Green & Gold To Crimson & Pink-A Delta's Story
In the mid-1990's, after graduating from Atlanta's legendary Benjamin E. Mays High School, Shaquita Lewis embarked upon higher education at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. Growing up watching groundbreaking television sitcoms like, "The Cosby Show" and "A Different World", a show about the growing pains of students at a fictitious Historically Black College, college was a logical choice for young blacks at the time like Shaquita Lewis. While at UAB, the now Mrs. Shaquita Estes majored in Nursing and excelled in a number of extracurricular activities, most notably being initiated into the Iota Lambda Chapter of the Delta Sigma Theta Sorority Inc..
After graduating from UAB, Mrs. Estes began her professional career as a pediatric nurse working at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta. She then went into pediatric home health and became supervisor of infusion program, and private practice, now in pediatric dermatology. "As a Pediatric Nurse Practitioner, I provide top- notch healthcare to all my patients and their families. I strive to give them all the tender love and care they require. It’s a blessing to know that parents trust my knowledge and expertise when dealing with their little ones. Some days this can be challenging, but I know that God allows me to make a difference in their lives. It warms my heart because I was called to this profession for my nurturing spirit, caring heart, and my love for children." she says.
Shortly after college, Shaquita then married her husband. From there, the two having become one struck to begin a normal and traditional life together. They gave birth to their first child then second. Her marriage was beautiful as well as her children prospering in their growth and development while her and husband's careers were very fruitful. Then the heavy hand of despair struck and hit Shaquita in the chest - literally. On September 12, 2018 Shaquita was was diagnosed with breast cancer, Invasive Ductal Carcinoma - Triple Negative. " I was sitting on cloud 9! I was working as a Pediatric Nurse Practitioner, health and wellness coach, and an entrepreneur. I gained a lot of success from my first business, was able to mentor others, and form an amazing sisterhood with women from all across the country!", she explains. This was just the beginning a long and narrow, but rewarding road.
Triple Negative Breast Cancer (TNBC) is the most aggressive forms of breast cancer. It accounts for around 15% of all breast cancers that we see in the United States and in Europe. Its characteristics include: oftentimes more difficult to detect on routine mammograms, tends to cause larger tumors compared to non-TNBC, and is more likely spread to other organs, such as the lungs and the brain, compared to non-TNBC cases. Breast Cancer, like so many other illnesses has wreaked havoc in the black community. This can be seen in the health disparities.
The mortality rate for breast cancer are about 40% higher among Black women when compared to White women. Black women are more likely to be diagnosed with a more advanced-stage breast cancer compared to White women. Black women are also more likely to be diagnosed with breast cancer at younger ages in comparison to White women. About 30% of all newly diagnosed Black breast cancer patients are younger than 50 years old, compared to only 20% of White patients according to recent medical statistical research. The tumors of Black women patients are also more likely to be larger and to have spread to the underarm lymph nodes at the time of diagnosis. Black women have the highest breast cancer death rates of all racial and ethnic groups.
Shaquita's world had been turned upside down. She had the ideal life consisting education, her dream job, the ideal husband and family, all nestled away into the sanctuary of suburban Atlanta. And then suddenly, all of it was in jeopardy of coming to an abrupt end, cemented by the end of life. Everything that she had worked so hard to obtain, by playing fair was about to come to a crashing end. She bombarded her mind with questions such as, "why me Lord?" and "Why is this happening to my family? And most of all, "What did I do to deserve this?"
Personal guilt, fear, anger, and shame are natural reactions when faced with what seems, imminent death. "I felt as though I had been given a death sentence.", she recollects. Throughout her life, she had never been one to sit complacent and take life as it came. She chose to take charge of the situation. "After several weeks of feeling sorry for myself, I realized that this was going to be a blessing for others; my testimony would allow others to be inspired and take on life challenges with a positive mindset. Often when we are given these challenging journeys, we begin to allow negative vibes to take over. I decided to allow God to lead the way and not allow emotions to get the best of me." In short, Shaquita chose to fight.
There is a strong health disparity among Blacks in this country. There are a host of explanations why. Health is not taken as seriously in the Black community in comparison to most others. A recent study by the American Cancer Society concluded that while 92% of black women agree breast health is important, only 25% of those polled had recently discussed breast health with their family, friends, or colleagues and only 17% have taken steps to understand their risk for breast cancer. Breast cancer is the second most common cause of cancer death among black women, surpassed only by lung cancer. The racial disparity is largely attributed to more advanced stage at diagnosis, higher prevalence of obesity, comorbidities, and unfavorable tumor characteristics, as well as a lack of access and adherence to high-quality cancer treatment.
Because of mainly economics and finance, as well as a litany of other crucial factors such as a lack of knowledge, lack of access to quality and affordable healthcare to name a few, often times catches many completely off guard. Such was the case with Houston, Texas resident Tamiko B. She had recently moved to Houston, was enrolled in graduate school, and employed with Xerox all the while as a mother. Out of nowhere came breast cancer. Despite having insurance through her employer, other demanding aspects of cancer took its toll financially. Chemotherapy, two weeks after her diagnosis left her too weak to work. Eventually she lost her job, automobile, savings, and for a while nearly all hope.
Perhaps the first casualty is self image due to body changes stemming from both the illness itself as well as the reaction to chemotherapy. For women, the loss of their hair can be a tremendous blow to their sense of self worth. This often leads to anxiety and depression. About 1 in 4 people with any type of cancer may have major or clinical depression. This hits even harder for African Americans, especially African American women due to the lack of reaching out and utilization emotional support and mental health care on the part of African-Americans. For African-American women, hair is a intricate and sensitive part of African American women's identity and cultural expressions. Many will refer to 1 Corinthians 11:15 which says, "But if a woman have long hair, it is a glory to her: for her hair is given her for a covering."
For Mrs. Estes, a woman well read in Biblical scripture, she very much so can relate to what the Bible says about a woman and her hair. “In the African American culture, it's really our crown, our strength. It's who we are, I had a lot of pride and joy in my hair.” she said. After her hair began to shed due to chemotherapy treatment, the visible truth to her reality became evident. There is no cosmetic cure for cancer. An outward appearance at best can only mask the internal biological war being waged on and inside her body. Therefore, true to her intestinal fortitude, she first decided to own it, then embrace it. “I just went and got it shaved completely off.” she says. This was her first declaration of war. She decided to hit back.
It is through a child's formative years that they begin to make sense of the world around them. They also become cognizant of their appearance and most interestingly are able to determine their similar looks and features between them and their parents. Shaquita's daughter was very conscious of her mother's appearance. Whenever they would go out, she would always ensure that her mother's head was covered as to prevent unwanted looks and stares. In short she was merely seeking to protect her mother's image, self esteem, and most importantly her dignity. In order to navigate this complex journey, Shaquita and her daughter sought out information and literature. However, they did not find any that featured African-Americans. Being innovative, they sought to blaze a new trail and create a children's book to aid and encourage others that were dealing with the same issue as well as raise awareness about a troubling health issue.
The end result was a colorful and creative literary creation that beautifully details and chronicles the journey of a mother-daughter's battle with the different aspects of fighting cancer. Shaquita and her daughter chose Arizona based, DG Publishing to assist them in self publishing, "No Hair Don't Care". In a way that children can most definitely understand, the book puts a face, enhanced by emotion, heart and soul on this issue as to what a family goes through, when one of its family members, particularly the matriarch is diagnosed with cancer. These types of conversations are not often had in the African-American community which impedes the spreading of critical knowledge.
Guiding Mrs. Estes through the process with expert medical guidance and care was her oncologist, Dr. Sarah C. Friend MD. Dr. Sarah C. Friend MD is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Hematology and Medical Oncology at Emory University School of Medicine. As a medical oncologist, Dr. Friend treats patients with breast cancer and hematologic disorders at Emory Saint Joseph's Hospital and Winship Cancer Institute. Dr. Friend received her MD from Florida State University, College of Medicine in Tallahassee, Florida. She completed her residency in internal medicine at Orlando Regional Medical Center in Orlando, Florida and a fellowship in hematology/oncology at University of New Mexico Cancer Center, a NCI Comprehensive Cancer Center. In a fitting show of gratitude, Mrs. Estes chose Dr. Friend to write the forward in her book.
"There are many reasons why hair loss is feared. Not only is hair essential to a patient's identity and self esteem. Losing hair automatically informs the public of the cancer journey, which some patient's would rather keep private", Dr. Friend wrote. For many people, especially blacks, particularly black women, hair represents a multitude of factors. Stripped of their original languages, cultures, and spiritual belief systems, hair for black women represented cultural authenticity and identity that they could control the narrative of, thus represent their power. To be void of hair was synonymous with weakness and without an identity. However, the outward appearance is but a minor example of the external war being waged.
Children know when things are not right. From the mood changes, sudden weight loss, loss of energy and prolonged sleep stemming from chemotherapy, children are acutely aware of the gravity of the situation. The poor state of health and strength, coupled with the knowledge of the possible loss of life of the cancerous parent, deeply disturbs a child. Therefore there has to be a plan in motion to help children navigate these troubled waters. Mrs. Estes' book does just that.
No Hair Don't Care relays a message the reader that a person's hair is not the end all be all regarding cancer. " I wanted my children, especially my daughter Lexie to know that I was the same person, except I was without my previous hair and that didn't make me any less of a person and I didn't love her any less", explained Mrs. Estes. What the book initially conveys is that it is very important to explain the illness to a child at an early stage of the diagnosis. The toll that cancer and chemotherapy takes on the patient can't be concealed therefore children shouldn't be kept in the dark. A failure to be forthcoming and informative breeds fear and anxiety.
How parents handle the diagnosis often determines how the children will react. By Mrs. Estes deciding to write a children's book along with her daughter, this sent a message to her daughter that they had some power and control, a sense of a voice by controlling the narrative. It is impossible to conceal cancer. When something as complex as a serious medical condition is not properly explained and laid out, children will expect and believe the worst. Legendary and iconic children's television programmer Mr. Rogers once said, "Anything that’s human is mentionable, and anything that is mentionable can be more manageable. When we can talk about our feelings, they become less overwhelming, less upsetting, and less scary. The people we trust with that important talk can help us know that we are not alone." By discussing the issue, it demystifies the illness and instills the possibility of beating the illness. No Hair Don't Care chronicles when Mrs. Estes and her husband first informed Lexie and her older brother about their mother's condition and the long journey ahead.
No Hair Don’t Care is the story of how a mother, Shaquita Estes and her daughter Lexie learn to deal with the complexities of cancer and the side effects of chemotherapy and with particulars to hair loss. During their journey, we see both mother and daughter rely on prayer, love, resilience, and positive thinking and affirmations to help them overcome their fears. Lexie and her mom realize that the key ingredient is love to keep their family together during such a critical time. This book encourages as well as allows parents to engage their children in informative, honest, empathetic, and encouraging discussions about cancer.
In order for Mrs. Estes to be a rock for her two children, she had to first formulate a game winning strategy with her first line of defense, her husband Christopher. "He was phenomenal, absolutely phenomenal", she says of him. "We had to create a way to tell our children that there will be days that mommy may not be able to come to your games, may not be able to cook, or be upbeat and interact with you like normal", she further explained. Having been married for nearly 20 years, the Estes were two months away from their anniversary when she was diagnosed. For the supportive spouse, such an experience may take a toll on them as well. It is in challenging and defining moments like these that a couple will see what their marriage really consists of.
"He was with me every step of the way", she explains as he embodied a biblical understanding of being a loving husband. Her husband manifested himself in the description of Ephesians 5:25-33, “Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word...He who loves his wife loves himself. However, let each one of you love his wife as himself, and let the wife see that she respects her husband.”. For Christopher and Shaquita, the first approach would be communication, with her husband being an effective listener. By listening, you are able to assist your spouse in overcoming the initial shock of cancer diagnosis.
Thirdly, once spouses like Christopher are able to understand the needs of the cancer patient spouse, then are they able to communicate the diagnosis to particular family members, friends and co-workers. But the most important is how to communicate with your children. And this is why Shaquita and Lexie wrote the book. By being in the know, children are less frightened by the complexities of cancer. This in turn allows them to ask questions. Shaquita then saw where their daughter then cozied up and endeared herself to her and had a greater desire to help and assist. "As a pediatric nurse, I am very sensitive to the health and well being of children. Therefore, how my own children would handle my diagnosis and chemo was very important. I had to be strong for them. Yes I would have my low moments in private, but for them and in front of them I had to be strong", she reflects.
Next, there is the need to manage the logistics of treatment. As the Estes explained to their two children, who were in to different age categories, there would be a serious change to the tempo of their normal home life. For Christopher, there was the reality of altering his pattern to now attending doctor's appointment and chemotherapy session together, and learning the different types of required medications and ensuring that Shaquita is taking the medications. Furthermore there is the need to still fulfill household duties and chores, taking children to school and extra curricular activities, and preparation of meals, and a host of other duties. For many couples, this proves to eventually become a burden on many marriages. This is why it calls for an all hands approach. As Shaquita explained, she had a solid sister circle network.
"My sister circle network was awesome !", she says. He social support system was comprised of women from all facets of her life. What she got was a greater connection, overwhelming support, and maintain a sense of normalcy. They made the best and the most of every moment together. Lots of heart to heart conversation, glued together with laughter is very therapeutic. Old memories pave the way for new ones. A solid sister circle network is what fortifies a person in knowing that there is a sense of hope and victory and they are needed by a host of people. They reaffirm to the patient that they are never alone. Shaquita's sister network is diverse. But perhaps the most noted aspect of her sister circle network is that of her sorority sisters of the Delta Sigma Theta Sorority Incorporated.
In the Spring of 1995, forty women emerged as newly initiated members of the Iota Lambda Chapter of the Delta Sigma Theta Sorority Incorporated at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. Individually, they all came from diverse backgrounds. Collectively, they were unified under a single umbrella of a commitment to excellence, bonded together by the cohesiveness of sisterly care and comfort. Since that time, they've all set a course of their personal trajectories that landed them into arenas of influence among a host of professions. As undergraduate students, they were continuing the rich tradition and heritage of their chapter by contributing to the quality of student life by serving in a wide range of student leadership positions, as well as the chapter as a whole making its mark on the campus. Furthermore, the chapter on several occasions boasted of having the highest grade point average among the Greek lettered organizations on UAB's campus. Their solid bond could be seen even then, in their formative years as young leaders.
"She exhibits characteristics of Esther in the Bible. Her will and faith are extremely strong", explains Sonya Griffin, one of her pledge class, or "line sisters". While in college Shaquita was the step master for the chapter's step show routines in which most of them they took first place, most notably in UAB's annual Camille Armstrong Step Show. She, along with her sorority sisters furthermore contributed significant hours of community service to a host of events and charities throughout the Birmingham area, especially at the Ronald McDonald House. Reflecting on their bond over twenty-five years, "She has always been unapologetic and very strong willed. I have watched Shaquita grow into a focused, faith filled wife, mother, daughter and friend. Today she exhibits faith, verbally expressing her faith in GOD and she is adamant and persistent in creating a legacy for her children", Ms. Griffin further detailed.
No Hair Don't Care is the result of children having a positive outlook on their mother while making her feel special despite the debilitating toll cancer takes on its victims. However, because of her strong spiritual convictions, and loyalty to the strength of her family, Shaquita Estes chose not to be a victim. In doing so, she became a beacon of light, a sun ray of hope to those currently dealing with cancer. Since overcoming cancer, her unique and inspirational story has been shared in various articles and she has appeared on several radio programs as well as the Lifetime Network with pop icon Marie Osmond. It was co-authoring the book that helped Shaquita Estes heal. It help to even further solidify a mother-daughter bond, as well as enrich her relationship with her son and husband. Some of the biblical gem stones that helped Mrs. Estes along her Quest was Isaiah 43:2 that reads, "When you go through deep waters, I am with you", Psalms 27:1, "The Lord is my light and my salvation". Her book also lists other Biblical passages which gave her encouragement and strength through this turbulent period in her life.
In the 1970's breast cancer killed black women and white women at the same rates. Now, nearly 4,000 more Black women are dying of breast cancer today than white women. The reasons for the drastic spike are several. According to a 2016 study by the Avon Foundation for Women, Black women are 43 percent more likely to die of breast cancer than white women. The mortality rate was higher for Black women in 42 of the 43 largest cities in the United States. This nationwide gap actually increased from 2005 to 2014 despite tremendous gains in cancer research and treatment. Much of this can be attributed to the lack of access to quality healthcare. This in turn leads to a reduction in early detection, thus increasing the likelihood of death. When detected early and treated, the five-year survival rate among women with breast cancer that hasn’t spread or metastasized is nearly 99 percent. The foundation of these disparities include inequalities in employment, generational health, wealth, income, educational levels, housing and overall standard of living, as well as access to high-quality cancer prevention, early detection, and treatment services
According to the American Cancer Society, for Black women, breast cancer is the most commonly diagnosed cancer and the second-leading cause of cancer death after lung cancer. When compared with White women, African American women are less likely to be diagnosed at an early stage, have higher mortality rates, and are more likely to be diagnosed before age 40. Because Mrs. Estes is employed in the health profession, she had some knowledge of the health disparities among African Americans. This enabled her to receive early detection and treatment. However, as statistics reveal, many are acutely unaware of the knowledge and resources that are available. Shortly after the beginning of her diagnosis, Shaquita Estes declared victory by her spiritual convictions and the power of prayer. Diagnosed with cancer in 2018, after six months of chemotherapy, 33 days of radiation, and four months of oral chemotherapy, currently there is no evidence of cancer internally inside of her body.
Recently, Mrs. Estes and her husband Chris watched their eldest child, Logan graduate from Northgate High School with honors and will head to Berry College. She sees it as a blessing from God that she survived to witness this milestone in her son's life.
The book was released on Lexie's 8th birthday, symbolizing a new birth and beginning. Lexie has read the book at numerous elementary schools and is serving as an inspiration to both adults and children alike. Available at Amazon.com, "No Hair Don't Care has sold over 1,000 copies. Autographed copies are available at Quitasquest.com. For some, cancer claimed the lives of its victims. But for Mrs. Shaquita, she did not just declare victory, but she actually won. Her spiritual devotion and steadfastness as a prayer warrior is what pulled her through with the crown of victory. She is living proof that the family that prays together, stays together.