Listen to your doctor and trust them. Knowledge is power. Ask your doctor about genetic testing and don’t be afraid of what you may learn. Seek the knowledge about your family health history to gain the clarity about your health, the confidence of knowing your options, and the control to make informed decisions. Soon after my first mammogram and my initial breast cancer diagnosis, my twin Vanessa took a genetic test, which revealed that she too was BRCA2 positive. She wouldn’t have known unless she was proactive enough to ask her doctor about genetic testing. She decided to have preventive surgeries, which decreased her risk of developing breast and ovarian cancer.
Cancer is a horrible and terrifying disease. Yet millions of people have beaten the odds and beat cancer. Authority Magazine started a new series called “I Survived Cancer and Here Is How I Did It”. In this interview series, we are talking to cancer survivors to share their stories, in order to offer hope and provide strength to people who are being impacted by cancer today. As a part of this interview series, I had the pleasure of interviewing Valeda Keys.
Valeda Keys is a two-time breast cancer survivor, author and founder and executive director of Valeda’s Hope, a St. Louis-based breast cancer support organization providing resources to women in the community along their cancer journey. A licensed practical nurse with over 25 years of experience, Valeda’s passion is assisting women in their breast cancer journey from diagnosis to remission, speaking across the world to raise awareness about breast cancer risk and the steps young girls and women can do to promote breast health. Valeda is the author of “My Strength is Your Strength: Winning Against Breast Cancer,” a raw and uncut journey through the pain, perils and pearls of her seven-year journey through her battle with breast cancer.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! We really appreciate the courage it takes to publicly share your story. Before we start, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your background and your childhood backstory?
I was born on June 18, thirty minutes after my identical twin Vanessa. I was raised in St. Louis, Missouri. I am a Licensed Practical Nurse.
In 1987, my mother was diagnosed with breast cancer at the age of 36. Then, 20 years later, when I was 56 years old, my mother was diagnosed with breast cancer for the second time in the same breast. During this critical time, I was the caretaker for my mother and experienced her struggles. My mother was and still is quiet about her breast cancer journey. She doesn’t give it a story or let it define her. She views it as just something that happened to her and moved on. Through it all, she persevered. It was a difficult time that she endured, but she knew she would come out on the other side because she didn’t allow for another option.
Breast cancer doesn’t discriminate, but it also doesn’t target all women equally. The American Cancer Society states that Black women have a higher chance of developing breast cancer before the age of 40 than White women, and Black women are more likely to die from breast cancer than any other race or ethnicity group. At the time of my mother’s initial diagnosis, most people weren’t as aware of breast cancer as they are today. The information wasn’t as prevalent, or mainstream common knowledge at the time. Thankfully, that’s changed.
My mother is still alive to this date. During her treatment, I had a vivid dream that I would be my mother’s daughter to have to go through this challenge with breast cancer as well. But in this dream, I had an overwhelming feeling that I would be okay either way. This dream reassured me for the future.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“When people show you who they are, believe them the first time” — Maya Angelou.
During my breast cancer journey, I lost friends, and I gained new friends — good friends who expressed that I wasn’t alone and that they would my support. I kept those good friends because they are the ones who were meant to be there. They showed me who they were, and they were there for me during all those tumultuous times. I live by this quote and live my life in truth.
Let’s now shift to the main part of our discussion about surviving cancer. Do you feel comfortable sharing with us the story surrounding how you found out that you had cancer?
Due to my mother’s breast cancer history, I was advised to start getting yearly mammograms at the age of 27. I never missed a single appointment, and in retrospect, I’m thankful that I was so proactive about it.
On April 26, 2010, at the age of 37, I received a phone call from the St. Louis Breast & Cancer Institute saying, “Mrs. Keys, you have Ductal Carcinoma In Situ”. I knew that meant cancer. The physician told me to call the office in the morning for further details. It was the longest night of my life — one that I call an “interruption of life.”
After speaking with my care team, I decided to receive a lumpectomy on my left breast. My care team also suggested that I undergo genetic testing and I did so using the Myriad Genetics MyRisk Hereditary Cancer Test. My test results came back as I was recovering from my procedure and revealed I carried the BRCA2 gene.
Armed with the vital information gained from my genetic test results, I was able to clearly assess and think through what the right prevention and treatment path was for me and to have those important conversations with my doctors. I simply couldn’t imagine having my breast removed as suggested, even with this gene. My surgical oncologist and I decided to proceed with the close observation approach, which included my lumpectomy radiation, mammograms every 6 months and a drug to be taken for five years to prevent breast cancer from growing in my right breast.
From June to July, I underwent radiation every day, with my weekends considered rest days. In August, on my mother’s 60th birthday, I started medication. My journey was not without challenges, and I experienced a lot of side effects from the radiation, including a bout of shingles in October 2010 and a hospitalization to remove my gallbladder in March 2011 — the result of a compromised immune system.
After I had healed from my gallbladder surgery, I made an appointment to have my ovaries removed, as my BRCA2 status put me at high risk for ovarian cancer. The surgery never happened, as my second mammogram revealed I had breast cancer again — this time in my right breast. It was August 11, 2011, and I was 39 years old — just two years from my first diagnosis.
My medical oncologist advised me to discontinue my medication and make an appointment with my breast surgeon to talk about a potential double mastectomy because if I waited, I could be looking at a third round of cancer from my BRCA2 gene. Just a month later, I made the decision to undergo a double mastectomy with lymph node removal with tissue expanders put in place.
On June 29, 2012, two weeks after my 40th birthday, I underwent a Davinci Hysterectomy to decrease my chances of developing ovarian cancer, which I was also at high risk for due to carrying the BRCA2 gene. A few short months later in November, I had to have a surgery known as a “Delay In TRAM,”. This surgery is required before the actual “TRAM” surgery, otherwise known as reconstructive breast surgery, to help decrease risk of infection and provide adequate amount of blood flow. In March 2012, I headed back to the operating room for the TRAM surgery, where the surgeons used my own tissue for reconstruction surgery. I soon developed an infection, which required further hospitalization and was sent home with a wound bag and directed to administer my own intravenous medications. After I had properly recovered, I had my final surgery — a nipple reconstruction — in July 2013.
From 2010 to 2014, I underwent seven surgeries — about two per year. The toll on my body was tremendous. I slept in a recliner for two and a half years because it was the only way I could get comfortable. Cancer came with many, many challenges, and a mix of emotions — and was an uphill battle not just for me, but for my husband, children and family.
What was the scariest part of that event? What did you think was the worst thing that could happen to you?
The scariest part of my breast cancer journey was thinking that I was going to die. At one point, I was consumed with worry that my breast cancer was going to spread throughout my body and that I wouldn’t survive. When anyone has a surgery, there’s always a chance of an infection happening. I had a lot of surgeries. And with a compromised immune system, my chances of developing an infection were higher. It did happen — my scariest nightmare came true. It was a dark few days, staying overnight in the hospital by myself with nurses and doctors in and out and the constant beeping of the machines. I felt safe in the hospital and under the care of my doctors, but frightened and anxious that the infection would potentially spread and take over. It was terrifying, but I never gave up. Maybe I channeled my inner mother and borrowed her perseverance, but I just knew that if I did everything my doctor told me to do, that there was light.
How did you react in the short term?
When I was recovering from my Davicini Hysterectomy, I suddenly felt like I was ready to use my experience and story to give back to others. I feel that it was put on my heart to have a breast cancer awareness conference called, “My Strength Is Your Strength”. This name came from everything I’ve been through and for women that may be on this same journey. I knew that I needed to lead this conference, and for it to be a success, I needed it to be self-funded.
The first “My Strength Is Your Strength” breast cancer awareness conference took place in November 2012 and was a great success with more than 120 attendees. The purpose of the conference is to bring awareness to the community, to honor survivors and their caregivers, discuss diagnosis options and the impact of genetic testing, and to provide educational knowledge about the latest research in breast cancer treatment. This annual conference is a lot of work, but it’s so important to provide the community with materials to bring awareness of breast cancer to family, friends, and strangers. Knowledge is power.
In 2024, the “My Strength Is Your Strength” breast cancer awareness conference will celebrate its 10th anniversary in St. Louis.
After the dust settled, what coping mechanisms did you use? What did you do to cope physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually?
I believe in God, quiet time, positive people, and support groups. Mental health is also so important. Cry if you need to. It’s okay for other people to see you cry. This cancer journey is a struggle, but it doesn’t have to be a solo trip. Let others in and ask for support. Accept help.
Another coping mechanism is sharing my experience with others. I speak at various community places such as churches and schools to tell my story and raise awareness about breast cancer.
A big part of my journey is the time I’ve had to reflect inward and find my own strength. This developed into writing a book about my unique journey with breast cancer and what I’ve learned along the way. It took me eight years, but my book was finally published titled “My Strength is Your Strength: Winning Against Breast Cancer” (also available on Amazon.) It’s a guidebook for dealing with breast cancer that I gave to my family and that is available for all newly diagnosed women.
Is there a particular person you are grateful towards who helped you learn to cope and heal? Can you share a story about that?
First is my husband Larry. He stayed with me and prayed with me through the entire journey. He persevered with me, and for me. He never missed a surgery, he was my caregiver, and stands by me today.
Second is my Aunt Arnette. She graciously opened her home to me while I recovered from surgery. It was reassuring to know that I had someone to be there for me, who would take care of me, while my husband returned to work. She was my nurse and my caretaker at the time.
Third is my mother. She dealt with breast cancer twice and survived. I knew that if she could do it, then so could I.
In my own cancer struggle, I sometimes used the idea of embodiment to help me cope. Let’s take a minute to look at cancer from an embodiment perspective. If your cancer had a message for you, what do you think it would want or say?
My cancer’s message to me is that it is strong, but I am stronger and so are you. This was the impetus for naming my conference and book — my strength is your strength.
What did you learn about yourself from this very difficult experience? How has cancer shaped your worldview? What has it taught you that you might never have considered before? Can you please explain with a story or example?
I’ve learned to take one second at a time. It’s no longer one day at a time, but one second at a time. The reasoning is that you may get a phone call and that one simple phone call changes the rest of the day, the month, the year. You just don’t know. One second at a time.
How have you used your experience to bring goodness to the world?
In 2013, I founded Valeda’s Hope, a 510c3 nonprofit organization that assists women in their journey from diagnosis to remission. Valeda’s Hope donates recliners to women healing from breast cancer surgery. This idea is a result of my experience of a long and painful recovery from my double mastectomy surgery. I couldn’t comfortably rest in my own bed or couch following surgery because I had drains where my breasts had been and limited mobility of my arms. It was challenging to lie down flat, and I needed assistance to get in and out of bed. My husband’s recliner was my heaven-sent solution, and once I recovered, I knew I wanted to give recliners to women who underwent the same surgery.
Along with recliners, we also deliver care items, such as soft button-down pajamas that don’t require patients to lift their arms over their heads, comfy slippers and adult coloring books, among other items. A free consultation service is also available to breast cancer patients and their caregivers.
At times, I like to give back by helping women to get settled, using my nursing skills to empty their drains and show them how to do it themselves.
What are a few of the biggest misconceptions and myths out there about fighting cancer that you would like to dispel?
A big misconception is that mammograms are painful and they’re ok to skip. Mammograms are essential to catching breast cancer early and help save lives. Yes, mammograms are slightly uncomfortable and may be awkward, but they are incredibly important to your health.
I believe that my dedication to regular mammograms saved my life because it detected my breast cancer early. We need increased access to mammograms, better education on breast health and more efforts dedicated to prevention through early detection.
Another misconception is that a breast cancer diagnosis means death. If breast cancer is caught early, there is more time and treatment options.
Fantastic. Here is the main question of our interview. Based on your experiences and knowledge, what advice would you give to others who have recently been diagnosed with cancer? What are your “5 Things You Need To Beat Cancer? Please share a story or example for each.
Listen to your doctor and trust them.
Knowledge is power. Ask your doctor about genetic testing and don’t be afraid of what you may learn. Seek the knowledge about your family health history to gain the clarity about your health, the confidence of knowing your options, and the control to make informed decisions. Soon after my first mammogram and my initial breast cancer diagnosis, my twin Vanessa took a genetic test, which revealed that she too was BRCA2 positive. She wouldn’t have known unless she was proactive enough to ask her doctor about genetic testing. She decided to have preventive surgeries, which decreased her risk of developing breast and ovarian cancer.
Accept help. If someone offers help, say yes. I know firsthand that a breast cancer diagnosis and recovery is not a walk in the park. It’s challenging — emotionally, physically, and mentally. Accept all the support you can get.
Self-care is the best care. Whether it’s ensuring you get a complete night sleep, exercising as much as your body will allow, or effectively managing stress, self-care is important.
Live your life, don’t stop living. A cancer diagnosis may seem like the end of the world, and you may feel the urge to stay in bed for days due to lack of energy, but you must persevere. It’s ok to feel down and have rest days, but don’t stop living. Life won’t stop — move with it.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the greatest amount of people, what would that be?
I participated in a LIVESTRONG cancer survivor exercise group held at YMCA in St. Louis. If I could inspire a movement, it would be to highlight the importance of a healthy lifestyle and the positive impact of exercise and overall movement on the body and mind. By making smart wellness choices, women can help to decrease risk factors for cancer and lead healthier lives.
We are very blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.
The first person that came to mind is Mathew Knowles, Beyonce’s father. Mathew had breast cancer, which he said claimed the lives of his mother, aunt and great aunt. He talks about his breast cancer diagnosis and encourages others, especially men, to get tested or at least broach the topic with their doctors. This is admirable, and I believe he’s trying to shift the conversation away from breast cancer to chest cancer so men are more comfortable with the idea. He even has BRCA2 gene mutation, like me. I would love to talk to him about how he founded out he was a carrier for the mutation and thank him for urging men to also get checked.
The second is Angelina Jolie. We took the same genetic test from Myriad Genetics to discover that we’re both carriers of the BRCA gene mutation and had the same mastectomy surgery. It would be wonderful to sit down with her and share experiences and learnings and find out how she’s doing today. I’d love to know what advice she would give to other women who are experiencing breast cancer for the first time.
Others on my list include Christina Applegate, Charles Barkley and Hoda Kotb.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
Readers can connect with me on LinkedIn and Facebook. They can also learn more about Valeda’s Hope by visiting valedashope.org or by following Valeda’s Hope on Instagram at @valedashope. I welcome readers to email me at [email protected]. I’m always here to answer questions and provide a listening ear to breast cancer patients and survivors, and their families.
Thank you so much for sharing these important insights. We wish you continued success and good health!