Young lymphoma survivor says cancer taboo in the black Christian community is killing people

Angel Shepherd-Bascom was diagnosed with Hodgkin lymphoma aged 22. Now cancer-free, the 23-year-old wants to highlight the lack of awareness and dangerous taboos about cancer that still exist in some minority communities. She says that when she revealed her devastating diagnosis, elder members of her black Christian community told her to shun the advice of doctors and ‘leave it to God, he will heal you.’

The gymnastics teacher, from Hampton, London, wants people to understand the dangers associated with not being able to talk about cancer, and how outdated taboos are putting lives at risk.

She says sharing her story is her way of helping other young black women going through cancer treatment to feel less alone.

‘The day of my diagnosis was the most surreal feeling, I genuinely couldn’t believe what I was being told,’ Angel tells ‘Not because cancer couldn’t happen to me, but because I had faced months of being misdiagnosed.’

‘This can either break me, or I can fight with every fibre in my being’ (Picture: Angel Shepherd-Bascom)

After discovering a lump on the side of her neck and suffering flu-like symptoms, Angel went back-and-forth to her GP and was eventually seen by ear, neck and throat specialist when the lump grew and she began to feel more unwell. She was specifically told – it’s not cancerous – and the doctor said it was probably an infection. But they ordered a biopsy, just in case, which Angel now realises is a decision that probably saved her life.

‘“You have Hodgkin’s lymphoma” – these are the words the doctor said to me on the 9th August 2018,’ says Angel. ‘This can either break me, or I can fight with every fibre in my being. I was in such disbelief I laughed, the doctor then repeated, “you have cancer” and I cried. I cried for hours in the hospital. Hearing those words broke me. My worst fears that I had put to bed had actually become my reality.’

‘I didn’t even know it was possible to cry so much, especially in a public place. After the tears, I asked myself, “well what am I going to do about this?” ‘It’s a split-second after you try to gather your thoughts and process what’s happening, it’s at that moment I thought – “this can either break me, or I can fight with every fibre in my being and show cancer I was not the one.” ‘I felt confused, sad, disappointed and anxious. But I knew one thing for sure, and that was that I was going to fight.’

Angel says there isn’t enough understanding about cancer in her community. She says ethnic minorities face additional challenges when going through cancer treatment because of cultural taboos. She kept her diagnosis to herself for a month, but when she did let people in her community know, she was bombarded with endless theories, myths and religious views.

Angel with her dad: ‘My immediate family are incredibly supportive’ (Picture: Angel Shepherd-Bascom)

‘My immediate family are incredibly supportive, but cancer isn’t something that’s spoken about so openly,’ she explains. ‘I got a lot of unhelpful viewpoints from the elder generation, so I essentially had to educate myself and others on my diagnosis.

‘My immediate family are incredibly supportive’‘I had to explain to them that yes, I am young and somewhat fit, but cancer doesn’t discriminate. Also, the fact that my specific type of cancer isn’t genetic or diet-related, it’s simply bad luck.’

It was a huge additional weight on Angel’s shoulders to have to explain her condition and justify her decision to have chemotherapy, when so many people were telling her to ‘leave it up to God.’ ‘

I am a Christian, however, I believe that my relationship with God is personal and between myself and God,’

explains Angel.

‘Whatever I choose to do everyone else will have to understand. ‘Could you imagine fighting cancer and having all these strangers and people you know telling you how to handle it? Telling you how to feel and how to cure yourself? ‘I was 22 and fighting cancer, the first in my family, I had no idea what this journey would hold but it didn’t help in any way having a flood of people enforce their opinions on me.’

Angel with her mum and middle sister (Picture: Angel Shepherd-Bascom)

Throughout her treatment, Angel was the youngest person on most wards – she was also the only black woman. This is why she thinks it’s so important to share her journey and help other people who might be feeling isolated and alone.

‘I didn’t see anyone else who looked like me which confused me – surely I wasn’t the only one?’ says Angel. ‘This led me to search for groups like Black Women Rising and BAME cancer support. Although there are great support groups for young people with cancer such as Trekstock,

‘I needed a group that understood the specific struggles I was facing. I shared my story because if one other person who looked like me could see what I was going through, they would know they aren’t alone. ‘It may be all quite hush-hush in our community, but your cancer diagnosis should never just be dismissed or hidden due to irrational viewpoints.’

Angel thinks that ethnic minorities, particularly young women, need more support in their communities and a better understanding of the indiscriminate nature of this disease. She says the misinformation and reluctance to have open conversations could put lives in danger.

‘Ignorance is literally equalling death,’ says Angel. ‘By not having honest, open conversations about health, people are never going to know the signs and symptoms to look out for. They aren’t going to get their checks and the cycle will continue. ‘They’re never going to know if cancer is in their genes, or that if they find a lump going to the doctor, just to be sure, is nothing to be ashamed of. ‘Getting cancer is not your fault, it’s not a punishment from God, and if you choose to undergo treatment and pray, that’s perfectly fine. ‘Just know whatever you decide to do you have to do for yourself, no one else can live your life for you and those who love you will stand by your decisions.’

She adds that the black Christian community needs to be more accepting and mindful of the mental impact a cancer diagnosis can have. She says a cancer diagnosis will test your mental health in more ways than you can imagine, and people need to know that anxiety, depression and low moods are completely normal.

‘Getting cancer is not your fault, it’s not a punishment from God’ (Picture: Angel Shepherd-Bascom)

‘Opening up the discussion around the impact cancer has on mental health would be a breath of fresh air for many,’ Angel tells us. ‘People should know that these are things you can get through and seek help for. There is nothing wrong with seeking help. Knowing others struggle too lets people know that it’s not “weird” and you aren’t crazy.’ ‘Getting cancer is not your fault, it’s not a punishment from God’

Sadly, almost exactly a year before her cancer diagnosis, Angel lost her older brother very suddenly. Compounding the first anniversary of his death with trying to understand the news she had just been giving was incredibly difficult.

‘You know in the movies when they say, “I felt my heart break” that was it,’ says Angel. ‘The first week of my diagnosis was probably the hardest part of my journey. On the day of my brother’s anniversary I had a PET scan to see where the cancer actually was in my body. ‘I wanted my brother there, I wanted to call him so he could tell me it would be okay, tell me I’ve got this and he’ll be there every step of the way. ‘I wanted him to make me laugh or wind me up so I wouldn’t think about cancer and the road ahead. My brother always made sure I laughed rather than cried, so I just lay there thinking how annoyed he would be if I was just sobbing.

‘I had my sister Charlotte with me in the hospital while I waited and we just reminisced all the good times, the laughter the adventures. ‘All the great memories so I focused on something happy. What you focus on makes the world of difference. ‘That was the hardest moment because I had to be okay for my family, I didn’t want them to worry about me. It was Daniel’s day.’

Angel says that her cancer journey has taught her to accept her down days, to let the tears flow when she needs them to. That emotion doesn’t mean she’s weak. And the journey doesn’t end just because she’s in remission.

‘If there’s anything I’ve learnt in my 23 years of living, it would be to take it one day at a time,’ says Angel. ‘You really don’t know what is around the corner. ‘Having a cancer diagnosis following the already difficult year prior, meant that I had to find strength I didn’t know I had. I prayed a lot, I found my own relationship with God and I changed the way I viewed life. ‘I always saying my cancer diagnosis has been the most beautiful tragedy of my life.’

Angel is working to support Teenage Cancer Trust’s #StillMe campaign. 

Written by: Natalie Morris

First published 22.01.20:

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