When Tamika Felder, a 47-year-old Black author and entrepreneur in Marlboro, Maryland, was 25 years old, she received the shock of her life: She was diagnosed with cervical cancer.
At the time, Felder was a young news producer working in Washington, D.C., and didn’t have any concerns about her health. “After not being screened for cervical cancer for a few years due to several factors, including lack of insurance, I was finally screened after obtaining health insurance through a new job. So, essentially, it was found after a routine screening,” she says. Felder was diagnosed with Stage 2A cervical cancer.
Felder was not alone as a Black woman receiving this devastating diagnosis. According to a study published in the Journal of Health Care for the Poor and Underserved, Black women are 41 percent more likely to develop cervical cancer than white women and 75 percent more likely to die from it.
Research points to various sociological factors to help explain why Black women are disproportionately affected by cervical cancer. Some include bias among healthcare providers, lack of knowledge or misinformation about the disease, and limited to no access to health insurance and quality healthcare.
According to the American Cancer Society, almost all cervical cancers are either squamous cell carcinoma or adenocarcinoma (ADC). A study published in the Journal of Clinical Oncology found that Black women have the highest mortality rate for cervical ADC, despite having the lowest incidence of this type of cervical cancer. Cervical ADC is the subtype Felder was diagnosed with.
Making Sense of Her Cervical Cancer Diagnosis
Once Felder was diagnosed, she was referred to a specialist and then a gynecologic oncologist at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. Her oncologist recommended that she have a radical hysterectomy, which meant she could not have children — her lifelong dream. Naturally, she sought a second opinion.
“I was completely shocked; I was numb. Scared and a bit in denial. My fear was that I was going to die and I wasn’t ready. I had more living to do. I feel the same now at 47,” says Felder. “The disparity of Black and Hispanic women dying from cervical cancer is unacceptable. We have the tools, yet this health inequity exists in the United States. This is all a direct result of slavery, which leads to a mistrust of the medical system. Black women should be able to be seen, heard, and be able to trust their medical providers.”
Felder explored getting in vitro fertilization in order to have children but she was denied by her insurance company because she was not married and was not actively trying to conceive. Felder came to the realization that having a radical hysterectomy would be the best and most effective treatment option.
After her hysterectomy Felder underwent chemotherapy and radiation therapy. Fortunately, she was surrounded by a supportive and knowledgeable team of doctors who listened to her.
“My treatment and care were very good. But I’ve heard horror stories and seen firsthand how Black women are treated and how we are not seen or heard,” Felder says. “I was lucky that I ended up with a great care team. There are instances where the system failed me in terms of fertility preservation, but my care team at Johns Hopkins gave me excellent care. It’s why I’ve done so well after cancer treatment.”
Black women routinely experience discriminatory medical treatment from providers. “I’m in the minority. Everyone deserves access to excellent care,” says Felder. A study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences revealed that among white medical students, nearly half held false beliefs about biological differences in Black patients, including thicker skin and less-sensitive nerve endings — causing them to undertreat their pain and symptoms.
Giving Back After Cervical Cancer Recovery
Felder says that going through cervical cancer treatment was only half the battle. While her recovery process after surgery was physically challenging, returning to her old life mentally and emotionally was even more difficult. She constantly wrestled with feelings of isolation and anger.
A true change agent at heart, Tamika decided to start a support group in 2005 called Tamika and Friends, which is now Cervivor, Inc. As founder and chief visionary, Felder has created a global community of patient advocates to inspire and empower women impacted by cervical cancer. Cervivor’s mission is to provide education and awareness, to destigmatize the disease, and help find a cure for it.
Felder is currently preparing to celebrate 22 years being cancer-free and thriving, but she still experiences the effects of her diagnosis.
“Overall, I’m doing great. I have to deal with several secondary post-cancer issues; but overall, I’m alive,” she says. And it’s not just about being alive, but your quality of life beyond cancer. “That’s another issue that Black women have to face. Receiving care should also mean a good quality of life post-cancer,” says Felder.
Taking Control of Cervical Cancer
Here are a few suggestions that Tamika has for other Black women diagnosed with cervical cancer:
- Get screened. Early on, cervical cancer won’t cause symptoms. Stay on top of your health and never skip an annual Pap smear or a doctor’s appointment.
- Ask questions and educate yourself about the disease. “If you are not being heard [by your provider], seek a second opinion, if you can. The key is also education and awareness,” says Felder.
- Advocate for yourself. No one will ever be a better advocate for your health and well-being than you. “If you can’t advocate for yourself, find someone who can advocate on your behalf,” says Felder.
- Seek support. “You are not alone. Cervivor is here to support you,” Felder says. You can also check out the National Cervical Cancer Coalition and the American Cancer Society.