Editor's Note: This story contains images and content of a sensitive nature.
A version of this story originally appeared on Enspire Magazine.
As hundreds and thousands of pink ribbons in their many forms remind us each October that it's Breast Cancer Awareness month, many of us may actually lose sight of the actual “faces” of breast cancer and the reality of the battle that is fought every day of every month of the year. Nothing personifies this battle to me more than my friend Max Devereaux. Max has been Living Out Loud and on Purpose since her diagnosis of Stage 3C, triple negative breast cancer in the fall of 2010. Not only do I have the honor of knowing this wonderfully talented and magnificent woman; I also had the privilege to sit with her, participate in her photo shoot and interview her about her diagnosis and her message.
Though only 4”11 in physical stature; Max has a presence large enough to fill any room. The first time I met her in person, I was caught off guard by the resonance and deep richness of her voice. The stirring and infectious laughter that emanates from within her is that of a woman full of wisdom, determination and resolve to live life every moment. As I look into her sparkling brown eyes and take in her freshly shaven head, I am romanced by ALL that is Maximillian Devereaux. We’ve just completed a full day photo-shoot for her many upcoming projects. Though the day has been long, exhausting and even painful for Max; she still sits before me with grace and the poise of royalty as she awaits the opportunity to share her message. Even though I know her story, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. She smiles at me and we begin.
Tiffany: Well Ms. Max – let me start out by saying that you did a fabulous job on your photo shoot today. I am sure some top models could learn a lesson in “toughing it out” from you. You were great!
Tiffany: It’s been a long day so I’ll dive right in. I guess the first Question that I have is an uncomfortable one. My question is: You're not the first one and you're not the last one to get breast cancer so what makes your story so different?
Max: No I'm not the first nor will I be the last however, the difference is - I’m not hiding. I know too many women who are ashamed and afraid to bare their scars. I get that and I support them in their journey. However, before I leave this earth, I feel it is imperative that I expose the true face of breast cancer.
Tiffany: So what do you think the true face of breast cancer is?
Max: It is the scars, the bald head, the grief of the loss of a limb. It is the reality of shaking the false perception of who you thought you were. It is the agonizing pain that you have to fight through like I had to do today. I've had better days, however, I knew that I had to fight through the pain because I had to do the photo shoot. I must tell my story, my way. No one can tell me that I'm doing breast cancer wrong. I love women and I must share a message that will embrace them while supporting those who wish to remain hidden. I feel like Harriet Tubman - She could have freed a lot more slaves only if they knew they were bound, only if they dared to walk beyond their fears.
Tiffany: Wow, such passion. I applaud you for your bravery and for your voice. You stated that you want your message out, how do you plan on having your voice heard?
Max: I am currently finishing my book which is titled "My Last Breast" which details my journey through breast cancer. I am producing a one woman show entitled; “Breastless Confessions” and a book of poetry based on my thoughts, experiences and emotion surrounding breast cancer.
Tiffany: That is a lot. Which of these projects can we expect first?
Max: The Book, "My Last Breast".
Tiffany: What is your book about and why is it important
Max: It is about my life and my personal journey through cancer from diagnosis to present day. It is important because I want people to understand that it is imperative to be proactive in our own health. Too often we just take what the doctors tell us without question, even when we feel contrary. We must understand that doctors don’t always know the answer and they don’t always get it right. As in my case… I did the right things – mammogram, ultrasound, and biopsy. All my tests came back negative, yet I knew something wasn’t right because I had a lump in my breast and I was in pain. After visiting 5 different doctors that all told me I was ok, the 6th doctor finally listened to me and discovered the cancer.
Tiffany: Wow! 6 Doctors?! What was your diagnosis?
Max: I was diagnosed with, Triple Negative Breast Cancer -Stage 3C. That is the last stage before it metastasizes in the body.
Tiffany: What would you advise anyone that goes to the doctor and isn’t satisfied with the diagnosis?
Max: Good or Bad, Keep going to the doctor until you find the one that listens to you. And if you find one that prays, that is even better
Tiffany: What was your treatment?
Max: I had my favorite breast, my left one, removed in 2011. I received chemo and eventually my second breast was removed late last year.
Tiffany: So you had a double mastectomy, which is the removal of both breasts. Did you opt for reconstructive surgery afterward?
Max: I was not a candidate for reconstruction since I also suffer from Lupus. So it was not an option for me. I only have my scars and prosthetic breasts. I elaborate on the unspoken issues of prosthetics in my book – one of the biggest problems being that the prosthetics that are offered for African American women are pink. Most people don’t talk about that aspect, that our skin tone is not a consideration in what they offer to simulate our breasts.
Tiffany: Really! I had never heard that before. So you are saying that black women have to walk around with breasts that are not even semblance of what has been removed?
Max: Yes. That’s just one of many things that are not considered or spoken about. I go into details about prosthetics, doctors’ bedside manner, and insurance companies view on why nipples aren’t necessary….
Tiffany: What?! Nipples aren’t necessary?! You have to elaborate on that.
Max: I do…in the book.
Tiffany: Ok, I understand you can’t give it all away. Can we talk about the effects of the removal? Since breasts are such a major part of what defines us as women, has your definition of femininity changed since your breast removal?
Max: I now realize that I am not the sum of my body parts. Femininity to me now means how your heart space looks, how you treat people and your relationship with God. Are you still nurturing, are you still loving, do you still care for others? Femininity is the ability to reach past our own weeping eyes to dry someone else’s. Though this is my definition now, it took me a good while to come to this realization after my breasts, which were a major part of what defined me as a woman, were taken from me.
Tiffany: I like that definition. Is that why you made the decision to bare your mastectomy scars for this interview?
Max: It’s one of the reasons.
Tiffany: That is definitely a brave move. So what is the major motivating factor?
Max: The biggest motivation for exposing my scars is because I felt led by GOD to show them so that people can get a REAL understanding about breast cancer – beyond frilly pink ribbons, t-shirts and walks. I bared my scars as a testimony of my battle with cancer, but also to bring awareness and freedom to other women that are in the battle as well.
Tiffany: Freedom in what way?
Max: We live in a society where it is ok to bare your breasts, bare your behind, or even open wounds. However, baring our scars or showing flaws is an unacceptable representation of our human existence. Blemishes, stretch marks, and mastectomy scars aren’t allowed. We are NOT ALLOWED to speak in depth about the process, the emotions or the pain involved with fighting for our lives. I can recount to you story after story of women that have had a mastectomy, yet have never spoken about the actual removal or shown anyone their scars – not even their husbands. Many are suffering in silence under the shame of no longer being a “complete woman”… suffering with the fear that others will be scared away or reject them. No one speaks about this as the reality of breast cancer. Too many women suffer in silence, along with the ones they love, because they don’t know how to have these conversations.
Tiffany: I applaud your bravery, but what about the people that may react negatively to your “exposure” and be uncomfortable with your “freedom?” Not everyone is open to or able to handle that magnitude of openness. Not everyone will receive this well. Are you going too far?
Max: I haven’t gone far enough. Living with breast cancer, I have gotten used to people feeling the need to express their opinions to me and say whatever thoughtless, insensitive thing comes to mind surrounding their discomfort with MY condition – even my own family members. A perfect example of this is the day I was in the grocery store and a woman saw my bald head and decided to tell me it made her “uncomfortable” and that I should cover it up. To which I promptly pulled up my shirt, showed her my mastectomy scars and told her “Cancer is uncomfortable”…. Needless to say, she was REALLY uncomfortable then. (Laughter) However, I know that my scars mean that I have been in a battle and survived – so I am ready!
Tiffany: People have a lot of nerve!
Max: I have always been outspoken and being that way saved my life. I am not going to change now because it may cause someone discomfort. Most people are uncomfortable with my scars because it makes them think of their own mortality… My scars make cancer more of a reality than the ribbon they have on their keychain. I am okay with that. I hope it makes them extremely uncomfortable. I want people to be so uncomfortable that they speak out and raise their voices so loud that there will be no other choice but to find a cure. So uncomfortable that a woman will no longer be diagnosed with breast cancer every 3 minutes or die from it every 12 minutes.
Tiffany: You are definitely a woman with a mission and a message. What has been a fundamental part of your ability to maintain your well-being and beautiful spirit amidst insensitive people, treatments and surgeries?
Max: I am maintained through the belief that God doesn’t give us more than we can handle. The cancer has not only affected my breast, but my heart as well. My recovery is not certain. However, I choose to handle this with the grace of a woman and not the grief of a child. I live each day to my fullest ability and keep negative thoughts at bay as much as possible… and LOTS of prayer.
Tiffany: You are a true survivor.
Max: I have to correct you there. I am not a survivor, my cancer is not gone or in remission. I AM A THRIVER. I continue to live each day with cancer and I am thriving….
Tiffany: That is sobering and powerful. What is the biggest take away from your story
Max: Be proactive in your LIFE and your HEALTH. DO NOT allow anyone to make you feel embarrassed because you feel bad. Don’t allow anyone to project their feelings onto you. Be honest with how you are feeling. Invest in your self-care if you want to live any quality of life. You can either walk in F-aith or F-ear. You decide what the “F” you are going to do…Faith or Fear.
Bio: Max Devereaux is a short story author, novelist, and screenwriter and a Literary Addict.
Her Addictions are:
Made for TV Movies
Max Devereaux gives literary foreplay that has you yearning for more. When she's not entertaining strangers with her writing, she's most likely entertaining her husband Joseph, her family and friends. You can visit her at maxdevereaux.com.
(Photo and Make-up Credit) Photographer: Mari Hill Photography and Kev Bailey, Make-up Artist: Tiffany Rachel and Monica Johnson.