- Shonte Drakeford, 37, is a nurse practitioner living with stage 4 metastatic breast cancer.
- When she got her diagnosis, her cancer had metastasized to her lungs, spine, ribs, and hips.
- This is her story, as told to Jamie Orsini.
I am a nurse practitioner and Army wife living with stage 4 metastatic breast cancer. I don’t let my diagnosis define me, but I am sharing my story now in the hopes that it might help save another life.
I had my first symptom of breast cancer when I was 25 years old. As a nurse, I knew that the nipple discharge I was experiencing wasn’t normal. I went to the doctor, but I was told not to worry about it — I was too young for breast cancer. Come back if the discharge becomes bloody, they said.
Over the next six years my symptoms escalated, but still my treatment was either denied or delayed. I had painful periods and more nipple discharge. I was diagnosed with a dilated breast duct but told it wasn’t anything to be concerned about.
Things kept getting worse, and my symptoms were downplayed
I developed cysts in my breasts. One cyst was larger; I could feel it with my fingers, so I asked for a mammogram. My doctor said no. Again I was told that I was too young. They believed it was a benign cyst anyway.
Eventually I had surgery to remove the dilated breast duct. Doctors could have biopsied my cyst during that surgery, but they chose not to. For almost a year after that surgery, that cyst gave me really intense pain. It became hard. Again I went to the doctor, and again I was told it wasn’t anything to worry about. It was just scar tissue, they said.
During this time, my husband was serving in the Army. I saw doctors in Alaska, Georgia, and Washington state. This wasn’t just one doctor who missed the signs — it was many. After six years we moved to my hometown of Washington, DC. I began receiving my medical care at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, and that’s where I was finally diagnosed.
All at once I received the tests I had been requesting for years: an MRI, a mammogram, an ultrasound, a biopsy. The results confirmed that I had cancer. My doctors screened my entire body and found that cancer had already spread to my ribs, spine, hip, and lungs. I had stage 4 metastatic breast cancer.
I felt like I had not done enough
I asked my doctor if I had not done enough. I felt like I did what I was supposed to do: I paid attention to my body, I went to the doctor every time I was concerned, I asked for all the tests. My doctor told me I did everything right. I just slipped through the cracks of the system.
I don’t know if it’s because my symptoms began when I was young or if it’s because I’m Black. I’m trying not to focus on the why, but rather on what’s next for me. I’m not telling my story to hurt or call out my previous doctors. I’m trying to prevent this from happening to anyone else.
It’s so important to listen to your body and to advocate for yourself. Ask for a patient advocate — they’re there to fight for you and help you make sense of medical jargon and diagnoses. Bring a friend to your appointments. Take notes. Record your appointments so you can listen back to them later when you’re in a better mental place.
I’ve accepted my mortality.
I know that I’m probably going to die of this one day — I know it. Until then, I’m going to keep speaking out. Maybe if we keep having these conversations we can move that needle and reduce the number of deaths.