I remember my mother coming to pick my sister and me up from our grandparents’ house. It was the same house she had grown up in; a quaint 3 bedroom single-story home in an inner-city residential neighborhood on the southeast side of Houston. My eight year old self was eagerly waiting at the front door to greet my mommy before she could even exit her car; she drove a silver diesel Mercedes Benz that you could hear purring from a mile away. She stepped up into the front room, reaching down to pat me on the head, my mother’s way of saying hello. Her hair was straightened to shoulder length and her face flush with blood; an aberration from her normal naked face, save the occasional application of make-up to rose her cheeks. She asked where grandma was and I pointed in the direction of my grandparents’ bedroom.
My mother bee-lined to that room with a since of urgency I hadn’t seen before, shutting the door behind her; and although I was very young I was aware that something was wrong.They were prisoners of that room for what seemed like forever – forever to me being standing in the corner in timeout for anything beyond 5 minutes, although I’m sure it was much longer than that. When they finally emerged my misty-eyed mother whispered, “Mommy’s sick, but I’m going to be okay.” I believed her because I trusted her. My mother had been diagnosed with late-stage metastatic breast cancer that had spread to her spine;she was given six months to live.
Two years later, and two inches shorter in height, my mother had endured numerous surgeries on her vertebrae and countless nights in St. Luke’s hospital. In that time my sister and I had been bounced around between the care of our father, grandparents, and Godparents. We’d spent so much time in the cancer ward that people knew us by name in the McDonald’s on the first floor of the hospital. We’d even made friends with a pediatric cancer patient who had a Nintendo on the same floor as my mom.
My mother had received just enough chemotherapy to stave off the cancer without losing her beautiful head of hair that she was known for, and she was outta there! We were outta there!
I was one month into the 5th grade, and here was my mother driving me to school in that silver Benz on a sunny Friday morning. Slumped over the steering wheel of the car, I could sense my mother wasn’t at her best as she labored to wish me a good day at school; but she was home, and that’s all that mattered to me at that time. I’d been raised to thank God for everything good, and shame the devil for all things bad, and God had been kind to my family. His countenance had shined on us for much longer than six months, and for that I was grateful.
That sunny Friday morning outside of Lockhart Elementary School would be the last time I’d see my mother alive.
My mother transitioned to eternity the following Sunday morning.
My reality was now what my imagination could not realize before. I questioned what I’d do without my mother, but not simply rhetorical “what ifs?” grounded in the hypothetical.
Seriously – what would I do without my mother? Why did God take her from me, or was this the devil at work? She was such a beautiful person. Somebody? Anybody! Answer me, please!?
And then God spoke to me in a way in which I had never heard before. Our pastor, an old white man of German descent with a neatly cut snow-white beard, prayed with us in the same living room my mommy had told me she was sick two years prior. He was the pastor that baptized both my sister and me; the only pastor I’d ever known, and it was in his words, wrapped in his smooth bass voice, that God was more present than he had ever been in any other hour of my life. It was as if God was sitting right there on that blue couch with us, comforting us, consoling us.
God spoke to me that morning; not to my physical ear, but to my spirit. God’s ethereal presence filled my insides with a feeling of calm; that same feeling you experience when someone you love and trust with your safety assures you that there is nothing to worry about. I felt safe. In that moment of prayer I truly believed everything would be fine because I trusted God the same way I trusted my mother when she told me she’d be okay. Night in and night out I recited the bedtime prayer, “now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my soul to keep…,” but this was the first time God spoke back to me; or at least it was the first time I was able to hear Him.
From then on I set out on a mission. I dedicated my life to “killing cancer before it killed me.” Fc*k cancer was my attitude and fc*k you too if you doubt I can stop it. I was determined to honor the life of my mother and grandmother and others who’d been victims of this murderer by giving cancer the same fate it had given them.
In the process I had become cold to the point where I didn’t shed a tear again until I left for college. Instead my bottled up emotions were pushed out of my waking life and into night terrors in the aftermath of my mother’s death, where I’d live out my nightmares in real time. My focus was consuming.
I enlisted in a high school for aspiring health professionals where I studied medicine and began conducting cancer research in my senior year. I accepted the Packard Medical Science Research Scholarship to study cancer throughout college. I pursued a Master’s in Public Health with a concentration in cancer epidemiology. I published.
My sister had “UB the Cure 3.23.83” tattooed on her forearm – a play on words using my initials “U.B.”, my birth date, and my life’s cause: to cure cancer.
I was accomplishing what I’d set out to, but the pressure to succeed had never been more present than it was then, and though everything appeared to be going as planned on the outside, I was struggling on the inside. It was evident that my focus had shifted from the God I’d leaned on to comfort me 15 years earlier, to my own devices. I hadn’t heard God speak in years because I’d drowned Him out with my own albeit noble, yet selfish ambitions. I’d unconsciously closed the line of communication with God that had been opened on that blue couch in my grandparents’ living room and I desperately needed to reconnect.
I retreated to South America to study abroad at Argentina’s principal cancer foundation: same cause, different scenery. I knew no one. I was like a black unicorn in an overwhelmingly white-European descent context.
I stood out; my North American privilege separating me from the impoverished people of Latin America maybe even more so than the color of my skin.
I was outside of my comfort zone, but life begins outside of our comfort zones. I was finally living.
In a circuitous series of events, I instead volunteered with Buenos Aires’ principal HIV and AIDS foundation. For 10 months I staffed 4 hospitals caring for people living with HIV and AIDS, and in doing so I found God in my life again. I could once again hear Him speak to me and he was directing my attention elsewhere. He showed me disease, and violence, and poverty. He opened my eyes to drug use and prostitution, discrimination and government corruption. He also showed me unconditional love and radical hospitality. He opened my heart to culture and history and His beautiful creation, Mother Nature. God was liberating me from the pressures I had unfairly burdened myself with while simultaneously revealing my life’s call – rediscovered.
You see, there’s more than one way to cure cancer because there’s more than just one cancer to cure.
There are hospitals in the world without electricity or water, with dogs and cats roaming the hallways unpoliced; hospitals with 6 persons or more living in a single room where tuberculosis (TB) flows freely in every breath. In these hospitals are little boys and girls who are living with HIV, alone, because their families either are not capable of caring for them, or just don’t care to. I spent a lot of time in hospitals like this in Argentina. I inhaled the air they breathed and shared the TB they shared because I refused to wear a mask that covered my face from patients – from human beings who needed nothing more than to see the face of care and compassion.
I met a little brown skinned Latina girl with thin black hair down her back and a frail frame burdened by HIV. She’d also lost parents to disease, and the aunt who was to care for her – not to physical death, but to abandonment because of the stigmatized status of her niece’s diagnosis.
My once hardened, cold heart was being warmed and softened by the shared trauma and hurt of their lived experience and mine.
That little girl was my 10 year old self questioning why this had happened to me; to her. My singular focus on curing cancer, the disease, had obstructed my ability to see the other cancers that impacted this global village that I was now a citizen of. Through these experiences, through that little girl, I realized that the answers I’d been asking God for were in the connection I had made to all the pain and trauma in the world, and how our liberation from that cancer is bound.
So if you hate cancer with the deep passion in which I hate cancer then you must hate metastatic* poverty.
If you hate cancer you must despise invasive discrimination that infects our communities at alarming rates.
If you hate cancer you have to detest pervasive inequality and injustice in the world.
If you hate cancer then you loathe tumorigenic illiteracy that spreads and multiplies into industrial prison complexes.
If you hate cancer with the fervor that I do, you abhor debilitating, life-taking religious doctrine and ideologies.
If you hate cancer as intimately as I hate cancer then your attitude should be “fc*k cancer and fc*k you too if you doubt I can stop it.”
So fc*k poverty and HIV and AIDS. Fc*k mass illiteracy and mass incarceration. Fc*k gun violence and war. Fc*k slavery and human trafficking. Fc*k gender inequality and violence against women. Fc*k racial and LGBTQIA discrimination. Fc*k drugs and the war against them. Fc*k cancerS.
Today, my cause is now my call, because I allowed God to intercede on my behalf. The answer to the “why” lies in the conviction that He has grown inside my softened heart to not just defend the cause of my mother but to defend the cause of the fatherless, the homeless, the hapless, helpless and the hopeless. UB the Cure is no longer a pressure laden phrase exclusive to me; rather it’s a call for all to advocacy, activism, and awareness for the many cancers that have infected the body of Christ. Marian Wright Edelman of the Children’s Defense Fund famously explains,
“Noah’s ark was built by amateurs; the Titanic by experts, and we know how both stories end.”
Don’t wait on the “experts” to cure the ills of this world. Instead, go out and U.B. the Cure; U.B. the Change you wish to see in the world.
*Metastasis is a term used to describe cancer that has spread from its origin in the body to invade others parts of the body.