Cairo Gregory was 15 years old when she was diagnosed with cancer. As a young woman of colour, she has found that the lack of representation of Black cancer patients in the media, as well as the lack of cancer-related resources specific to Black women, has added to her challenging journey.
In mid-March 2022, as my 3rd-period class ended, I doubled over in excruciating pain. An ultrasound a few weeks later revealed that I had a mass the size of a small coconut in my uterus. The hospital ordered blood work and lots of tests and then sent me home.
A few days later, my mom texted while I was at school and told me she was waiting outside to take me to emergency. The tests revealed that my hCG hormone levels were very high—a typical occurrence during pregnancy (which I knew wasn’t the case), but it is also a tumour marker.
Ultimately, my official diagnosis was ovarian cancer with an immature germ cell tumour—a very rare form of ovarian cancer. My treatment protocol was nine weeks of chemo followed by surgery on July 12, 2022. The worst part of chemo—at least physically—was that my lungs filled with fluid, and my heart started swelling. My body wasn’t expelling the fluids being pumped into it fast enough. It was hard to breathe, and I felt like I was drowning from the inside out. It was challenging to manage that. I also didn’t expect all the physical and social repercussions of treatment.
Of course, I had seen young characters on TV or in the movies who had cancer, but none of them were Black. The depictions of the frail, skinny, pale patient did not match my own experience. I gained weight. I developed dark spots on my body, which looked like permanent dirt on my mixed skin. And my hair fell out in patches—making me feel insecure and not wanting to see anyone.
I got excited when it was suggested that I visit a hospital wig salon and accessories boutique, but that proved to be a bust. The wigs were the wrong colour and texture—usually straight to wavy; they didn’t stock wigs geared to a teenager of colour who wears her hair naturally. So a resource that was created to help cancer patients look and feel good wasn’t equipped to help me look and feel good. My cultural identity was excluded from that space. I left the salon feeling deflated—it was isolating not to have the same resources available to me that other young women might have.
Unfortunately, there weren’t a lot of Black people around me or in the media talking about cancer and it made it harder for me to find options available to me.
A lot of my friends of colour have a family member or family friend who braids or styles their hair and they have an established place to go to buy products and wigs. I never really had that growing up, although my mom did her best and she was always patient with my hair. We struggled when it came to finding a wig that would suit me; it was hard to find something that was good quality but that was also not going to cost us a couple thousand dollars. In the end, a Black hair stylist custom made a fabulous wig for me (at cost), and taught me how to style and maintain it. I feel more comfortable and confident at school and in social situations.
In retrospect, my experience as a Black young woman with cancer taught me the importance of representation and access. It is essential for Black children with cancer to have access to wigs that match their hair texture and skin tone. No one should be made to feel like they have to settle for an ill-fitting wig. The industry needs to recognize that people come in all shapes, sizes and colours, and that diversity should be reflected in the products that are offered. I hope that my story can inspire positive change and make the process a little less challenging for future generations.