In 2017, my life changed irrevocably when I was diagnosed with Stage IV Metastatic Breast Cancer (MBC). While I certainly haven’t done everything “right” in my experiences with cancer, one of the silver linings (and I’m all about silver linings) is that God has used this time to work on my heart. There is something very powerful about learning you may only have 2-3 years to live, that there is a 24% chance of living five (5) or more years as a terminal patient. And yet, God is with us in this experience and He is with us throughout the other experiences each of us face.

As I began my experience with cancer and dealing with all of the doctors and medical offices and insurance companies and all of the rest of the stressors that we forever patients face, I saw very clearly how my black husband viewed doctors. I have literally told most of my doctors in the first visit that they are my consultant, but I’m in charge, I make the decisions. I didn’t go to medical school, but I’m pretty good at reading and researching and learning. I’ve challenged every doctor I’ve seen with my own experiences and the research I’ve done. I’ve pushed each of them to answer questions that they really didn’t want to.

And every time I do that, my black husband cringes, he gently suggests that I dial the rhetoric down. He often jumps in to smooth over some of my rougher edges. Why? He has told me several times that he’s terrified that I will lose the doctors I have because they don’t want to deal with me. As a white woman, that literally never occurred to me. In my mind, if a professional isn’t willing to justify and back up their recommendations, then that’s not a professional I want to see, that’s not a professional I can trust. As a white woman, I’m confident that I can find another doctor to treat me.

That’s my white privilege. My husband reminds me regularly of that, too. When I was diagnosed with MBC and, after the initial period of terror and chaos and millions of surgeries and doctor’s appointments and chemo, I took a breath and then began to learn. I came across an article published by the NIH, which found:

“Recent studies showed that new cases of breast cancer are about the same for Black and White women. However, the incidence rate of breast cancer before age 45 is higher among Black women than White women, whereas between the ages of 60 and 84, breast cancer incidence rates are strikingly higher in White women than in Black women. Yet, Black women are more likely to die from breast cancer at every age.” For the full article, access it here.

As many of you likely have, I’ve been avidly watching the explosion of discussion around racial issues in our country. The increased dialogue and the willingness of so many to examine their own hearts, motivations, and unconscious bias has been truly revolutionary and I pray every day that it continues and that durable policy changes result from the movement. As a white woman married to a black man (my husband is Jamaican-American) with two mixed boys, it is refreshing to us that the conversations are happening so widely. As a white woman raised in the Midwest in a deeply white dominated area, I’ve learned a great deal since moving to Florida about different cultures and different ways of living; I’ve had to confront my own bias’ and that of my family head on as I do life with a black man and brown boys.

When talking about racism with other white people, and particularly people close to me, I often hear deeply held concerns about looking “racist” or behaving in a “racist” way. Most people who have good intentions are completely unaware of the implicit bias they or the system displays. I believe most have normalized behavior that on the surface doesn’t look like anything to be concerned about and because most white people rarely encounter racism towards them, it is not until overt racism occurs that most are willing to look at it. Hence, the outcry about George Floyd’s murder on video, despite the fact that similar behavior towards black people has been happening for generations without many consequences.

One note here about compassion and self-compassion – we don’t know what we don’t know. I grew up in a bubble where I didn’t rub elbows with anyone who didn’t look like me. When I started to meet people from other cultures and races, I wasn’t always open to learning. My husband is super patient with me, thank God, because I’ve mis-stepped so often, said stupid things, assumed rather than asked. At the same time, he knows my heart. He knows that I wouldn’t intentionally hurt someone else and has approached my learning opportunities from him from that perspective. As a result, I’ve been able to be compassionate with myself, to remind myself that I’m still learning, too.

As many of my white friends, I have often wondered why the socially acceptable ways of “correcting” the different experiences of white and black Americans don’t always work. I’ve seen this bewilderment in a lot of my mostly white circles. The idea that all of the same opportunities are available to everyone (i.e., The American Dream) hides the fact that we’re not all the same, we don’t have the same privileges, and many black and other people of color start out with so many more disadvantages that anyone consciously realizes.

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This meme resonates as it highlights the different between equality and fairness. I would like to take this one step further and talk about Justice, which I believe is a much more durable remedy than fairness. A movie which shows examples of the implicit bias in our justice system towards black people when it comes to the death penalty and is based on a true story, is Just Mercy.

The synopsis of the movie is as follows: “Just Mercy” is based on the powerful and thought-provoking true story of young lawyer Bryan Stevenson (Michael B Jordan) and his history-making battle for justice. After graduating from Harvard, Bryan had his pick of lucrative jobs. Instead, he heads to Alabama to defend those wrongly condemned or who were not afforded proper representation, with the support of local advocate Eva Ansley (Larson). One of his first, and most incendiary, cases is that of Walter McMillian (Jamie Foxx), who, in 1987, was sentenced to die for the notorious murder of an 18-year-old girl, despite a preponderance of evidence proving his innocence and the fact that the main testimony against him came from a criminal with a motive to lie. In the years that follow, Bryan becomes embroiled in a labyrinth of legal and political maneuverings, as well as overt and unabashed racism as he fights for Walter, and others like him, with the odds—and the system—stacked against them.” The main character in the movie, a lawyer who has just graduated from law school, strikes out on his own once he’s graduated because he wants to seek justice for people who have not received it. Having been to law school myself, I found that his idealism of wanting to help people and focus on equal justice under the law is what motivates most people to go to law school. In fact, the main character displays a lot of dismay at the system when he is bringing arguments based on justice, based on facts, and the system is not responsive. In fact, the system revealed itself to be incredibly biased towards the status quo, towards protecting those inside the system rather than those victimized by the system.

It was not until the white prosecutor, finally feeling the conviction in his own spirit at the wrongs that were made over and over towards a black man clearly wrongfully committed, actually joined the Motion to Dismiss the case filed by the defendant’s lawyer that the great wrong was corrected.

This, to me, is the perfect model of allyship. A person who has been oppressed may be able to speak up. A person who has been oppressed may succeed against all odds. A person who has been oppressed may show that the oppression wasn’t successful. These examples of success are held up as evidence that complaints are not valid; at the same time, these examples are unicorns and not representative of the experiences of people of color in the system overall. The system itself won’t change until the people within the system, the people who are benefitted by the system as it is, stand up and say, enough. The bottom line is that white people have to champion the changes to the system for the changes to be durable.

One other note to make about this concept of allyship, which is a necessary requirement for the system to change, has to do with faith and the church. We white people need to listen more than we talk about the experiences of people of color and the church can be a significant partner in those discussions. As the characters in the movie are influenced and supported by their church family, so does the church have a significant role in addressing disparities.

So, how do we, as white people, as allies, how do we stand up? My first request is that you explore the possibility of signing this pledge. This diversity pledge was created by the Tigerlily Foundation, which seeks to support and amplify men and women of color who have breast cancer—the idea is that we white people need to look around the room. We need to look around the room where we are and ask the question, is this room representative of my neighborhood? If it isn’t, if the room is just filled with white people, we white people need to be vocal in asking why. The pledge specifically directs those of us who might be asked to speak on a panel or provide advice based on our experiences to ensure that said panel or advisory group has black people participating. And then, stay tuned for Part II with more concrete examples of what to do next!

Written by Abigail Johnston

In 2017, at the ripe old age of 38, while living in Orlando, Florida, I was diagnosed with Stage IV Metastatic Breast Cancer after feeling a lump in my left breast while tandem nursing my boys, who are now 7 and 5. The summer of 2017 was a rollercoaster of emotions as I faced four (4) body and life changing surgeries amidst chemo and radiation. Once the whirlwind had settled a bit and I’d completed transitioning my clients and staff at my law firm to another law firm, my husband, two boys and I moved to Miami to live with my family. Looking back, I’m astonished at how much has changed, how much we have overcome as a family, and how everyone has adjusted. While I don’t actively practice law, I use my education and training in a variety of ways for the breast cancer community, advocating for patients and thrivers. I have started my own non-profit, Connect IV Legal Services, where I recruit lawyers to do pro bono work for Stage IV patients. I’m also active in many local and national organizations, volunteering and adding my voice to educate and persuade others to connect with and help my community. You can connect with me by checking out my blog, www.NoHalfMeasures.blog, or following me on Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, LinkedIn, or YouTube!