast cancer. I am concerned that too much of the campaigning will de-sensitize people and they will lose their effectiveness. What I think we are missing is the crucial opportunity to support and know about campaigns that support breast cancer prevention and survival. If people can prevent having breast cancer in the first place, that is best. I would recommend that people support The Cancer Project ( and the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine (

KP: What is on your mind these days, being a breast cancer survivor?

KA: Being a survivor is something else. When you see famous people you grew up with, like Ed Bradley from “60 Minutes” or August Wilson, the great playwright, die from what you have, it is mind-blowing. Just makes me think a lot about the thin veil between life and life. I have life insurance but I do not have a will. I should have more life insurance than I have, and I should have a will. But I cannot bear to think of me not being here. I want to live for a long, long time, and with a good quality of life. And I intend to. And I pray that I will. And I am so thankful I did not pass away when my children were young. My youngest daughter use to always ask “Mommy, if you die, who is going to take care of me?” (Kupenda cries softly) I am so glad I have been able to raise my daughters. I feel if I were not here tomorrow they have such a strong foundation that they will be okay now.

Kevin Powell is a long-time community and political activist, a nationally acclaimed public speaker, and an award-winning writer. Kevin is also the author or editor of 11 books, including his newest title, “Barack Obama, Ronald Reagan, and The Ghost of Dr. King: Blogs and Essays.” Visit Kevin’s website at, email him at, or follow him on Twitter, @kevin_powell