Mercedes Holloway didn’t think much about the small lump in her breast during her mid-20s. After all, two doctors told her not to worry about it, and breast cancer didn’t run in her family. Lucky for her, she stopped in to see a third, Dr. Olivia Smith-Blackwell, at age 28.
“She started doing a breast exam and said, ‘What is this?’ I said, ‘Oh, no big deal. It’s been there since I was 26.’ ”
“I won’t accept that,” Smith-Blackwell told her, “and I will not sign on as your doctor until you go get that checked.”
Holloway – a divorced, single mother of two at the time – went to Roswell Park Cancer Institute for a biopsy and learned two days later that she had Stage 2 breast cancer. During surgery, doctors discovered it had spread to her lymph nodes. The chemotherapy and radiation that followed was brutal, but during an MRI three weeks ago, the now 32-year-old, remarried mother of four learned that she remains cancer-free.
“It was all because I had a doctor who cared,” said Holloway, who added Wilson to her name when she married James Wilson. The couple live in the Town of Tonawanda with 6-month-old twin girls, Jamaya and Brooklyn, and Holloway-Wilson’s older children, Isaiah, 12, and Gabriella, 8. Holloway-Wilson is a Medina native who graduated from Lockport High School and holds a bachelor’s degree in human services from Empire State College. A year after her cancer diagnosis, she started a new effort to help teens and young women learn to prevent cancer and detect it earlier.
The effort led to three October galas to raise money for Roswell Park and related organizations, and recently resulted in nonprofit status for the group, For Our Daughters. She and her personal trainer, Ashley Stewart, owner of F.I.T. Method Studio – Functional Innovative Training – on West Chippewa Street, have put together a program for teens a young women and also look to share their message at community centers across the region. To learn more, visit forourdaughtersinc.org.
“The experience of cancer changed my whole view on life,” she said.
Q: Talk about the statistics for breast cancer in younger women.
There are about 250,000 women nationwide diagnosed with breast cancer every year. Women under 40 make up roughly 6 percent of that number. I can tell you that in the African-American community, we don’t talk about sickness. I don’t know where that came from, but one of the things we’re trying to address is getting comfortable talking about it. African-American women tend to get more aggressive types of breast cancer. It can progress quickly. We more often have to have more aggressive types of chemotherapy because of that. So it’s more important that you get tested and treated early.
Q: When you conceptualized For Our Daughters, what did you want to do?
Educate young women and give them the confidence to teach their children, open up that dialogue. The healthy living piece is another thing that I didn’t grew up learning about, either. And that’s not just in the African-American community; that’s our youth as a whole.
I take my personal trainer everywhere. She’s a short, little 5-foot fireball that the girls in the schools love because she looks like one of them. We go into the schools for four days. The first two days, I have sort of a roundtable discussion with the ladies. The next two days, Ashley does Zumba with them every gym period. I ask them how many of them have been affected by cancer, and 95 percent of them raise their hands. Some of them have mothers who were my age when they were diagnosed or mothers in their 30s who are going through it now. What surprises me is that no one is talking with them about it. Their families think they won’t understand or they don’t know. They’re very aware of what’s going on and no one’s talking about it. I don’t know if adults think it’s an adult issue, but it’s across the board.
Q: What are the important keys your telling people about preventing cancer?
Some of the things that I follow: Working out. I limit my meats, my red meat, even though I love it. I’m eating a lot of fruits and vegetables. Lowering the sugar. Alcohol isn’t good. And just having a positive mindset plays a factor, as well; surrounding yourself with good people. Knowing your body. And having a good doctor that you can talk to and that genuinely cares. Women need to do self-breast exams so they can notice any changes. We’re giving young women a venue to open up and say what’s on their mind. We’re asking them, ‘Are you comfortable opening up to your doctor? Opening up to your mom? Saying, something doesn’t seem right.’ It’s opening up and giving them the confidence to start these dialogues.
Q: What would you advise a woman in her 20s diagnosed with breast cancer?
Life isn’t over. Link up with someone positive. There were so many times in the process that I did not want to go back to chemotherapy, that I did not want to continue to fight, and I had family that was there who said, ‘That’s not an option.’ Life does get better.