When Beverly Lipscomb learned she had breast cancer, she was worried. Growing up, cancer was a dirty word said only in whispers. What’s more, as a transgender woman she had been taking hormones for decades and feared what life would be like without them.
“I said to myself, ‘Oh my God! I can’t take hormones anymore. What is going happen to me?’’ the 56-year-old from the Bronx told TODAY. “Then I said to myself, ‘This chemotherapy is going to just ruin me.’”
But thanks to appropriate cancer treatment and doctors who respected her, Lipscomb is now cancer-free and is sharing her story to urge other trans people to see a doctor when something feels off.
“You should never give up,” Lipscomb said. “You need to be proactive about your health and get things checked out. Then trust the doctors. But find a doctor that you trust.”
A lump that wouldn’t go away
In late April 2017, Lipscomb found a lump in her armpit. She already had her annual mammogram, which didn’t detect anything, so she didn’t worry too much. Instead, she took warm baths with Epsom salts to lessen the swelling. But, it didn’t work. Then she started seeing signs that made her think she should visit a doctor.
“The strangest thing happened … I started noticing all these cancer commercials on TV and I kept saying, ‘Why am I noticing these cancer commercials?’” she recalled. “I said, ‘Well I’m going to go to the emergency room.’”
Doctors ran some tests and determined she had either breast or lung cancer, she said. Lipscomb felt like she had received a death sentence.
“I was like a deer in the headlights,” she said. “When I was growing up, cancer was always whispered in very hushed tones. And, I was like, ‘This is the end. All of this is the end of everything.’”
Lipscomb decided to get a second opinion from doctors at the Dubin Breast Center at Mount Sinai in New York and learned she had triple negative breast cancer, a rare and aggressive form of cancer. While there’s still not enough known about transgender women and breast cancer, Lipscomb’s diagnosis was “unusual.”
“The vast majority of women who did develop breast cancer in the transgender population had estrogen receptor positive breast cancers,” Dr. Sheryl Green, associate professor of radiation oncology at Icahn School of Medicine and a radiologist-oncologist at the Dubin Breast Center, explained. The estrogen receptor positive breast cancers are linked to taking hormones, but this was not the case with Lipscomb’s diagnosis.
Lipscomb was also unique in that she never had breast augmentation surgery and developed breasts simply from hormones. When her cancer was discovered, doctors recommended she stop taking them. Lipscomb had been taking hormones since she was a teenager and worried what that meant.
“From what they said is they don’t think the cancer was caused by the hormones. But that it is best to err on the side of caution (and stop them),” she said. “But that was a big deal for me. I said, ‘Oh my God am I going shrivel up? Am I going to become some G.I. Joe soldier the next day?”
Providing preventive care for trans people
Luckily for Lipscomb, the staff worked with her to make sure she felt comfortable with all the decisions, including stopping her hormones. Dr. Joshua Safer, executive director of the Mount Sinai Center for Transgender Medicine and Surgery, said it’s essential that transgender patients receive respectful treatment.
“It’s still the case that transgender people come to seek medical services less because they are less trusting of the medical system and for something like breast cancer it is a big deal,” Safer told TODAY. “Breast cancer that’s caught early has a much greater chance of being treated and the person has a much better chance of their life being saved than if they waited.”
Many transgender patients fear going to see a doctor because they worry about being misgendered or having their concerns not be taken seriously.
“We need to create a more friendly environment for transgender people, in general, and transgender women specifically,” Safer said.
Green wrote a case study about Lipscomb’s care to help other providers offer better treatment to transgender women with breast cancer.
“I thought that (Lipscomb’s experience) opened up some very specific issues or made us think much more carefully about things that we needed to do to meet her needs better during treatment,” Green said. “I thought it would be very helpful (for other doctors).”
‘Dedication and kindness’
Lipscomb started receiving mammograms at 40 and understood the importance of regular cancer screenings. Yet, she worried when she started her treatment that the experience would be dehumanizing.
“Here I am, I’m Black. I’m trans and I’m going to this hospital to be taken care of, I said, ‘How are they going to receive me?’” she said. “But nothing. No kind of racism. No anti-trans anything. I was really worried. I had already built up a wall of defense.”
After she finished chemotherapy in November 2017, she had a lumpectomy in January 2018 and then radiation in March. Again, she thought she was facing death.
“When I had the radiation I said, ‘OK this is going to get me,’” she said. “My friends were like, ‘Oh child please. You’re not going to die.’”
She finished radiation without any complications and since then her scans have been clear. Her hair even grew back.
“There’s a lot of misinformation about cancer and I had subscribed to every bit of it,” she said. “I’m wiser (now.)”
She credits the staff with making a difference in her outcome.
“The big thing that really, really, really helped me is the dedication and the kindness of the doctors and nurses,” she said. “Every day I would wake up I’d be surprised, like ‘Oh my goodness, I woke up.’”
Lipscomb hopes her story encourages others to seek care — even when it feels scary.
“I was so amazingly happy that I was able to get treatment that I needed and didn’t have to worry,” she said. “The words that I would say to trans individuals — but not only the trans individuals but to women in general — are take care of yourself. Take care of your mind, your body and your spirit.”