This August, Jewel Crawford Ajibade, 52, will see her son, Daree, off to his freshman year at Temple University. With her oldest son, Lekan, returning to Indiana University at Pennsylvania, the Glenside, PA, mom looks forward to being an empty nester. “For the last 21 years, we’ve been taking care of our sons. Now they’re both gone,” Jewel says of her future with Demi, her husband of 22 years. “Maybe we can go to Vegas!”
Adventure is central to Ajibade’s lifestyle; when she speaks with EBONY.com, she’s on a Florida vacation with her sisters. “I’m going to the amusement park later, but I’m aware that I can’t ride certain rides. I have to be careful, but I’m not going to stop living,” she says emphatically. “I have cancer. Cancer does not have me.”
Ajibade is among the estimated 150,000 Americans who live with metastatic breast cancer, an advanced form of the disease that occurs when cancer cells spread to other parts of the body. For more than 95 percent of its patients, metastatic breast cancer (classified as stage IV) emerges in the bones or vital organs within months or years of a stage I, II, or III breast cancer diagnosis. Ajibade’s first tumor – thought to reside only within her left breast – was classified as stage II.
In 2005, after a family vacation at Disneyworld, Ajibade checked in with her doctor regarding a routine mammogram. “I’d never had a bad mammogram in 10 years, but they saw something this time and needed me to come back in,” she says, noting that with one look of her x-ray, the radiologist diagnosed breast cancer during the follow-up appointment. “My eyes are my hands,” he told her. “And I can see that this is a solid mass.”
Ajibade’s 57-year-old mother, Dorothy, found a cancerous lump in 1993. After a lumpectomy, radiation, and five years on breast cancer drug Tamoxifen, Dorothy remained cancer-free until 2003. A spell of breathing ailments sent her to the hospital that year, and after testing fluid found on her lungs, doctors determined she’d developed lung cancer; it had metastasized from her breast. “We got her the best treatment out there, but I eventually had to put her in a nursing home toward the end of her illness,” Ajibade said. Dorothy passed away that November.
Following her own breast cancer diagnosis two years later, Ajibade assembled a care team and devised a plan. “Before I left the mammogram facility, I had appointments lined up with an oncologist, a radiologist, and a surgeon.” After they removed the tumor, doctors placed Ajibade on an aggressive treatment plan: prescription drugs, radiation, and 16 weeks of chemotherapy. “When I lost my hair, my husband shaved his head in support. I didn’t work for six months; I just tried to care for myself and my sons,” she says. “My last radiation treatment was on my 44th birthday.”
In 2006, while his mother tended to the barbecue grill, Daree swung the grill’s detachable lid in the air. He inadvertently hit his mother in the arm, sending her into excruciating – and unusual – pain. When Ajibade described her injury to her doctor by phone, he suspected a torn rotator cuff in her shoulder. An MRI later revealed that her left humerus (the bone that runs the length of the upper arm) had been infected with cancerous tumor. “It was on the same side as my breast cancer, and it’s believed to have been there since the first diagnosis. It could not have grown so quickly within that time,” she says. “My son ended up saving my life.”
As Ajibade underwent two additional weeks of radiation, she grappled with the cancer’s new prognosis; once cancer has spread, removal surgery is no longer viable. The focus of care shifts from cure to management, and 75 percent of patients with metastatic breast cancer don’t survive five years past their metastatic diagnosis.
Ajibade surges forward, eight years after learning of her cancer’s spread. However, she still feels the effects of disease. “The cancer’s been shattered by the radiation, but I have tenderness in my bones,” she says. Radiation treatment damaged the lymph nodes in her arm, leaving Ajibade with a case of lymphedema — swelling and buildup caused by the lymphatic system’s compromised ability to drain fluids. “I keep that under control with compression sleeves, and I try not to lift heavy items with my left side,” she says. “I can’t let any of this stop me from enjoying life. And it can’t stop me from informing others.”
Ajibade has since connected to other survivors through Living Beyond Breast Cancer (LBBC), an online support network. “I was on LBBC every day to see if others’ symptoms and side effects were like mine,” she says. She believes that the network was a lifeline from which her mother could have benefitted. “With LBBC, I know that I’m not alone. But no one was there for my mom when she went through this. I have all these resources. She had nothing,” she says tearfully. Although she checks in with her doctor for regular monitoring, Ajibade approaches her 10-year diagnosis anniversary nervously. “In 10 years, it came back as lung cancer for my mom. Is that gonna be me?” she wonders.
As an LBBC volunteer, Ajibade recently participated in its multi-city Yoga on the Steps fundraiser, and is a featured contributor to MyMBCStory.com. She was also interviewed for a local morning talk show in Philadelphia. “If it weren’t for my mammogram, I’d be dead,” she contends. “We have to share the knowledge.”
As summer is winds down, Ajibade heads back to her job at a financial company. She’s also planning Daree’s college send-off party. Despite setbacks, she continues to celebrate family milestones in style, knowing that there are more moments to witness in the coming years. “These boys have done me proud. Now, I need to see them graduate college, get married, and have children. And they have to do it in the order in which I say!” she adds with a laugh. “Until I’ve seen that, I’m not ready to accept anything else.”
Published on EBONY.com on August 7, 2014