Dr. Taleshia Chandler is a 47-year-old administrative dean in the Richmond Public School system in Virginia. After Chandler’s mammograms were mishandled by her doctors, she and her husband were shocked to learn that she had Stage 4 breast cancer. (Courtesy photo)
By Mylika Scatliffe
Special to the AFRO
Dr. Taleshia Chandler is a 47-year-old administrative dean in Richmond, Va. public schools. She is the mother of three children, ages 23, 21 and 18. She loves to sing and travel. When we began this interview, I referred to her as a breast cancer survivor; she corrected me and told me she is a warrior. A google search yielded the definition, “A warrior is a noun that refers to a soldier or someone who is involved in a fight.” Chandler’s idea of having cancer was simply getting a diagnosis and having chemotherapy or maybe radiation. Her story is anything but simple. She’s had to fight, but not in the way she expected. She wants to share her story so what happened to her doesn’t happen to anyone else.
Every December, Chandler’s birthday gift of self-care is to have her annual check-ups: mammogram, pelvic exam and physical. In 2013, when she was 39, she had a baseline mammogram. She was told everything was normal, given a rose per the usual post-mammogram practice at that facility, and told to return the following year.
Fast forward to nearly a year later in November 2014. She’s not sure her previous mammogram films were ever sent to her family practitioner, as requested, so they could follow her mammogram results from year to year. Chandler was finishing studies for her doctorate degree, and while doing a self-exam, she noticed her breast was hard as a rock and dimpling. She mentioned her concerns to her family practitioner and gynecologist. The concerns were noted in her chart, but no one ever followed up with her. In February 2015, she visited her family practitioner again because she noticed her nipple was inverted. The family practitioner still didn’t see an issue and even went so far as to suggest she visit a plastic surgeon if she was dissatisfied with the appearance of her breasts. Chandler returned to the original facility for another mammogram because they offered same day results and a chance to review the x-ray films. While viewing the films, she questioned the white spot she noticed on her breast. She was told it was calcification, and everything was normal. She received her rose, and instructions to return in May for a repeat exam, since her breast tissue was dense. After the May exam, she was told again there were no issues. Keep in mind, she was not only having mammograms, but ultrasound examinations as well. She’d also requested MRIs from her family doctor and gynecologist. Both refused, telling her they were too expensive, and coverage would be denied by her health insurance.
Between May and August of 2015, Chandler developed severe back pain. Wanting to get in shape and maybe strengthen her back, she started working with a personal trainer. Doing sit-ups was excruciating, enough that she requested they not be included in her workout routine. Getting no relief, she went to an urgent care facility where she was diagnosed with a pinched nerve and/or back spasms and given a prescription for the pain. Next, she sought out a chiropractor. His manipulations were so painful she was rendered immobile on his table for 10 minutes or more, sobbing from the pain. The session ended with the chiropractor being profusely apologetic and dumbfounded since nothing like this had ever occurred with any of his patients.
Out of options, she finally went to the emergency room where she was given hydrocortisone. The ER nurse suggested she see an orthopedic doctor. At her visit with the orthopedic doctor, he tested her range of motion, asked about her family history of cancer and osteoporosis, and prescribed an MRI. It didn’t escape Chandler’s notice that these steps hadn’t been taken by any of her regular practitioners. Once the MRI was complete, she was referred for a bone scan. By this time, she began to understand the implications of all these tests. She tearfully recalled that she was panicked and online researching everything that had to do with cancer. When she went for the bone scan the technician even asked her what she did “to mangle her bones.” All this pain and still no answers.
Without her knowledge, the radiologist who read her MRI results contacted her husband Anthony and gave him her diagnosis first and asked him to bring his wife to his office. The next day, flanked by her husband and mother, she was informed she had Stage 4 breast cancer, and that it had metastasized to her liver and bones. “Hearing that was like being outside my body and watching it happen to someone else,” Chandler recalled. Especially when she learned that the radiologist reviewed all her previous mammogram films and determined the cancer was present in 2013 at the baseline mammogram.
She thought, “How can this be? I did everything I was supposed to do. I did my self- exams. I had yearly mammograms. Why didn’t any of it work for me?” In 2016, she filed a civil lawsuit against her family practitioner, gynecologist and the first radiologist to no avail. She alleged in the lawsuit that her mammograms had been misread and the cancer had been missed three years in a row; she was told the statute of limitations had passed. In 2018, she learned the cancer had spread to her brain.
Today, Chandler has a trusted medical team, led by Dr. Joseph Evers, the oncologist referred to her by the radiologist that discovered the cancer. She praises him saying, “He sees me as a person – not just a diagnosis. He is phenomenal. Dr. Evers is meticulous and well respected. His staff is diligent and attentive knowing that he won’t stand for anything less for his patients. If I mention something that seems inconsequential, he takes note and follows up.” When she noticed tingling in her hands and feet, her concerns were heard, and she was referred for a brain MRI.
Chandler has opted not to know her prognosis, instead concentrating on solutions. She initially took a year off work; the chemotherapy and medical treatments were too much while still working. She receives support from her husband (they’re high school sweethearts) and their three children. Two of them are away at college and she misses them of course, loves them beyond measure and appreciates their unwavering support, and the way the course of all their lives has been altered.
She loves and enjoys her work with special needs children. “I’m blessed to work with good people; they look out for me every day. One of them has committed to carrying my bags to and from my car daily,” says Chandler. She recognizes every bit of help she receives, from the smallest to the largest as an enormous blessing.
She’s the author of two books, “Sparkling Through Adversity: Traveling Through Life’s Toughest Journeys With Style Grace and Shine!” and “A Divine Detour: From Doctorate to Diagnosis to Destiny,” both of which are available on Amazon.com.
According to the World Health Organization, breast cancer became the most common cancer globally as of 2021, accounting for 12% of all new annual cancer cases worldwide. As of January 2021, there are more than 3.8 million women with a history of breast cancer in the U.S. This includes women currently being treated and women who have finished treatment, according to breastcancer.org. She’s traveled the world, written two books, released a single. Her husband Anthony describes her as, “the strongest, bravest, toughest, courageous and most resilient person I know.”
Chandler told her story to me with steely determination, through tears and traumatic recollections of details she surely would rather forget; but wants this to reach as many people as possible, so what happened to her doesn’t happen to anyone else. She’s been interviewed numerous times and is still trying to find someone to represent her in a lawsuit against the medical professionals she said, “miserably failed her.”
“Don’t be afraid to get a second opinion if you’re not being taken seriously or you’re being dismissed,” she states emphatically. “If your doctor is impatient or not giving you the answers you want or need, find another one. I was going to the same radiologist again and again and now I feel like he was only concerned with getting as many patients as possible to make as much money as possible, not correctly reading mammograms and diagnosing patients. “
The weight of knowing she has a disease that’s caused so much suffering among women around the world is a heavy emotional weight for her to bear. She makes no secret that the last few years have included panic attacks, depression and insomnia. Her team of caregivers include a psychiatrist and a therapist to deal with the mental trauma alone. She has chemotherapy every three weeks and looks fabulous in the process. “I believe that we don’t have to look like what we are going through. My condition doesn’t determine my conclusion.” Spoken like a true warrior.
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