One survivor’s raw story: Breast cancer, Black women and health disparities

By Amethyst Davis
NABJ Black News & Views

Tanja Thompson poses in front of her beetle bug car, which she uses to encourage people to get screened for breast cancer. Photo credit: Tanja Thompson

Tanja Thompson and her assistant adjust her camera to make sure it’s at the proper angle. Too high and you’ll get mostly ceiling. Too low and you’ll get the floor. Just right and you capture her bright pink George Mason University sweatshirt and elaborate background.

Thompson sits perfectly positioned between two banners. White flowers accentuate the bright pink, horizontal signs. The word “FAITH” stands out.

It is Thompson’s fourth interview this week.

“October’s a busy month for me,” she said.

Thompson beat breast cancer twice, and regularly speaks about her journey. But she wasn’t always so eager.

“I never wanted to do this,” she said. “I never wanted to do any of this ever.”

The 25-year Air Force veteran was twice diagnosed with an aggressive form of breast cancer. The diagnosis prompted a range of emotions, including shame. But she held onto her faith to find triumph over pain in her journey to help others in the fight against breast cancer.

Thompson, 59, of Loudoun County, Maryland, joined the Air Force reserve in 1982, long before the Air Force adopted a formal sexual harassment policy.

“I can remember standing on a ladder and a major looked under my skirt,” Thompson said.

She started therapy to deal with “the bottom of the iceberg,” the repressed traumas of sexual harassment and assault, she said.

After 25 years in the U.S. Air Force, mostly spent in the Washington, D.C., Maryland and Virginia area, Tanja Thompson retired in 2007. Photo credit: Tanja Thompson

The Fort Wayne, Indiana, native noted that the Air Force’s culture on sexual harassment — and race — is changing. The #MeToo movement, started to declare an end to sexual harassment and assault, has helped fuel cultural change across industries nationwide.

The Department of Veterans Affairs is the largest provider of cancer care in the United States. Walter Reed Medical Center in Washington, D.C., where Thompson sought treatment, is one of the nation’s premier research centers, and administers healthcare treatment to sitting presidents.

And while the Air Force made strides on sexual harassment, Thompson’s breast cancer diagnosis shows that the nation still has great work to do on reducing disparities in cancer treatment and outcomes.

‘10 Percent’

Black women veterans are slower to receive life-saving surgery as compared to white and non-Hispanic white women in the service, according to a 2019 study from the Journal of American Medical Association. Advancements in treatment have narrowed that gap but Thompson’s story is a testament to the work ahead that remains.

In 2005, Thompson, a mother of three and author of the book “What to Expect When You Weren’t Expecting Cancer,” visited the doctor for her baseline, a routine mammogram recommended for women beginning at age 40 to screen for cancer. The results were negative.

Fourteen months later, Thompson returned for another checkup. She was fatigued and had pain in her breast, but she attributed both to the recent birth of her youngest son and breastfeeding. Her doctor at WRMC, a Black man, recommended she get another screening at the breast center.

Thompson received three tests in one day. She received a call asking her to return to the to doctor.

Her husband offered to come with her but she declined. 

“I wouldn’t advise anybody to ever do that in life,” she now says. “You only hear 10 percent. You need someone to hear the other 90.” 

Thompson’s breast cancer diagnosis, HER2 positive, an aggressive form of breast cancer, was numbing. “After those words (‘you have breast cancer’), it was like Charlie Brown,” she said. “All I heard was wah-wah-wah,” she added.

Photo credit: Tanja Thompson

Thompson’s children were all 15 and under when she was first diagnosed, making it even harder to explain her condition to her family.

Thompson had no family history of breast cancer, and yet in the 14 months since her baseline, she had cancerous particles throughout both breasts, baffling doctors. Thompson underwent a bilateral mastectomy of both breasts.

Twice a survivor

The second diagnosis came in 2010. By this time, Thompson was equipped with more knowledge on cancer outcomes. She’d had reconstructive surgery but kept up with her routine breast exams. That’s why she knew something wasn’t right when she felt a lump above the silicon of her left breast.

“God talks to us,” she said, adding her faith provided her the inclination to press her doctor, a white woman, to perform a mammogram, MRI, and a localized biopsy — even when they resisted.

All results were inconclusive. 

“If you’re not an advocate for yourself, nobody else will be,” Thompson said.

The doctor perceived her lump to be scar tissue. “Yeah, I said, but it’s not supposed to be there,” Thompson told the doctor.

Photo credit: Tanja Thompson

 Sadly, Thompson’s suspicions prevailed. After losing her hair to chemotherapy, she embraced creativity. She dressed up as Avatar: The Last Airbender, an animated character, at a community event in 2010.

A full biopsy that she pushed for revealed not one, but two types of breast cancer. The silver lining, Thompson said, is that scar tissue from around her lump from her first surgery prevented the new cancers from spreading.


That’s what the doctor wrote in Thompson’s file. “It’s documented,”  she said.

The physician also mistakenly failed to close her flap after the biopsy, exposing the silicon and risking a possible infection. Medical staff gave Thompson ointment for the wound. Thompson’s breast surgeon was appalled at the opening. Thompson later filed a grievance.

Studies show that physicians are less likely to believe Black women who complain of pain compared to their white counterparts. Compassion or empathy should have been expected, Thompson said, because the doctor was a woman.

“I did not let them discount me. … But I will say, a lot of these doctors don’t have the cultural competency for military veterans, for Black women,” she said.

California and some other states are now mandating medical graduates receive implicit bias training as part of curricula for their state licensure.

Building a support system

“In the Black community, we have what we call ‘the unspeakables’  — there are some things you just don’t talk about,” Thompson said, referring to thorny issues such as sexual assault or health history.  “If someone’s having surgery, you don’t talk about it. You just take care of them,” she added.

Thompson, who was raised in a Black Pentecostal household, wondered if her diagnosis was a punishment for some wrongdoing.

“Now you have young kids who are trying to figure out is my mommy going to live? Is my brother going to live? Am I going to become an orphan?” she said.

Photo credit: Tanja Thompson

Thompson founded the Breast Cancer Move Foundation, a nonprofit organization that equips breast cancer patients and survivors with cancer screening and advocacy resources. It is hosting several events throughout October, Breast Cancer Awareness Month.

It was already hard enough that the military never provided support services for her or her family for either diagnosis (she returned to work several months after both surgeries).

The second diagnosis was particularly hard, she said. Thompson’s youngest son, Tysne, was receiving a liver transplant. Middle child Taylor struggled with mental health seeing his mother sick. Thompson and her husband now talk openly with their children — now all adults — about those years. It’s a form of healing for them all.

Journaling was another emotional release for Thompson, providing the basis for her book. She took part in a support group, and decided to use her experiences to help others heal and become self advocates.

Photo credit: Tanja Thompson

Thompson is a routinely sought out motivational speaker. Her journey is spelled out in a 2019 TEDxTalk, “Tragedy to Triumph.”

“If you feel something, if you see something, go say something,” she said. “Navigating (the healthcare system) is just as important to get the things that you need to advance your own healthcare and knowledge of your diagnosis.”

There were three other women also diagnosed at Walter Reed the same year as Thompson, she said. Thompson firmly believes that in the absence of cancer in her family history, her surroundings played a role.

“Rely on medical journals that have been peer reviewed so that you are an informed person,” as opposed to relying entirely upon friends and the Internet.

She’s now founder of the Breast Cancer Move Foundation, a non-profit organization that helps cancer patients and survivors become a self-advocate as she has.

Thompson said she also helps companies in mediating conflict in the workplace, a growing business as COVID-19 has produced new business stresses. 

“Conflict is my business!” her website declares. Conflict, resolving it to help others, is at the core of how she’s shaping the next phase of her life.

Thompson will finish her doctorate in health administration at the Virginia University of Lynchburg in December 2021.

Amethyst J. Davis is an NABJ Casey Fellow covering health and COVID-19. She is a proud daughter of Cook County. You can follow her on Twitter @APurple_Reign.

This report was made possible with the support of the Annie E. Casey Foundation 

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