Life with Gracie: Help you need after a breast cancer diagnosis

Trellis Usher was 44, well past what until recently was the recommended age experts say women should have their first mammogram.

By her own admission, she was late to the game because, well, she did monthly self-exams and no one in her family had ever been diagnosed with breast cancer. But during a conversation with her girlfriends one summer night in 2014, one of them out of the blue asked the circle of women to raise their hand if they hadn’t yet had the test.

Usher raised her hand.

Her girlfriends vowed to haunt her until she scheduled and submitted to the test. Usher promised but instead of a mammogram, scheduled a checkup with her ob/gyn.

She was at her annual exam two weeks later when the doctor felt a small lump in her right breast.

Usher immediately thought of her two children. Tests soon revealed she had Triple Negative Breast Cancer, one of the most aggressive forms of the disease, and one that is particularly deadly for African-American women.

Among African-American women like Usher, 25 percent are more likely to be diagnosed with late-stage breast cancer and 40 percent are more likely to die than their white counterparts.

Those are the numbers that keep Stone and Usher, both breast cancer survivors and Ford Warriors in Pink Models of Courage, up at night.

“Our No. 1 focus is on lowering mortality rates for African-American women in metro Atlanta,” Stone said.

Also big on their list are the challenges women and their families face after diagnosis but which get the least amount of attention.

Usher, who owns a consulting firm and lives in Brookhaven, said that after keeping friends and family informed about her treatment, maintaining her day-to-day routine during treatment proved to be one of her biggest challenges.

“I chose to tell only close friends and family, people I knew would be supportive,” Usher said. “As caring as people are, it can be exhausting to retell your story 50 times.”

Instead of rehashing her story, Usher created a closed Facebook group and published regular updates so she didn’t have to make 30 calls every week.

The difficulty then came when she needed to get through the daily demands of operating a business, housecleaning, dropping off and picking up her young son from school, preparing meals and helping with homework, all things she needed to do but didn’t feel like “because two days after each chemo treatment, you feel like you’ve been hit by a Mack truck.”

"There were so many things I didn't know, so many resources I wasn't aware of," Usher said. "There is literature everywhere, but sometimes it takes people to hold your hand and point you in the right direction.''

More Good Days, a program launched last year as part of the Ford Warriors in Pink campaign, promises to do that. Ford Warriors in Pink is a company initiative to help empower others to help women in the fight against breast cancer.

“Most breast cancer patients find themselves exhausted, overwhelmed and feeling alone categorizing their days by good days and bad,” said Tracy Magee, program manager for Ford Warriors in Pink.

The company has been front and center in this battle for more than 20 years and has dedicated over $130 million to the cause because quite frankly they get it.

“We aren’t medical providers, but we want to do as much as we can to increase awareness and provide the resources these women need,” Magee said.

To build on that momentum and further understand where and how to lessen the burden on patients, Warriors in Pink recently commissioned two national surveys: one to examine the state of breast cancer awareness among Americans; and another to examine from where patients get the support they need.

While 98 percent of people are aware breast cancer is a serious health threat, Magee said the survey showed only 28 percent feel they actually know what to do to help someone. Among the patients themselves, she said, their second biggest concern after life expectancy is the ability to maintain their daily routines and schedules.

“Making meals, walking the dog, getting kids to the school is a big concern to those who are newly diagnosed,” Magee said. “As a result of the survey, we decided to offer patients those services.”

When Usher received her diagnosis over a year ago, she wasn’t aware of More Good Days.

That’s why she wanted to share her story. She wanted you to know.