KISH: Can you tell us about Monique Earl?
I’m a middle class kid from South LA and I still live about a half mile from where I grew up in the Leimert Park neighborhood of Los Angeles. I attended an all-girls catholic high school and love the fact that some of my classmates are my closest friends today. It’s my very own “Flossy Posse” like in the movie Girls Trip. I received my undergraduate degree in political science from California State University Northridge and my graduate degree in public administration from American University in Washington DC. My husband of 16 years and I have a beautiful, blended family with two very grown adult children (daughter and son), a thirteen year old baby girl, and a five month old grandboy! Professionally, I am a veteran executive of City Government. I served as a Deputy Mayor and in leadership roles at the City Controller’s Office, Department of Transportation and the Department of Water and Power. I am now in the private sector as a consultant leading work around state and local government nationally. For fun, I love concerts at the Hollywood Bowl, eating good food and traveling with my family and friends. My favorite city is New Orleans, LA.
KISH: How did you learn that you had Triple-Negative breast cancer?
Monique: I discovered I had breast cancer just like more than forty percent of the women diagnosed with this illness, by accident. The lump nearly jumped out and grabbed me while watching a random show on Netflix. I turned to my husband and asked him if he felt the same thing, he did and encouraged me to get it checked out. The next day I scheduled an appointment for a mammogram. Not quite fifty, yearly mammograms are considered optional by my healthcare network so I did not get them regularly. After the necessary testing and pathology reports I would soon learn that I was diagnosed with TNBC (Triple Negative Breast Cancer). One of the most aggressive and deadliest forms of the disease.
KISH: Why did you decide to talk about your breast cancer journey?
Monique: I decided to talk about my journey because I was completely blind sided by this diagnosis and know that there are many women in my same position. For all intent and purposes, I play by the rules regarding my health. That includes eating right (mostly), working out, and following doctors orders as it relates to check ups and required screenings. The reality is, Cancer doesn’t play by any rules and will place you in its crosshairs whether you have a family history or not. Once I received the diagnosis, I also recognized that there was a lot I did not know about breast cancer beyond a pink ribbon and I want to make sure women understand the intricacies around this life threatening illness. For instance, I was unaware of all the environmental factors that can contribute to breast cancer including drinking alcohol and eating meat in addition to the chemicals and air we breathe.
KISH: What details about your breast cancer experience are you comfortable sharing?
Monique: I have Triple Negative Breast Cancer (TNBC). While TNBC affects women of all races, Black women are more likely to get diagnosed under the age of fifty, not receive adequate treatment, and die from this more aggressive subtype. So what is TNBC? In most cases, breast cancers have receptors that help them grow when they’re exposed to the hormones estrogen and progesterone, or receptors for a protein called HER2. Patients with those cancers benefit from targeted hormone therapies or drugs for the HER2 protein. TNBC, on the other hand, lacks those receptors, and is grossly under researched making less precise forms of chemotherapy the de facto and most effective treatment strategy.
I endured six months of chemotherapy that started out with weekly treatments and evolved into treatment every three weeks for the last two months. And while everyone knows chemotherapy is no walk in the park, I found ways to persevere both physically and mentally. Through prayer, meditation, exercise, and a lot of sea moss I maintained some semblance of a quality of life. Losing my hair was also a rather eye opening and uncomfortable part of this journey. I loved my short natural hair and went through a weeks long back and forth with wigs before I finally landed on and accepted my bald head. It’s too hot to wear wigs and one side effect of chemo people don’t talk enough about are wicked hot flashes! Lastly, I recently had breast conserving surgery, a lumpectomy and will go through six weeks of radiation on top of periodic immunotherapy treatments at the infusion center until March of next year.
KISH: How did finding out that you had Triple-Negative cancer impact your family?
Monique: I have a very close knit and spiritual family so this diagnosis helped to strengthen that bond in the face of some emotional ups and downs. When my weekly treatments started, my art curator husband, Larry, and our youngest daughter dotingly took on the role of caregiver. And to my complete surprise, I willingly took on the role of care recipient and active listener. I anxiously awaited their arrival home each day to hear the latest middle-school gossip and happenings in the art world, holding on to their every word. There were moments of frustration when you just get tired of being sick and I took it on them. We were able, fortunately, to work through those as well. My mom, sisters and “good, good” girl friends showed up and showed out with love and support. And my very best friend organized a cancer walk in her hometown of Bakersfield in support of my journey. We were even featured in the local newspaper.
KISH: What were some of the things you did for self-care during your journey?
Monique: My guilty pressure is breakfast, so I would treat myself to breakfast as often as I could. I also took a lot of walks on the beach, journaled and watched more TV than I probably should have.
KISH: What are your thoughts on working during treatment?
Monique: There are not many times in a woman’s professional life that she can take off from work and focus on self-care. Even during pregnancy, most of us continue working almost up until our due date. If your job and finances will allow it, I recommend all women with a breast cancer diagnosis take the time off. Initially, not only do you need that time off for a myriad of doctor’s appointments, but you will also need the mental capacity to process all of the medical information you are receiving from the doctors. Next, there is treatment and or surgery and giving your mind and body the rest it needs to go through that process is critical to long term healing and wellbeing. I took five months off from work and it was a game changer in terms of my overall wellbeing.
KISH: Did you have any negative thoughts? If so, how did you handle them?
Monique: I am a mostly positive person. In fact, one of my mantras for life is “choose joy”, and with this diagnosis I was forced to face my own mortality, possibly for the first time in my life, in a very real way. It was not easy. In order to combat thoughts of prolonged illness and even death, I focused on prayer, meditation and positive thinking. I also had a sisterhood of breast cancer thrivers that were either a part of my existing network or introduced to me through this process. They were not only an inspiration but instrumental in keeping my sane and not letting negative thoughts spiral.
KISH:What’s one piece of advice you would like to share with other Black women?
Monique: My advice to other black women is to unapologetically choose you. We are very much used to taking care of others at home, at work and with our families. That model is unsustainable. As part of the breast cancer process you will need to be your own advocate, and with the help of God, your own healer. That only comes with choosing yourself above all else.