Hard Decisions

05.28.13

Like Angelina Jolie, I Chose a Mastectomy for My Health

The star of stage and screen Vanessa Bell Calloway had always been diligent about her health. But when breast cancer struck, she had to make hard choices about what the healthiest choices would mean.

Actress Vanessa Bell Calloway couldn’t helped but be moved by the recent editorial by fellow actress Angelina Jolie discussing her decision to have an preventative double mastectomy. In 2009, the veteran of stage, television, and film went in for a mammogram and was told the results looked “suspicious.” The co-star of the Showtime series  “Shameless"—who appeared in the original Broadway production of “Dreamgirls” and became a familiar face to fans in the hit films “Coming to America,” “What’s Love Got to Do With It,” and “The Crimson Tide”—shares with Allison Samuels of The Daily Beast her head-butting battle with breast cancer, the lessons she learned about relinquishing control, and her plans for a healthier future for her two daughters.

I can still remember sitting straight up in my bed one morning thinking something’s wrong. I didn’t know what it was and I didn’t know where it was, I just knew something wasn’t right and I couldn’t explain it. I told my husband, an anesthesiologist, about the feeling I had. First he asked if I was in pain and I said no and then he said not to worry, but of course I did anyway. I had that nagging feeling that all women get at one time or another when that little voice in our heads just won’t be silent.

I’d always been very diligent about getting my yearly mammograms, pap smears, and anything else related to my health since I’d become an adult woman. Sometimes I’d even get them twice a year if the spirit hit me. I took care of myself in other ways as well. I’d been a dancer since childhood so exercise was a part of my daily regiment, and because I’m an actress, being fit goes along with the job description. A healthy lifestyle was an attitude I wanted to pass down to my two daughters, Ashley 22, and Alexandra, 18.

But despite all those years of dogged dedication to my well-being and the fact that there is no history of breast cancer in my family, four years ago I heard the dreaded words no woman wants to hear: the results of my mammogram were “suspicious.” In my mind I knew “suspicious” could mean cancer, but as much as I tried not to dwell on that reality, I somehow couldn't stop myself. I told as few people as possible as my husband and I waited for the doctors to probe deeper.

It was cancer in its early stages in my left breast. Yes, at 51 years old I was stunned, but I had a plan that I put into action quickly. To know me is to know that I'm a “planner." This would be no different. I would simply have a lumpectomy. Then I’d have radiation to complete treatment. There would still be no need to tell my parents, my husband’s parents, or my two daughters as my youngest was a sophomore in high school and my oldest was a sophomore in college. My girl’s lives wouldn’t have to be turned upside down and I could continue to go on auditions for television roles in-between treatments.

Well, breast cancer taught me a thing or two about control. I don’t have it—God does. After my first lumpectomy, x-rays showed more cancer in the margins around my breast. At that point I really should have started to consider having a mastectomy, but I didn’t. As Angelina Jolie implies in her editorial, we as women oftentimes connect our breasts to our womanhood and to our beauty, so we don’t want to lose them. So I had a second lumpectomy to remove what I thought would be the remaining cancerous tissue.

After that procedure I moved on immediately as if the next step would be the radiation treatments. In fact I was so confident that radiation was where I was headed that I’d made a hairdresser appointment so I could look good while getting my treatments. Now that’s another day I’ll never forget.  Me alone at my hairdresser's getting a blow-dry and receiving a phone call on my cell from the doctor’s office telling me that they’d found more cancer and that a mastectomy would have to be done. God knows I tried so hard to hold it together sitting in that chair, but before I knew it I was balled up in the middle of the hairdresser’s floor crying like a baby.

My husband and best friend drove to pick me up after I received the news since I was in no condition to get myself home. Both of them took turns trying to calm me down and I can still hear my husband saying to me, “We have graduations and weddings to attend and you have to be there.” I knew he was right. I knew I had to do what I needed to do to be there for my girls.

Because my husband is in the medical field I was fortunate to have a great team of specialists I trusted and who took excellent care of me all the way. And because I chose to have reconstructive surgery using my own body fat at the same time as my mastectomy, my surgeon did a little liposuction on my middle area as well. Hey, you have to make lemonade out lemons. The beauty of having the surgeries done all in the same day was that I never saw my body without my breasts. I did see it bruised, swollen, and cut but I got through it day by day with the love and support of my husband and family.

Over the last four years and since my surgery, I’ve been present to see my youngest daughter graduate from high school and my oldest daughter graduate from college. I plan on being present to witness much more in the years to come. Still, it’s never far away from me that I am a breast cancer survivor and I’m the mother of two daughters even if we have to pay for them out of pocket. And while my family had no history of breast cancer, my husband’s mother did battle with the disease, so we live knowing our daughter’s may have a higher chance of developing it. And sadly for African-American women, when breast cancer hits, it is often more aggressive and more deadly. Just this past Christmas my youngest daughter found a lump in one of her breasts. We were on pins and needles during the holidays until we found out it was benign

That’s our reality and there is no running away from it. So I’m taking control again in the only way that I can. By talking to my girls about getting mammograms earlier than suggested because of their history. That goes for genetic testing as well. I know far too many women lack the insurance to get much of the health care they need, but I encourage them to research the various programs that fund free mammograms and other free cancer screenings and tests.

Finally, as a breast cancer survivor I applaud Angelina Jolie for her honesty and for her bravery in sharing her bold decision. I can only hope it encourages all women of all colors to summon that same strength in making bold decisions and in taking better care of themselves.