Diane Charles recalled getting out of the hospital bed with the help of a kind nurse, after surgeons at Shady Grove Adventist Hospital removed her cancer-filled breast.
“I looked at her, and I looked at the mirror, and she knew what I needed to see,” Charles said.
The gown was pulled back. Her left breast was completely gone — years of pain and fear seemed to fill the void. Would she share the same fate as her mother, who died from complications due to breast cancer? Or her two aunts who died from it, too?
“That is the moment that I released,” said Charles, 48, of Germantown. “I cried because my breast was gone. I cried because my mom had died. I cried because I had no knowledge, because I had no one. I even cried that I was still alive. I felt like what good am I without a part of my body? I did not feel like a whole person.”
Up until the diagnosis, to simply speak of breast cancer was taboo, said Charles, who is a victim advocate for the City of Rockville. In fact, her mother had breast cancer, but Charles said no one in the family ever talked about it. “I only realized that something was wrong with her body when I saw her pulling off her clothes and putting on a bra,” Charles recalled. “I happened to walk into the room as she was changing and I saw that part of her left breast was gone.
“I kind of just stared, and she covered herself up. She looked ashamed. She looked frightened. She didn't want to explain. I remember the look in her eyes and thinking, ‘Mom what happened to you?’ But I knew not to say anything. The look on her face said ‘don’t ask.’”
Charles, who has been free of cancer for more than three years, doesn't want women to experience the same fear she faced when she was diagnosed.
So she's been sharing her story with any one willing to listen, with hopes of breaking the silence and getting rid of the stigma. Charles has been featured on Shady Grove Adventist Hospital’s website and has shared her story with regional publications.
It’s a story she says she’ll never get tired of telling.
“For the first time in my life I'm not afraid to die,” Charles said, from the living room of her cozy townhouse. Pictures of her grown children, grand sons and new husband, Laurent Charles, 33, of Haiti, covered the walls of her home.
“I've learned how to live,” she said.
State and national statistics show that breast cancer is less prevalent among African American women, but African-American women are more likely to die from breast cancer, said Dr. Catherine Salem, a radiation oncology physician at Shady Grove.
“Screening in those women is important,” Salem said.
According to National Cancer Institute data for Maryland, the death rate among white women diagnosed with breast cancer was 22.2, compared with 32.2 for African American women.
But recent studies have made it less clear whether self-exams help or whether women would be better served by mammograms after age 50 instead of age 40 — the concerns hovering around the possibility of false-positives, unnecessary invasive procedures and bolstering undue anxiety among women. At the same time, the 2011 Breast Cancer Symposium of the American Society of Clinical Oncology offer a different stance, one in support of the preventive measures, as does the American Cancer Society — views that Salem said she adopts.
Breast cancer, let alone methods of breast cancer detection, wasn’t discussed among the Charles family women. As a precaution, Charles started getting mammograms prior to age 40, due to her family. She learned how to do self-exams as a student at Montgomery College.
In May 2008, Charles said felt something odd while doing a self-exam in the shower.
“I went numb. All I could hear was the water hitting my back,” she realled. “This can't be happening to me. Not now.”
A mammogram confirmed the first lump; an MRI confirmed a second lump. Doctors said she caught the cancer at an early stage known as ductal carcinoma in situ (DCIS), which physicians consider “not life threatening.” Her survival chances were good, Charles recalled, yet the fear of death overwhelmed her.
Initially, she was afraid to tell her children she had cancer.
At the time, her son, David Wilkins, was weeks away from graduating from Northwest High School and was preparing to go to Hampton University — the first of her kids to go to college. Her daughter Diamond Wilkins was a new mother who needed help raising her two boys — an infant and a 3 year old at the time.
She broke the news over a conference call from her desk at work.
“I didn't have the courage to sit in front of their faces and tell my children that I thought I was going to die at a time when they needed me the most,” Charles said.
Charles said she fell into a deep depression that took her a while to climb out of. But things began to change the day she saw herself for the first time, after surgery.
She recalled saying a prayer: “God, if I get through this day and that night, I can make it through anything."