Angela Benton shares her inspirational breast cancer journey in conversation with Vanessa De Luca
This Breast Cancer Awareness Month, Vanessa De Luca, editor-in-chief of Essence Magazine, has an empowering conversation with Angela Benton about her inspirational breast cancer story. Angela Benton is a pioneer, a businesswoman, a cancer survivor, and a mother of three. She shares how having breast cancer at the age of 34 has changed her life and talks about valuable lessons learned in entrepreneurship and building a more sustainable life after setbacks.
Angela Benton is the author of Revival: How I Rebuilt a Life for Longevity After Burnout, Cancer, and Heartbreak; an inspirational memoir on hard life and business lessons learned. She is a pioneer of diversity in the technology industry and the founder of NewMe, the first accelerator for minorities. She has been honored by Goldman Sachs’ 100 Most Intriguing Entrepreneurs, Fast Company’s Most Influential Women In Technology, and many more.
Vanessa De Luca is the Editor-in-Chief of ESSENCE magazine where she is responsible for overseeing the content and vision of the preeminent lifestyle magazine for African-American women and of ESSENCE.com, daily online destination for African-American women.
Vanessa: Angela, welcome.
Angela: Thank you for having me. So excited. Wow, where do I start?
Vanessa: I think we should start with your upbringing. Where are you from, and what were you like as a child? What was your childhood like?
Angela: I moved around a lot when I was a child. I was born in Chicago. I lived in a small town outside of Houston called Tomball. Then I moved to the D.C. area with my family, and I would say I was definitely a shy child, reserved, introverted, but I was also very competitive. I love sports, but I only like playing with boys because I felt like it was more challenging, and basketball was definitely my first love and I would play from sunup to sundown. One day, I even skinned my knee and blood was running down my knee, and the guys that I were playing with, they were like, “Oh, my God, do you need to stop?” And I was like, “No, no, no, I’m okay.” I didn’t want any kinda different treatment because I was a girl.
Vanessa: Understood. That’s very interesting. You mentioned that you’ve liked playing sports with guys because you thought it would be more challenging?
Vanessa: It’s interesting to me because now you’re definitely in a field where there’s a lot of competition in the tech field. It is very male-dominant. Talk to us a little bit about why you decided to jump into this field. Certainly, there’s a lot of conversation about how tough it is to be a woman in this role.
Angela: I actually started out as a designer. I don’t have a computer science degree and I actually started my design career laying out magazines. So I used to love magazines and collect them. But then, this was when the internet started to become more popular. Everyone was saying, and I’m sure you probably remember this, Vanessa, they were acting like the internet was going to completely take over, and it was gonna happen overnight.
Vanessa: That’s right.
Angela: I ended up teaching myself how to code. From there, that really kind of started my career in technology and working at different technology companies, start-up companies, and then eventually starting my own companies. As far as being a woman in the technology industry, it’s definitely hard. But it’s also very hard to be a person of color, and I think both, whether it’s racial or gender, you’re essentially dealing with a group of white men who can’t really relate to problems of those demographics.
Vanessa: In the work that you’re doing with your company and the encouragement that you’re giving to other young women getting into the field with your accelerator. What is your hope that you can contribute to this whole burgeoning field of technology for women and women, not just women breaking through, but women of color breaking through?
Angela: Well, women of color have always really been the head of households. So it is like we’ve always been entrepreneurs, so it kind of makes sense when the data came out about black women being the fastest growing segment of entrepreneurs. Being a woman of color and an entrepreneur, I think it’s a natural thing. The biggest thing is that we don’t get left out of the tech industry, and so that’s what I’m passionate about. Everyone that I work with is a person of color, and when I started NewME, it was really because I was reading the tech news and there were no people of color or women who were being featured and who were raising capital. It seemed weird that there wasn’t already an accelerator that existed. When I started NewME, these accelerators were becoming really popular, like Y Combinator and Techstars, but there wasn’t really one that was focused on people of color or women. Which I guess was good for me, but it was also very difficult because people in the tech industry didn’t necessarily think it was needed.
They felt like all the information that you need to be in the technology industry was online, so you just be able to Google it and figure it out just like anybody else. But what they were kind of missing was if you don’t know what to Google, then you can’t Google. There’s a huge disconnect between just the vernacular that’s used in the technology industry, especially around fundraising, and what normal, everyday people who are interested in business. I mean, even the stuff that we do with NewMe, we’re trying to get more people in our pipeline. Sometimes, we don’t talk about start-ups. It starts with an idea, so you have this huge gap of information. How do you get those people interested in technology, taking their ideas and making them technology ideas or technology-enabled ideas? So that’s what I’ve been doing for the past several years.
Vanessa: I can tell you’re extremely passionate about it. But you have other things you’re passionate about, as well, and you’ve been certainly a trailblazer in the technology space. But I want to get a little bit more into your book and the reasons behind why you wrote “Revival,” because I would say that you’re blazing trails in a different way around, you know, this healthcare crisis that you faced.
Let’s talk a little bit about what inspired you to write a book. It seems so very beta in a high-tech world, right, to write a book these days.
Angela: It definitely is. It is very beta, and people ask “Do you have an audiobook for your book?” or “Do you have an e-book?”. No, I refuse not to do it because I want people to have the physical book. So I’ve always wanted to write a book and I’ve always gotten people that would ask me to write a book, but it never really felt like the right time until I had gotten diagnosed with cancer or, I should say, while I was going through treatment. I just had a lot of time and I thought “Maybe now is the right time to write a book.”
I was diagnosed with breast cancer in January 2016. I was 34 years old and it was a shock. Cancer doesn’t run in my family at all. No one has it. So it was really just shocking. It was odd, but it also was a blessing in a sense, too, because it made me really stop and think about what I was doing with my life. How I was investing my time, who I was investing my time in, maybe some things that I could’ve done to be healthier. When I say “healthier,” superficially, I felt like I was really healthy. I had my green juice, I exercised, and I did what everybody was doing. But I wasn’t healthy in a lot of other ways, such as the way that I was working. I worked all the time, and I skipped meals. A lot of times, I wouldn’t even eat anything until I got home at night which was, 9:00, 10:00. And I would just drink coffee all the time.
I won’t necessarily say that that specific thing led to me getting cancer. And the doctors say it’s quote-unquote “environmental” when they don’t really know where it comes from. I personally think it was just a mix of that lifestyle, the hustle, tea, no-sleep lifestyle in addition to the emotional relationships that I had in my life at the time, and then being really, really stressed in terms of work and not having the support that I needed consistently over years. I would say that I was consistently stressed for years, and now I know what it feels like to not feel stressed and I can’t believe how stressed how my body just felt around that time.
Vanessa: So many black women can relate to what you’re talking about because there is this myth of the superwoman that we are expected to do everything, juggle all the plates, have a full platter and balance it all miraculously without any repercussions until you get to a place where your body tells you…and in your instance, your body told you, you know, this can’t continue.
Once you heard your diagnosis, what kinds of things were going through your head and how did you get to a place where you were you ready to face it and tackle it?
Angela: So I actually started to process the idea of having cancer immediately when I felt the lump in my breast. I just had a sinking feeling that it was cancer just because of, like, how it felt and it was really just everything was kinda weird around it. Things had already started changing in my life. Like, dynamics, things falling out of my life kinda organically, so it was just…how it happened was weird. So my biggest thing was getting the official diagnosis and having to wait for the biopsy results to actually figure out what stage it was. So, you know, that can take, you know, two weeks. So that’s a long time. So for me, it was really… I didn’t know what stage I was. I didn’t know if it had spread someplace else in my body, so I… And I have three kids. So I really just… What was important to me was coming up with a plan. So if it’s later stage, I had a plan for that. If it’s early stage, then I had a plan for that. And it makes you really take a hard look, you know, at your life, and none of it has to do with your work at all. It’s like it just is… It puts things into perspective. It’s just like, “Oh, my God,” like this stuff doesn’t actually really matter that much.
Vanessa: How important was that your medical support, your doctor, and the advice that you were getting.
Angela: My medical team was amazing. It’s almost like they were angels because when I found the lump in my breast, I had just moved to Miami. It was my first week there. My kids were on winter break, and it was Christmas week. I found the lump on Christmas Day while reaching for a gift and my arm just brushed my breast. I thought I had something with buttons on, and then I was like, “Wait, this doesn’t have buttons.” I felt a lump. It’s not even like I was doing a self-exam. It was just happenstance that I found it, and it just was really weird.
Vanessa: I just have to stop you there because I’m imaging this scene of opening gifts on Christmas Day. Your kids are there, your whole family. It’s a moment where it’s a joyful time and…
Angela: Well, it was new beginnings because I decided to move…
Vanessa: And new beginnings.
Angela: I decided to change things in my life and then this lump. It was just kind of there.
Vanessa: You were saying that you’re very grateful for the medical team that you had. In what ways did they support you? What ways were you looking for them to support you?
Angela: Because I found a lump on Christmas and I was under 40. It was extremely hard to try to get a mammogram. I ended up going to Planned Parenthood because they were the only one that was open. Everybody was closed for the holidays. I went to Planned Parenthood. That’s how I got a referral for a mammogram. Then I went to this radiology practice called Miami Breast Institute. It’s ran by two women radiologists. They were phenomenal and they’re not much older than me. They were just very real and direct with me. I did the mammogram. They were like, “Yeah, we definitely see some issues here. We want to do an MRI.”
Then we did an MRI and even before we did the biopsy, the radiologists came in. You can kind of tell how the nurses and everyone is reacting to you. No one kind of wants to look at you, so you can kind of tell. So I’m like, “ Yeah, so I was right.” But she came in and she was said, “Look this is not an official diagnosis, but I want to prepare you. I look at these scans all day, every day, and this looks like cancer.” She asked “Does cancer run in your family?” She was a friend. I was actually going to see this other doctor, and I didn’t really get a good vibe from him. When you have cancer, everything moved very fast. You don’t know what’s happening in your body, you’re just trying to get treatment.
I went to see this other doctor, and the vibe was weird. I actually overlooked it and I was like, “Whatever.” But I ended up having a change because they didn’t take my insurance, anyway. And so I contacted the radiologist, the one who was very kind to me, and I asked her for a recommendation. And she referred me to another woman doctor who was amazing. She was my surgical oncologist so I saw her first. We did the biopsy. By this time, I had gotten the results back. My surgical oncologist referred me to my medical oncologist and Dr. Guardiola, he was actually great. We had a great relationship, and I laugh because we would joke, basically, the whole time. So my personality is that I challenged my doctors a lot. Such as the treatment plans that they gave me, I challenged them. I read up on everything so I felt like I was very much informed. So they would say, “Okay. Well, we’re gonna do X, Y, Z.” I would say, “Why?”
My doctor, Dr. Guardiola, he was great with explaining everything in detail, but even some of the things he recommend. I’m like “I don’t know if I wanna take Tamoxifen for five years.” I approached it more like, “I have a choice,” rather than, “This is what they’re telling me to do, so I’m gonna do it.” I think as patients, a lot of times we forget we have a choice. We actually have a say like, “Yes, I’m gonna do this and I’m going to move forward with this treatment plan.”
Vanessa: That’s amazing that you really empowered yourself, studied up, read up, and challenged the doctors to get, so that you could come to a mutual agreement about how you wanted to move forward.
Angela: I had a issue from the steroid that I was taking with my legs, and so I went to see a physical therapist. I did a lot of stuff on my own and I really scaled down my work significantly. My job every day during that time period, I woke up and I focused on my health. I juiced, I changed my diet. I just did a ton of different stuff during that time period.
Vanessa: What made you decide then to pursue the idea of genetic testing?
Angela: One of the doctors suggested it because I was so young. My doctors were like, “Especially for your kids, you should get tested to see if you have the gene mutation.” So then, I’m like, “Of course,” I’m going to get tested, especially because my ex-husband, his mother passed away from breast cancer. She had gotten it earlier and beat it, and then it came back.
I wanted to make sure that, “Okay. Well, I know it’s on his side. I need to know if it’s on my side, too. You know, for my kids.” They recommended it, I didn’t challenge it, and also at that time, that’s very early before you start any treatment or anything.
Vanessa: What did you learn from the results? Also, did you have any hesitations or concerns about genetic testing? The elephant in the room is that there have been tests that have been done on people of color, women of color, a lot of medical mistreatment of women, of black women, in particular. And so there is a lot of hesitation around genetic testing. Did any of that come to mind or do you have any concerns in that regard?
Angela: I didn’t really have any concerns because I wanted the information. Also, it’s non-invasive, and I had done ancestry testing before in the past. And like everybody does that. We all want to see where we come from, and that’s simple — you spit in the thing and send it back, and then you figure out where you’re from. Genetic testing for cancer risk was the same thing. There’s was nothing, really, to be scared about.
Vanessa: So what did they do? Describe what the testing process was like — did you have to give them a swab of saliva or blood?
Angela: They are basically testing your saliva. They swabbed my inner cheek and then put it in the tub, and then it got shipped off. Then I don’t know how long it took to get back. Everything was kind of a haze. I think maybe it was two weeks. Also, I should say the test was for the BRCA gene, so BRCA1 and BRCA2. That’s what they use to screen for hereditary breast cancer risk.
Vanessa: And the result was that you had the gene?
Angela: The result came back that I didn’t have any mutations for the BRCA genes. But it’s important to say that these gene mutations..There’s a lot of studies that are being done on them, so the information updates constantly. CNN just reported that there are 78 additional mutations that were found for breast cancer, specifically. Even though I took that test then, now there’s 78 more. So it’s important to make sure that you’re tested and that you’re also checking the results. I’m not sure how most genomics companies work, but usually, they keep a database of your information. So as this data becomes updated and they can check it again.
Vanessa: Black women are disproportionately affected by breast cancer in that the cancer that they get is highly aggressive, and that they’re dying at faster rates mainly because I think we often have a love-hate relationship with the medical community. Can you talk about what things that we, as black women, could be doing, should be doing to take charge of our health in ways that can allow us see when we’re in danger of becoming sicker. How can we be more aware of what’s going on in our bodies?
Angela: Earlier, we talked about the superwoman complex which a lot of black women have. I think that’s part of it because we’re so used to doing everything, we have our own businesses, we’re taking care of the kids, we’re taking care of the house. We put ourselves last, and I think in terms of our health, how that manifests is we don’t detect cancer early like Caucasian women. So usually by the time we find out that we have cancer, it’s later stage. Also, black women usually get a cancer that’s triple-negative, which is harder to fight. There’s a lot of different things that are at play, but I think it all starts with early detection, making sure you’re doing your breast exams. Even my own story, I wasn’t doing a breast exam. I didn’t find it that way. I found the lump by happenstance and it was stage two already. Imagine, imagine if I had found that lump and it wasn’t the holiday season where people are relaxing and I’m in the thick of work and kids and moving and getting my stuff together.
I would have put it off. I would’ve waited weeks before I actually got a doctor’s appointment. And the cancer that I had was HER2-positive, which means it grows fast. All of this stuff is just really important and is a lesson in putting yourself first. We all make sure that our babies have their well baby checkups and everything but you have to also make sure that you’re good health-wise, as well.
Vanessa: I think there’s also something to be said for paying it forward, too. So if you have been diagnosed or if you are asked or approached to be a part of a study, it seems like that might be something, particularly for black women, that would be important to participate in. Can you talk a little bit about your feelings about that?
Angela: I feel like we can do that a lot of different ways. That is also one of the reasons why I posted to my social media while I was going through all of my treatments. I just think we resonate with things that are visual and I felt I could be more impactful showing the process, showing what I was going through, then kind of fading back and just dealing with it on my own. As a result, I get a ton of women that DM me and are like, “Oh, my God. You know, this is great.” They resonate with it because they are cancer survivors or they’re going through it, and these aren’t necessarily black women. These are just women in general, and actually, even men. I had a guy DM me the other day saying his mom passed away from breast cancer.
Showing that it is a sense of paying it forward, but also, a lot of the times, what people don’t realize is when they are getting genetic testing done, their genes are getting donated and contribute towards research for a cure, which is important. When you start to think about it, especially from the standpoint of the black community, if we are not doing that, then the cures that are being developed are not going to be for us. That’s huge. You know?
Vanessa: Exactly right. That’s, that’s tremendous. I think it behooves all of us in every place that we touch that we are encouraging more women, more black women, in particular, to participate, to take that step because it really could mean saving someone else’s life somewhere down the line.
Angela: Well, you’re saving your own life and you’re saving someone else’s at the same time.