Medical Bias in Breast Cancer: My Mother Was Intentionally Maimed by Her Surgeon
I’m sharing my mother’s secret shame because she can’t
I’m sharing stories from my past so women can stop suffering in silence and end medical bias and abuse.
I’m telling my Mom’s story because she’s no longer here and she raised me to be her mouth piece when she couldn’t speak. This is her story:
My mother was diagnosed with breast cancer when I was in college and coincidentally working for the University of Pennsylvania Hospital’s Cancer Caregiver program. After meeting her surgeon back home, I begged my mother to come to Philadelphia for treatment, but she refused. She believed that doctors were always right and you should never challenge them no matter what they say or do.
At her pre-operation appointment, the doctor was cold, rude, dismissive and talked about my mother as if she wasn’t in the room. My mother and I had so many arguments. After the appointment, I begged and warned her not to go back to him because he was so condescending and visibly angry with her for not getting the procedure earlier, but she ignored me. She scheduled the surgery when she knew I couldn’t be there.
I knew he was going to hurt her. I could feel it.
A white, male doctor mutilated and maimed my mother during her lumpectomy. He intentionally cut across her breast because he knew she wouldn’t complain. I think I need to further explain somethings. In my original piece, I breezed over this — but it’s important you know the background and context to get a clearer picture.
Small town, big bias
We lived in a small, southern agrarian town that was extremely racist and segregated with a proud confederate history and active klan. There were still markers and signs from the slave trade and segregation. Most Black folk, like my mother lived “across the tracks” and didn’t want to “make trouble”. Trouble could result in a mysterious death or “visit” from the klan. We lived in fear of the unchecked power and threat of violence from white people.
My grandfather told me that the last lynching happened a year before I was born in the 70’s and the klan came to my high school after a race related brawl that was sparked by a white boy calling an African American student the n-word. I grew up with white people using the n-word on a regular basis and to this day, some still called Black adults, boys and girls.
Every one with power, money or influence and 95% of the businesses, government employees and officials, law enforcement, financial institutions, real estate brokers, teachers, etc. were white. They were all connected by blood or affiliation. It was a small, beautiful town with a big, ugly past that had an insidious and oppressive grip on the present.
Back to my mother
So the doctor knew my mother wasn’t going to complain because she was Black and although there was a medical review board, filing a complaint could cause trouble for her and our family.
Days later, when I finally saw her, she was sullen, broken and in severe physical and mental pain. She whispered, “You were right”, and showed me the wound. I gasped in shock and we both sobbed. She kept asking, “Why would he do this to me?” What was suppose to be a lumpectomy, turned into a poorly executed mastectomy. He didn’t even bother to tell her, so she didn’t know she lost her breast until she removed the bandage. She was devastated.
All I could do is hold her and try to share her pain, but I was livid. He had butchered her and she wasn’t healing properly because she was a diabetic and was quickly descending into a deep depression.
My mother was afraid to go to her post operation appointment, but she really needed medical attention — the incision was infected. To add insult to injury, she said the doctor’s office kept hanging up on her because she kept crying on the phone when she tried to make the appointment.
My mother was not a crier. She was a fighter in every sense of the word and this doctor destroyed her spirit and dimmed her light.
I called on her behalf and asked could they order antibiotics until we could meet with the doctor and ask some questions about my mother’s surgery. When I arrived with my mother, they suggested we reschedule because my mother was crying, but she wasn’t making a scene. I told them I was in college and was only there for the day and if they refused to see her, I would report the doctor to the hospital, the state’s ethics board, and sue for malpractice, medical abuse and neglect.
They looked scared and eventually called my mother back to the examination room. My mother tried to stop crying, but she winced in fear when she saw the doctor. He looked agitated and annoyed that she pulled away from him when he tried to examine her. Her incision was badly infected and it looked and smelled bad. A nurse cleaned the wound and the doctor prescribed a stronger antibiotic and said she had to take the full dose. When she mentioned she was in pain, he sighed and told her to take an over the counter painkiller. I touched her hand and asked her permission to speak to the doctor alone and asked her to have a seat in the waiting room.
I had written down my concerns about her infection, poor pain management and the placement, and crude, unprofessional look of the incision and stiches. He said my mother was too emotional and he didn’t prescribe a stronger painkiller because he knew her history of addiction. I had to calmly explained that my mother was in recovery and she was recovering from surgery so her pain is real. He finally ordered a stronger painkiller. I finally worked up enough nerve ask how did her lumpectomy turn into a mastectomy and why wasn’t she informed after the operation. He said he had to cut across my mother’s breast because she had let the tumor grow from the size of a quarter to an orange. He never addressed why he didn’t tell her.
I looked him dead in his eyes and told him I knew he scarred her on purpose because he didn’t care and he was angry with my mother. I explained that I worked for one of the best oncology departments in America and had spoken to other surgeons and they said best practices in lumpectomies and even mastectomies try to minimize scaring to maintain the dignity of the patient. The long, hook like cut across my mother’s breast looked violent, leaving little to no hope of reconstructive surgery.
I told him we were going to another doctor, but I asked him again why he didn’t make the cut under her breast or use the latest procedures? He didn’t answer, but asked was I a doctor. I told him no, but I was premed and worked for the University of Pennsylvania health system. He briefly softened, apologized, but callously continued to blame my mother for his heartless, sadistic actions.
I told him that I was filing a complaint so he wouldn’t butcher another Black woman. I did, but my mother was so traumatized and had spiraled into such a deep depression she refused to follow up on the complaint or get reconstructive surgery. She only agreed to chemotherapy. She didn’t want anyone to see the deep, painful scar on her chest. From that point on she refused to let another doctor touch her outside of an emergency room or without someone accompanying her.
Her fear became a debilitating depression, anxiety and a deadly phobia where year’s later she let gangrene set in her foot and her leg had to be amputated. A year after my child was born, she slipped into a coma and died from diabetic complications and sepsis. My mother and I had a strained relationship, but we had made plans for her to move with me to help me with the baby.
She was only able to make one visit. Luckily, we were able to have a heart to heart conversation and reconcile before she passed. I was hurt and angry for years because she didn’t raise me and was in and out of my life between boyfriends. During her final visit, she thanked me for fighting, advocating for her and standing up to the surgeon and for saving her life once before.
When I was a teenager, a racist ER nurse refused to take her complaints and cries of pain seriously when she had a ectopic pregnancy. She had emergency surgery that saved her life. The doctors praised me for my bravery and said she would have died in a matter of hours had I not demanded that they stop taking non emergency, white patients in front of her. I didn’t do it to be a hero — I did it because that was first time I’d seen my mother cry and lose hope. I could literally feel my mother was dying. I screamed because she couldn’t and that’s what she and my Grandmother taught me to do — speak up for people who don’t have have the strength to fight.
My mother and I had an unusual relationship. She was more like a big sister than a mother and I was the 2nd matriarch in the family. For years, I blamed myself for not dragging her to Philadelphia. She was never the same after that surgery. Her fiery flame flickered and she was a phantom of her former self. She became even more introverted and preferred darkened rooms. I was ashamed of her hermit like nature.
The once beautiful, fierce and seemingly fearless woman had withered away and left a hollow shell forced to look at the cruelty of a cold, careless surgeon.
My mother died physically and mentally scarred, but knew she was loved and fiercely supported. I was there when she took her last breath. I miss her, but every day I pray for her tenacity and many talents. I didn’t appreciate all the lessons and inherent gifts she’d given me as a child and an adult, but I do now.
I only have one picture with my mom — but this picture is symbolic of us…
My mom left this earth knowing that she helped create, mold and influence a strong, Black woman and relentless advocate for love, truth and justice. She pushed me to fight for others and myself, but I knew a lioness always had my back. We were a powerful and dynamic duo…Her weary body left this earth too soon, but her spirit lives on in me and her grandchild. We are survivors.
However, I strive to have a better quality of life and death for me, my family and community. Medical bias and malpractice doesn’t just hurt and harm the patient it has last effects on the patient’s friends, family and caregivers. Nobody should have endured the injustices and horrific, substandard and inhumane medical treatment my mother and I have experience over the years.
If you have a friend or loved one with cancer, please support them and make sure they aren’t going to the doctor alone. It’s so hard to deal with all the emotions and medical decisions by yourself. I also urge you to NEVER accept poor medical treatment. Every hospital department has an administrator or has a patient services or advocacy department — report any incidents via email or certified mail so your experience is documented and can’t be denied. If that doesn’t work, use social media and post your experience — but whatever you do — DO NOT SUFFER IN SILENCE! Everyone deserves to be treated with the best possible care while maintaining their dignity, privacy and respect.
I hope by sharing my mother’s story I’ll save another mother, child and family from this pain and grief.
Thank you for reading.