She also felt incredibly alone.
“The first day I went into the cancer center for treatment, I noticed that I was the youngest person there,” Eatmon recalls. “And I just remember that feeling … it was horrible. I felt so alone. All the other women there were the same age as my mother and grandmother, but nobody my age at all.”
The idea that breast cancer could happen to women who looked like her and who were around her age was something Eatmon hadn’t even considered prior to her diagnosis – not because it wasn’t happening, but because it was something that people in her family, and community, avoided talking about.
“When I told my mom about my diagnosis, one of the first things she asked was if I wanted her sisters – my aunts – to know,” Eatmon says. “She didn’t want anyone else in our family or community to know. She was worried they’d treat me differently, and that it was something to be ashamed of, since I was so young. In the Black community as a whole, it's one of those very taboo type of things to talk about, so it makes everything that much more difficult.”
Because of this, some Black women might wait until symptoms are too severe and too noticeable to ignore before seeking medical treatment or advice. And with a disease like breast cancer, where early detection can be critical to a patient’s positive outcome, time spent waiting to seek a diagnosis or begin treatment increases risks.
Stigmatizing breast cancer diagnoses may lead to increases in late-stage diagnosis of breast cancer and subsequent increases in breast cancer disparities in mortality in the Black community, according to Dr. Kim Johnson, senior director of the African American Health Equity Initiative at Susan G. Komen.
“It’s becoming an unwanted trend, seeing younger patients getting their first diagnosis at later stages,” says Dr. Johnson. “And what that says to me is that we need to start interventions at an earlier age for Black women. Whether those interventions are education and screening availability, genetic counseling and testing or improving overall health literacy among the community. But it’s also going to take families opening up and talking about it, knowing and sharing their own health histories.”
According to Johnson, the systemic barriers within the healthcare system such as racism and biases are just a few of the many drivers behind a growing disparity when it comes to oncology and cancer treatment and research for the Black community in the U.S. A lack of diversity in clinical trials, inadequate access to quality care and a mistrust of the healthcare system – earned through historical atrocities such as the infamous Tuskegee Experiment of the 1930s – all contribute to an already challenging environment for Black Americans facing cancer.
It’s a problem Dr. Johnson is taking on through her work with Susan G. Komen. The goal of the African American Health Equity Initiative, which was established in 2015, is to reduce breast cancer disparities in Black Americans by 25 percent, focusing on 10 major metropolitan areas where the disparity of mortality rates between Black and white women are the highest.
“To be effective in any of these metropolitan areas, and with the Black communities there, we have to first understand who the trusted members and leaders of those communities are,” says Dr. Johnson. “We have to collaborate with people and organizations that are respected entities within the Black community, and work alongside them as partners in order to earn that trust.”
One of the metropolitan areas the initiative has focused on is Atlanta, Eatmon’s hometown. And it just so happens that a national partner of Komen is also a fixture in Eatmon’s local community: Walgreens.
Building on trust
Looking back on that first day of cancer treatment at a medical center on the north side of the city, Eatmon still recalls how she felt as the youngest woman in the room … it was, among other things, unfamiliar. But on her way back home, when she had to stop and pick up her newly prescribed medications, she found herself in a familiar place.
“At most of the major healthcare centers here in Atlanta there’s a Walgreens nearby, and that’s where my family has always gone to get our prescriptions filled,” says Eatmon. “They know us, we know them, and we feel comfortable there.”
The location Eatmon relied on is the Walgreens Community Pharmacy located in Sandy Springs, Ga. Community pharmacies are specialty pharmacies that provide patient care to those managing complex conditions, such as cancer, and are located in areas where pharmacists can connect with their patients and develop deeper, more meaningful relationships with the communities they serve.
Community: a Walgreens specialty Pharmacy in Sandy Spring, Ga.
It’s that high-touch, relationship-driven approach that helped Eatmon at a time when she was feeling more alone than ever … and it’s also why she continued going to that pharmacy for needs beyond her cancer treatment. As she and her husband continued trying to have children, the Community pharmacy location remained a trusted partner for her when she explored fertility treatments in recent years.
“I’ll always just really be grateful to Walgreens, and my pharmacists, for taking the time to get to know me,” says Eatmon. “I feel like I'm at home when I'm with them.”
Becoming an advocate
Having experienced that initial feeling of loneliness following her diagnosis, it’s been important to Eatmon that she help other Black women in similar situations. In the years since, she’s worked with Susan G. Komen across the country to advocate for more cancer research, increased educational resources and more diverse clinical trials. She connects with women diagnosed under age 40 through the Living Beyond Breast Cancer Young Advocate Program, meeting what she calls her many “breast” friends along the way.
She also works with Cati Diamond Stone and others with Komen in Atlanta on the Sisters of Promise Advisory Board, a group of 20 prominent women in Atlanta’s Black community who go into churches, schools and other community hubs to promote the importance of early detection and screenings.
She understands the power that being able to talk honestly, freely and openly can have on a young woman going through breast cancer, just like she was.
“Now my main focus is helping young women understand their breasts, especially in the Black community,” she says. “I believe sharing my experiences so other people see someone who looks like them and their daughters changes the conversation around breast cancer. If you can’t have the conversation, you can’t have change.”