Survivor says there’s hope for women with breast cancer

By Shirley Hawkins

Contributing Writer

LOS ANGELES — October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month and one of the women sharing their stories this month to offer hope and inspiration to other women is Pastor Rhonda Holbert of the Celebrate Life Cancer Ministry.

The date Sept. 11, 2001 will always be remembered by most people who were alive that day. To Holbert, the day means something else. It was the day she was diagnose with breast cancer.

“I found out I had inflammatory breast cancer,” she said. “My right breast was red and hot and no matter what I did it would not cool off. I thought I was gaining weight or that my bra was too tight.

“When I finally went to the doctor, he said, ‘Let’s do a needle aspiration,’ which is sticking a needle into the breast to see if any fluid would come out. The fluid came out and the doctor sent it to pathology.

“When I left his office that day, he said, ‘I’ll see you in three weeks.’ But his nurse texted me three days later and said that the doctor wanted to see me immediately on Monday morning.

Holbert said she was unafraid of what the future might bring.

“I had the whole weekend to talk to God to see what he wanted,” she said. “I talked to God and he immediately gave me peace. He told me that no matter what the doctor said, I was going to be all right. When I returned to the hospital on Monday, the doctor announced, ‘I have good news and bad news. The good news is that I’m glad you took the test. The bad news is that you have cancer.”

He asked me if I wanted to undergo chemotherapy and I asked him how much time do I have before I have to make that decision. He said, ‘Two weeks.’”

“I had to tell my mother about the breast cancer diagnosis which was the hardest thing I ever had to do in my life,” Holbert said.

“When I returned to the hospital, the doctor said that I was handling the diagnosis a little too well. But I told him that I had already talked to God. I realized that there was nothing to it but to do it. I told the doctor, ‘Let’s lock and load.’

“I underwent a lumpectomy, six rounds of chemotherapy, a mastectomy, four more rounds of chemotherapy and 25 days of radiation. It took a year and 15 days to finish all of the treatments.

“After it was all done in 2002, I knew it was time to throw a party. I included women who had or were undergoing cancer treatments, no matter what type.”

Aware that many women with cancer have to undergo chemotherapy and lose their hair, Holbert’s theme of the party was “Let your hair down or take it off.”

“During the party, three people said we need to do this more often. That’s what made me launch the Celebrate Life Cancer Ministry to help other women who are coping with cancer,” Holbert said.

“We will be celebrating 20 years of service this year on Dec. 3 and the celebration will be held on Zoom.”

Holbert said that her cancer diagnosis has greatly impacted her life.

“It taught me that every moment is precious,” she said. I rolled with the punches and so did my friends and family. I did not allow anyone to cry for me because I knew I wasn’t going to die.”

“I prayed every day. I had a song that I would play by Ruth Davis called ‘Somebody Pray for Me,’” she said.

“My advice to women who are facing breast cancer is, Don’t keep your diagnosis to yourself. You don’t have to go through this [treatment] alone.”

She added that the women undergoing cancer treatments should share their diagnosis information with other women in their family.

“The cancer could be hereditary so they should get checked out by the doctor,” she added.

Another cancer survivor is Cherish Dunn, a clerk-typist for the city of Long Beach, who was diagnosed with breast cancer in February 2021.

“I felt a lump on my left breast in December 2019,” she said. “At first my doctor dismissed it as a cluster of cysts. I was 37 then. I just went with his diagnosis. But I told my mom that it felt like the lump was getting bigger.

“The doctor said we should perform an ultrasound but by that time it was March and COVID had started. Everything was on lockdown so the ultrasound got delayed,” she added.

“I got the ultrasound a year later … and then I underwent a biopsy. It came back positive for cancer.

“After my tests came back positive I saw a surgical oncologist. My primary care physician said that I needed a mastectomy, which was done in May 2021,” Dunn continued.

“Going to chemotherapy and having surgery makes you re-evaluate yourself,” she said. “After surgery, you are left with this scar and it is a permanent reminder of what you have gone through.

“Society puts a lot of pressure on a woman’s physical beauty. As Black women, we like and embrace our hair. When you see it coming out, it can be a traumatic experience.

“Physically, I feel OK,” she added, “but I still have a limited range of motion on the left side of my body.”

Her advice to other women is, “Don’t let your fear overtake your thoughts in your daily life. Stay positive and know that you will get through treatment. It will have downsides, but there are more positive than negative benefits to it.”

Anita Coleman, 63, a former administrative assistant at the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, found out she had an aggressive form of breast cancer in 2001.

“When I found out how aggressive it was, I knew that I was in the battle of my life,” said Coleman, who received treatment at Cedars Sinai Medical Center.

“Of the 16 lymph nodes the doctors took out of my body, 14 of them were cancerous. Of the 18 side effects, I had 10 of them. I underwent chemo and radiation and I was considered a high-risk patient.”

Coleman said she has experienced side effects after taking the recommended drugs.

“The medical environment and the medicine are not geared toward African Americans because we don’t participate in clinical trials due to all the medical experimentations like the Tuskegee experiment. If people of color don’t do the clinical trials, how will the doctors know what is happening with our bodies? When I pass away, I am making sure that my body will go to medical research,” she said.

“I want to live as long as I can and stay independent. I don’t know what God has planned for me but I want to live to be 90 or 100,” she said.

Holbert and her organization will hold A Caravan of Hope mini-parade celebration for cancer survivors on Oct. 22.

“It starts at 1:30 p.m. at Crenshaw Boulevard and Imperial Highway,” she said. “People will decorate their car and honk their horns to celebrate all of the cancer survivors and the caregivers who will wave pink and purple flags. After the parade, we will have a 109th Street and Spinning. We will have a drumline and other activities planned for the attendees who arrive.

“We have also launched Shepherd’s Manor, a site specifically for cancer survivors and caregivers where they can just have a place to rest and breathe.”

Holbert said the Celebrate Life Cancer Ministry helps to inspire, support and empower women who are undergoing cancer treatment.

“We are a support group that meets on the first Saturday of every month,” she said.

Asked how she feels today, Holbert said, “I feel wonderful now. The joy comes with serving cancer survivors and their caregivers on a daily basis. We help people get screened by going to treatment with people. We have telephone buddies who provide the women with the knowledge of how to talk to their doctors. We also have hospice support.”

The Celebrate Life Cancer Ministry can be reached at Celebrate Life Or call (424) 258-5433.