The Power of Early Detection and Advocacy: The Survivor Story of the BEA’s Executive Director; Tiara Neal
Life can take unexpected turns, and sometimes, those unexpected turns lead us down paths we never imagined. For most people, a breast cancer diagnosis is one of those life-altering events. For Tiara Neal it was a chance to advocate for change and inspire women everywhere. Today she shares her inspiring story where she was in a life-changing battle with breast cancer. She emerged not only as a survivor but as a passionate advocate for change. Let us delve into her story, her challenges, and her message of strength and hope.
Life Before the Diagnosis
The summer of 2018 was a memorable time in Tiara’s life. Her family resided in beautiful Playa Vista, CA where she worked in TV production at Discovery for the TLC Network. Tiara spent her days working on popular shows such as Say Yes to the Dress, The Family Chantel, and Love in Paradise: The Carribean.
During her personal time, she spent the days with her son, Jordan, bike riding to watch the sunset and gathering family and friends on the beach for dinners and bonfires. She dedicated herself to being a loving mother, attending her son’s sports games, helping with homework, and cherishing every moment together. She prioritized her physical and mental health by working out regularly, practicing meditation, and maintaining a balanced, healthy diet.
Looking in from the outside, Tiara had a life people dream of. She had a fulfilling career, and an idyllic beach bum lifestyle and a great support system that included her family and friends.
In June 2018, Tiara was scheduled to see her gynecologist. She was prepared for her visits with questions as she approached her 30’s and realized she wanted to know more about her body. She waited for hours to see her doctor and when it was finally time to be examined, she asked about a routine breast exam. Tiara’s doctor was running behind and hurriedly dismissed Tiara’s request, saying she was young, healthy and she had no family history of breast cancer. The doctor suggested she do an at home breast exam. This wouldn’t be the only time she heard this exact phrase. Tiara left the appointment feeling discouraged.
Discovery and Diagnosis
Fast forward to December 2018, life took Tiara and her family back to her hometown in Maryland. She was home just about a week, and she began to experience sharp pains in her right breast. After self-examination, Tiara found a small foreign object similar to a pebble in her right breast. She immediately acted and reached out to a friend who could help with a referral to a gynecologist in Washington, D.C.
The following week Tiara had an appointment. After hearing the same thing “You’re young, healthy and have no family history” the doctor suggested a mammogram and ultrasound as next steps. There was no urgency in these requests by the doctor, but Tiara immediately made an appointment.
The mammogram experience wasn’t for the faint of heart. It was cold, sterile, painful, and unpleasant. Tiara was left to make herself comfortable and wait for the radiologist to explain the results. Again, Tiara heard “You’re young, healthy and have no family history”. She waited for the doctor to tell her the results were normal and there was nothing to worry about, but her thoughts were interrupted by her suggesting that she see a Breast Surgeon because the mass was grey, and it couldn’t be read via the mammogram results. She had so many questions, but the radiologist rushed out and she was left sitting there devastated and alone.
Weeks passed and to Tiara it felt like time was standing still. She anxiously waited for her appointment with a Breast Surgeon. It was a Thursday afternoon when she finally was able to see the surgeon. It was a typical clinical setting; a cold room with muted colors and florescent lights. She had questions and concerns about what would come next but when the surgeon entered the room, she informed her that she would have a surgical biopsy with anesthesia immediately. She froze and immediately she recalled hearing the numerous doctors telling her “You’re young, healthy and have no family history” so why was this happening? Why would she need such invasive surgery? Again, she was left alone in a cold room utterly devastated by the news she just received.
Another few weeks would pass, and it was a normal day for Tiara when she got the call. She was out to lunch with a new coworker and when she answered the call, the doctor asked her to find a quiet place where she could be alone. This wasn’t alarming to Tiara, she was convinced that the doctor was going to tell her the biopsy resulted in finding a benign mass and there was nothing else to do, but that wasn’t the case. The doctor quietly and politely told her the mass was malignant and she had stage 1 invasive ductal carcinoma. Tiara didn’t hear anything else the doctor told her. In the moment Tiara only thought about her son, her life, her future. After undergoing a mammogram, ultrasound, and a surgical biopsy, the devastating news arrived: the mass was malignant. The diagnosis caused Tiara, her family, and friends to stop in their tracks. Tiara was only 33 when she was diagnosed with breast cancer.
The breast cancer diagnosis marked a turning point in Tiara’s life. What once seemed important became trivial in the face of the battle she was about to face. Her perspective on life underwent a profound shift. Tiara immediately acted and wanted to know all she could about her recent diagnosis. She decided to do a genetic testing panel to see if she carried the common BRCA 1 or BRCA 2 genetic mutation, but she quickly learned she had the ATM genetic variant – which causes breast cancer at an early age.
With this information, Tiara opted to get a bilateral mastectomy. It was an extremely difficult decision to make, especially since her oncologist was not supportive. Her goal was to LIVE a long life and ensure the best-case scenario of the cancer not coming back.
The decision to undergo a bilateral mastectomy allowed Tiara to bypass 15 rounds of radiation. Even though this was an extremely difficult procedure, Tiara felt guilty for not having chemo or radiation. She also recalls feeling guilty that she would not lose her hair, although she ended up suffering from alopecia for almost a year, post reconstruction surgery. Her experience with breast cancer took a different route than most women and she had come to accept her journey as her own.
Throughout her treatment and surgeries, she discovered the incredible depths of her faith. Her faith was tested repeatedly, but she believes that her unwavering belief in God, combined with her love for her son, motivated her to keep fighting every day. This journey revealed a reservoir of strength within her that exceeded her wildest expectations.
The journey was not without its challenges. Coming to terms with the diagnosis was a struggle, leading to countless tears, sleepless nights, and moments of anger. After a bilateral mastectomy, she felt the loss of a part of herself that made her feel feminine. However, her journey was not over yet. Years later, an intuition led her to insist on an MRI, and her worst fears were realized when a mass was detected. Thankfully, it turned out to be benign, but the experience was harrowing. She also had to grapple with the decision to undergo a second breast reconstruction due to an animation deformity. Her perseverance and advocacy for herself saved her from potential health risks as the doctors discovered a ruptured silicone implant.
Misconceptions About Survivorship
Tiara points out that a common misconception about survivorship is that once treatment is over, everything returns to normal. The truth is that the fear of recurrence lingers in the back of a survivor’s mind, no matter how much time has passed. Tiara recalls hearing phrases like “You don’t look like you had cancer” or “You’re too young to have had cancer” throughout her journey and each time she heard these insensitive comments, she would relive her trauma and her anxiety all over again.
Advocating for Change
During Tiara’s healing process and in between her bilateral and breast reconstructive surgery, she did a lot of internal work, soul searching, and had many quiet moments with God. She realized her next chapter was going to be very different than her previous ones.
As a breast cancer SURVIVOR, she felt that God had a bigger and better plan for her. It wasn’t long before she was contacted by the CEO of Bexa and after several conversations she eagerly joined Bexa as an advisor, a woman of color and a breast cancer survivor.
About a year later, Tiara left her entertainment career and established the Bexa Equity Alliance to lead the charge to ensure NO WOMAN would be left behind and women of color, especially black women would have access to early detection innovation, The Bexa Breast Exam!
Since then, she has made it her life mission to bridge the gap in the racial disparities that lie in breast cancer for black women. The BEA embodies the mission, and she is honored to do the work, to provide breast exams that are non-invasive, no radiation, portable and meet the women where they are to provide them with an exam that is especially designed for them.
This survivor’s journey through breast cancer is a testament to the strength of the human spirit and the power of faith. Tiara’s story serves as an inspiration to all survivors, reminding us that we can overcome the most challenging obstacles in life. Her advocacy work through the Bexa Equity Alliance is a shining example of how one person’s determination can create positive change and help save lives.
What Women Say About the BEA
“This type of examination should be used worldwide. Bring in the Bexa exam to all women!”
“The exam was/is stress free. The examiner made me feel very comfortable. She took her time with me told me about every step-in advance, and before performing each step asked if I were OK and ready. I am thankful for the kindness it made this breast exam very easy/comfortable. I recommend all men be examined we are not immune; and early detection can save your life!”
“I would like to thank the intake person from the bottom of my heart. She was extremely kind, understanding, and thoughtful towards my situation. She is an asset and the perfect face for this business. Thank you for easing my fears.”
“This process was comforting from the time of arrival until the time I filled out the survey. Tiara greeted offered a gracious greeting and was extremely helpful with navigating the check-in process. Jerri, the examiner took time explain the process and addressed all of my questions. She was friendly and professional. It is my hope that this breast examine process will be widely available in doctor’s offices throughout the country. We need this vital service! And Black women will certainly benefit from this exam because of the nature of dense breast. Thank you for making this service available! Lastly, I am grateful to Touch for sponsoring Bexa Equity Alliance to perform this vital service for our community.”
“I absolutely loved this process. More women would get regular screening if this was offered.”
“This was great, and Jerri was so kind! I feel seen and heard. I explained that I am 29 years old, have lost both of my biological grandmothers to breast cancer and have never gotten a mammogram. These ladies were so welcoming, kind, and helpful.”
“The exam was thorough, and the team made me feel extremely comfortable.”
“It was awesome experiencing this new technology for the first time. It was pain free. There was no squeezing, bearing down or pressure. It was very relaxing, like having a massage.”
“I felt a sense of peace with a new sense of support that would ordinarily be a very painful and stressful experience.”
“Thank you for providing a non-anxious breast exam. The music, the warm table and the summary of the examiner were expressions of compassion.”