Chiquita McKinley has a history of breast cancer on both sides of her family, she said, so she was always careful about self breast exams.
When she found a lump in 2012, she “was very emotional at first.”
“I sat down, and I let myself have one good cry, and then I embraced everything (about the treatment process).”
She researched her options and asked so many questions that everyone in the hospital, from the nurses and doctors to the billing clerks in the business office, knew her by her first name.
After rounds of chemotherapy, radiation and surgery to remove the lump, she’s been cancer-free for almost three years now, she said, and she made one final decision as part of her personal healing journey.
“I’m going to talk about it,” she said. With her friends, with her cousins, with her sisters, with anyone who will listen.
She’ll talk about cancer to the public from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. April 11 at Fest for Life, an outdoor festival at the Bon Carré Business Center that just happens to include free screenings for several types of cancer, along with heart disease and stroke risk assessments, said Johnnay Benjamin, director of early detection and education at Mary Bird Perkins-Our Lady of the Lake Cancer Center.
There’s a disparity in both detection and treatment outcomes for many minority groups when it comes to certain kinds of cancers, Benjamin said, and this event, which includes free screenings for breast, prostate, colorectal, skin and oral cancer, along with blood pressure, glucose and cholesterol testing, is the center’s way of trying to make a difference in those statistics.
While there are likely some genetic factors at work, she said, genetics don’t account for all of the story.
“We need to let people know when they need to get screened, and make it as convenient as possible to do that,” she said.
These are areas where medicine has very good, very accurate tools to screen for early signs of cancers, said Dr. Lauren Zatarain, an oncologist and physician representative who will be talking to people at Fest for Life about early detection.
“If we can catch these in the early stages, we also have very effective treatments,” she said.
When the Fest for Life began, it was primarily screenings only, but they’ve added on activities for children, entertainment and food to create a more festival-inspired atmosphere.
“It’s on a Saturday, it’s free, there’s something for the kids to do. We tried to think of everything so no one has a reason not to come,” Benjamin said.
McKinley caught her cancer in its second stage, and ever since, she’s been spreading the word about how important health screenings are.
“It’s time for us to take care of ourselves,” she said, and taking an active role in your health decisions is a huge part of that, and an empowering one.
McKinley teaches life skills classes to the patrons of the Capital Area Alliance for the Homeless, and said she found herself taking her own advice when it came to cancer treatment.
It’s a different world, with its own lingo and means of getting information, she said. “I tell my clients to carry a notebook and write things down. Think about ways of getting things done.”
McKinley said staying organized and positive probably lent itself to a better treatment experience, inasmuch as it’s possible for cancer.
“I told everybody around me how it was going to go,” she said. “If they wanted to be sad, they’d have to do that somewhere else, because I needed to stay positive,” she laughed.
She talks about cancer for one more reason, she said.
“There was a time when you couldn’t talk about cancer,” she said, recalling the day she found out her aunt was being treated for breast cancer — by seeing her with hair loss from chemotherapy. She hadn’t told everyone in the family about her diagnosis.
Her aunt kept it quiet because she was a private person, which McKinley said was understandable at the time, but McKinley felt horrible that a family member had to go through the sometimes grueling and scary process of treatment alone.
“So I’ll be at the Mary Bird Perkins booth at Fest for Life. I’ll be talking to people, I’ll be telling my story, I’ll do anything they need me to do. This is important,” she said.
Some screenings require privacy, and will be conducted free of charge in the center’s mobile clinic, which has a private exam room.
The unit was newly renovated, Benjamin said, and will be unveiled at the event.
For more information about Fest for Life, visit tinyurl.com/festforlife.