Janice McKenzie-Crayton is a take-charge type of person. She was President and Chief Executive Officer of Big Brothers Big Sisters of Metro Atlanta from 1992 until her recent retirement. So, when it comes to her personal health, it’s not surprising that she is very proactive in her care. She never just accepts one person’s opinion, but rather talks to people she trusts, gathers information, and determines the best course of action.
That game plan served her well as she fought and survived breast cancer three times since 1996. Her gynecologist, who felt a lump that wasn’t there in her exam the year before, first diagnosed her. With no previous experience with breast cancer and still in a foggy state from the diagnosis, she was “going with the flow” until someone suggested a mastectomy. Her instincts kicked in and she called an old friend from Howard University whose expertise was in oncology research. He suggested she go for a second opinion to the closest Comprehensive Cancer Center, which at the time was at University of Alabama at Birmingham. She was impressed with their team approach and learned that she was a good candidate for breast conservation. She put together her care plan “cafeteria style,” picking and choosing where to go in Atlanta for lumpectomy surgery, radiation and chemotherapy.
As a young mother with two small children, Janice found the first cancer diagnosis really frightening. Her entire family watched her hair get cut into a short afro in anticipation of it falling out, and they all cried. Still, her medical team assured her that she would do just fine.
Eight years later, when her mammogram showed an issue in her right breast, she got that “sinking feeling” in her stomach, and although not as fearful, she was still very aggravated. Once again, a lumpectomy was the chosen course of care, though there was evidence, though slight, that some lymph nodes might be involved.
It was almost ten years later, in 2013, when she was diagnosed for the third time.
She decided it was time for a change and went to M.D. Anderson in Texas for a double mastectomy. She didn’t have to have chemotherapy and was not interested in reconstruction. Instead, she opted for a full tank-top tattoo that covers her scars, with all the flowers she loves: violets, roses and peach blossoms.
“Everybody approaches this thing differently. I was very upbeat, and wasn’t going to let breast cancer define me, so I only shared by experience on a ‘need to know’ basis. But, I believe everything happens for a reason, and decided that the message I was not getting before was that I needed to do more to share my story.
So, now, I’m a megaphone. I have put myself out there telling women that cancer doesn’t have to be a death sentence. It is a moment in time. You are not your hair; your hair will grow back. I am a walking witness to the hope, anticipation and expectations for the future that people with cancer experience,” she says.
Through her involvement on the Board of Susan G. Komen, she’s also worked to help close the disparity gap in cancer care. As a young black woman, she felt like she didn’t belong at the “Look Good, Feel Better” meetings with all older white women. When they asked someone to model the wigs, she figured she better do it, because what they were doing for those ladies would definitely not work for her. But, when it came to access to resources and family support, she said, “I was like a privileged white woman.” It’s now Janice’s face that graces the Susan G. Komen poster at the Atlanta Airport, with the message “In the Fight Against Breast Cancer, we all are one.”
“Throughout my cancer journey, I never felt alone. And I wish that for every person who is diagnosed: to know that you are not alone.”
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