This is the first in a series of profiles of courageous women – movers and shakers who are kickin’ butt and taking names. I call them Sister Soldiers.
3 to grant to those who mourn in Zion—to give them a beautiful headdress instead of ashes,the oil of gladness instead of mourning,the garment of praise instead of a faint spirit; that they may be called oaks of righteousness, the planting of the Lord, that he may be glorified. – Isaiah 61:3
Danielle Brown has done more than her fair share of mourning. She is a singer, breast cancer survivor, and soldier for the voiceless. Brown’s is a testimony of healing and rebirth, faith and triumph. At the beginning of our interview, she walked into the living room, exasperated from the challenges of the day but excited about her next challenge, the 2018 Ms. Bella Pageant. The Nashville pageant supports and celebrates full figured women and their contributions to the community. As she began to speak about her outfit choices and plans for the week, Brown’s countenance changed from frustration to joy. The oil of gladness and garment of praise was clearly upon her. She knows her purpose.
Each contestant in the Ms. Bella Pageant has a charitable cause, and Brown’s is one very (literally) close to her heart. As she began to speak about her platform of breast cancer awareness for women AND men, her poise and passion became instantly evident.
“Even if you do have a diagnosis, you still can live.”
“We are a country that is reactive instead of being proactive, so we react when there is a tumor,” she noted. “We react when we see something in the mammogram, but we’re not proactive in saying, ‘You know what, we need to have opportunities for younger women to have mammograms.'”
The Centers for Disease Control report that about 11% of all new cases of breast cancer in the United States are found in women under the age of 45. Although breast cancer is still less common in younger women than in older women, it is often more aggressive and metastatic in younger women once found.
Brown also sets forth to raise awareness about the availability of screening resources.”People need to be aware that they are able to get services whether you have insurance or not. If there is a family history, even without insurance you can to go to your doctor and ask them to do a genetic test or ask them about mammogram testing. They may not do it every day, but it may be one day out of the month where they offer free services.”
She also noted that Planned Parenthood isn’t just for planning parenthood. “When we hear people say Planned Parenthood, we automatically think about family planning and that type of thing, but they offer those services,” speaking of the breast exams offered by the clinics.
Brown’s campaign is also an appeal to men to be aware and proactive about their risk for breast cancer. The American Cancer Society predicts that there will be about 2,550 newly diagnosed cases of invasive breast cancer in men in 2018. It is estimated that about 480 of those men will die from the disease. “A lot of men think ‘I don’t really have a risk, but there are men with genetic factors and risks of breast cancer and have had mastectomies.”
All in all, Brown wants people to know that breast cancer does not have to be a death sentence. “Even if you have a diagnosis, you can still win.” She is living proof that the body held captive by cancer can be liberated.
Cancer Is not Pretty
1 The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me to bring good news to the poor; he has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted,to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to those who are bound; – Isaiah 63:1
In order to understand Brown’s triumph, one must understand her trial. Brown had dense breasts and prior history of breast cysts and tumors, but the pain in her upper chest region had spurred her to see a medical professional. Mammogram results didn’t reveal conclusive evidence of a deeper issue, but her doctor could still feel an unsettling difference in the tissue.
Dense breasts have more non-fatty tissue and more gland tissue than breasts that aren’t dense. This gives cancer a greater opportunity to hide in breasts and go undetected by basic screening measures.
Brown’s doctor then recommended a Molecular Breast Imaging (MBI) test, which works by injecting a radioactive tracer that attaches breast cancer cells and using a special camera to record the activity. Pictures of Brown’s right breast looked fine, but the left breast revealed a shadowed gray area. The radiologist noted how sizeable the mass was. A needle biopsy showed she had ductal carcinoma in situ, meaning it had not spread beyond the lymph nodes.
In 2015, at the tender age of thirty-five, Danielle Brown was diagnosed with cancer. In December 2016, after trying other forms of treatment, Brown took a major step toward healing – a double mastectomy- that almost cost her life. While recovering from her mastectomy, Brown’s health took a turn for the worst. About two days after her surgery, she contracted an extremely severe staph infection. “You’d touch my skin and I was in pain,” she said. “The doctors told us basically to stay positive and this was just part of the process and things would get better. Better never came. For three weeks.”
Brown and her mother flew back to Nashville from Jacksonville, Florida in January. “My skin on my chest had turned completely black,” she recalls.
Pause – take that in: Danielle Brown was discharged on January 6, 2017, from the #1 medical facility in the United States with necrotic tissue.
“Cancer is not pretty.”
The tissue in Brown’s chest was dying and trying fervently to take her with it. “By January 8, I was in the emergency room full of infection begging God not to let me die.” Adding insult to injury, Brown faced difficulty finding a physician to correct the issue. “It’s kind of hard because when you go to another provider or another hospital, nobody wants to correct someone else’s wrongdoing.”
She eventually found a doctor who would handle her repairs. In over 45 years of practicing surgery, he had never seen a case as severe as hers. He was astounded at the possibility that she had received this type of treatment from a facility of the reputation of the hospital she had been released from. Her body was in such a toxic state that he could not operate immediately. Brown was put on IV antibiotics, but her condition was still getting progressively worse. Tests determined that she had contracted a strain of skin staph that is resistant to most drugs. The medications she was given were strong and known to wear down the kidneys.
Brown was weak and running out of time. Her doctors were hesitant to proceed with the surgery in her condition, but there was no other recourse. “I didn’t know at the time he had had a conversation with my mom where he said ‘We’re going to do everything we can to save her, but we’re just really not sure what’s going to happen,’ she recalled. “I just remember waking up and I remember kind of like opening my eyes and they were bringing me upstairs and my family was gathered around.” “I must be either dead or on my way,” she thought.
What was initially thought to be a topical infection had leached further inside. Surgeons had to cut out the majority of the muscles in her right breast. The infection had cost Brown so much tissue that her surgeons were unsure how to close the incision. Over 250 stitches were required to close her paper-thin skin. Regular tasks like being bathed by her mother would even be challenging for the next three weeks due to the risk of tearing the sutures.
“Okay God, let’s just stop playing,” she humorously recalled. “The pain was overwhelming. I wouldn’t wish it on my worst enemy.”
But she persisted. And she lived. Although Brown has physically moved through this challenge with grace, she was candid about her thoughts of being mishandled during her mastectomy. “I believe that if the right type of treatment had been done the first few days, few hours after surgery, I don’t think I would have suffered in the manner in which I did,” she asserted. “That’s still a sore area for me. I know that forgiveness is key to living a Godly life, but I haven’t gotten there yet.’
“I Created You For this Moment”
2 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor,and the day of vengeance of our God;to comfort all who mourn; – Isaiah 63:2
Five surgeries later, Danielle is moving forward.
‘”Even though I knew God, I didn’t KNOW God.”
Brown now reflects on the transformative power of the process. “I’ve been in His presence, but I was literally sitting in his presence. Like I was literally sitting at His feet. Being able to really cry out to god in my need, in my wanting of God to take away the pain, to take away the physical, the spiritual, and the mental pain, each day God would talk to me in so many different ways. I saw Him physically take me through a journey where death was imminent.”
Brown knows that her life is nothing short of a marvel. “To see God almost miraculously overnight remove the toxins out of my body and my skin color start to come back….people would say “God, we need to see a miracle,’ but I AM that miracle.” Her experience showed her who God really is in her life. Brown spoke of the famous miracles of the Bible, such as the resurrection of Lazarus and the woman with the issue of blood, and how seeing that power manifest in her own life changed her way of thinking. “There’s a feeling that you just really can’t explain other than knowing that He specializes in bringing you through,” she reflects. “He had to specifically take me through that journey that “I made you- regardless, breasts or not, I made you.”
Brown was not shy to credit God for the holistic healing that took place during her battle with breast cancer. “The scar is an outward showing of what I went through, but there were other things I was going through that only God could mend, and they didn’t have anything to do with cancer.” She also expressed gratitude for her support system. Brown recounted the importance of having had advocates who could speak up for when she was incapacitated due pain and illness. She praised her mother, Jackie Brown, for being a rock for her. She noted that though their cancer experiences were different, she credits her mother’s strength and tenacity for helping her push through. ‘If there was a picture in the dictionary next to the word ‘strength’ it would be my mother,’ Brown laughed.
Brown is very vocal about her journey, sharing it openly in many venues, but this was not always the case. “I was just really, in the beginning, just sharing my feeling of ‘I hurt,’ she recounts. “And a lot of it was not just the physical but the mental and the spiritual. I felt like there were some broken places, not realizing there people were watching how I used my faith and activated my faith, to be honest, and just allowed God to move through me.” The outpouring of support, as a result, has been tremendous. She has had thousands of people reach out to her with gratitude for sharing her story and for support through their journey.
With confidence, she declared, “This is my assignment,” speaking of her new ventures. “This is my season of Now to go an do what God has commanded me to do.” She speaks candidly about her hesitance to accept the call to inspire. “I’ve known for years, even as young as a child there was a special calling on my life to inspire, but I was like “Nah, we gon’ just chill back here in the cut,” she laughs. “When you truly surrender and truly submit to God you will find everything that you thought you were missing, thought that you lost, or thought that you had gained, all those different things that you thought you needed. That’s when you’ll truly find everything that you already have. He’s already given it to you.”
“In spite of what your situation is, you can make it.”
Brown now works to inspire connect with who they are in God and what He is showing them in the process. “I literally had to look myself in the mirror and be able to say ‘I love me. Scars and all, I love me.’ But I only could get there because of what God had shown me of the healing that took place on the inside.”
Brown is currently working on her book, While On Spiritual Life Support, Breathe For Me, God, and has just launched a blog of the same name. The name is an aptly chosen metaphor for the times that God breathed for her when she could not. “When you find yourself in a situation, there’s an extra support there, so that you don’t have to struggle.”
Jewels OF Hope
In conversation, Brown shared pearls of wisdom for all involved with cancer or a major medical crisis:
- BREATHE. Brown describes that there cycles of grief associated with major medical crises. It’s okay to stop and gather yourself.
- Lean on others. – Brown stressed the importance of having a strong support system. Have people on your team whom you trust to speak up for you if something doesn’t seem normal. It’s natural to not want to impose on others, but remember that these people want to see you well and healthy.
- Get a second opinion (and third and fourth, if needed). – “Don’t settle for what they (health care professionals) think is right. There are different forms of treatment for whatever you have. It’s important to know your rights,” Brown advised.
- Research facilities that specialize in your condition. – Brown noted that while she would not change having had a mastectomy, she would have chosen a different facility in retrospect. She urges that patients don’t just choose a facility based on the name and ranking.
- Try not to stress. – Stress can have an adverse effect on the body. “When I stressed more, my body felt it more,” said Brown.
- Don’t neglect self-care. – Brown pointed out that if you don’t take care of yourself, you won’t be an effective caregiver for someone else.
- Understand what you are “signing up” for. – Be ready to be consistent and follow through, even when it is not convenient.
- Sometimes just being there is enough. – It’s okay to not know what to say. Sometimes your loved one just needs lay their head on your shoulder and hear “It’s ok.”
- LISTEN to your patients. – “A patient knows their body, ‘Brown remarked Training aside, take the patient’s concern seriously and understand that they may have valuable insight into what isn’t normal.
- Look at the whole person. – Brown reminds professionals to look to at the patient as a person, not just a number or a medical history.
All in all, Danielle Brown’s story of faith and courage can be summed up with this: “In spite of what your situation is, YOU CAN MAKE IT.”
You can catch Danielle Brown at the Ms. Bella Pageant on Friday, April 20 in at Nashville’s Rockettown, or read her encouraging messages of inspiration on her blog, While On Life Support, Breath for Me God.
Has your life been impacted by cancer? Do you have a story of courage to share? Let’s talk about in the comments below?