In the fall of 2005, a few months after Hurricane Katrina, Janet Evans, known to many as Nana Sula, felt a lump on her left breast. She was 39.

“I thought it was a fibroid tumor. I thought I was drinking  too much coffee,” Evans said. 

In August 2006, nearly a year after she first found the lump, she got a free mammogram at the St. Thomas Health Services Clinic. They told her she needed an ultrasound. After the ultrasound, she was sent to Ochsner Hospital for a needle biopsy.  

Evans learned she had stage-two breast cancer. There were tears.

“I wasn’t shocked, but of course your emotions are still your emotions. Cancer is a very serious word,” said Evans, now 58. 

A New Jersey native, Evans graduated from Rutgers University, where she studied African studies and English literature. She moved to New Orleans in 1996 and sold oils, incense and handmade jewelry when she was diagnosed with breast cancer. 

According to the American Cancer Society, Black women, like Evans, have a higher chance of developing breast cancer before the age of 40. Black women also are more likely to die from breast cancer than any other race or ethnicity. 

In November 2006, Evans had a lumpectomy to remove the cancerous tumor in her breast. Weeks later she said, she learned there were more cancer cells and was advised by her medical team to get the whole breast removed.

“I told them I needed to go and meditate on this,” Evans remembered.

In August 2007, Evans had her left breast removed.

“One day, I just looked in the mirror and I could just see that the breast was sick,” Evans said. “It didn’t look well anymore. The nipple was starting to cave in a bit. It was getting a dark hue around it, and I just knew in that moment. The Spirit said, ‘It’s time to call the doctor back.’”

Janet Evans, who is known as Nana Sula, created this patchwork. Evans is also a Black masking Indian with the Mandingo Warriors – Spirit of Fi-Yi-Yi. Credit: Courtesy of Janet Evans

Evans said she made peace with going under the knife and felt “a bit of relief” when she finally got her breast removed. She had breast reconstruction surgery, but she still grappled with her identity as a woman.

“I only have one breast. Even though it’s reconstructed, I had to really work my way back to loving myself and accepting that I was forever changed,” Evans said. “I’m not the woman with two breasts anymore. How do I now feel sexy again? How do I walk in the body knowing that I’m not like other women anymore?”

Shortly after her reconstruction surgery recovery, Evans visited a nude beach in New Jersey with her sister. There, she encountered another woman who had a breast removed. 

“We winked at each other and smiled and gave each other the thumbs up, and that was the Holy Spirit’s way of saying, ‘It’s okay,’” Evans said.

Evans has been cancer-free for 17 years. She points to a lifestyle change that included a change in diet — eating mostly organic food, staying away from coffee and bread — an increase in exercise, daily positive affirmations and rest. 

And the rest was important. In addition to vending, Evans served as a birth doula and death doula, she said. She’s also a Black masking Indian who was used to sewing suits all night. 

“My life got out of balance, where I was giving so much and not receiving back,” Evans said. “I was running here and there. I wasn’t giving much to myself at all.”

But Evans believes the main reason she’s been able to live cancer-free for nearly 20 years is because of her strong faith.

“I don’t know anyone who can go through this without their faith being strong because you’re facing your mortality,” she said. “Yes, I’ve been diligent with my diet. Yes, I’ve said my mantras. Yes, I’ve been positive. Yes, I exercise. But above and beyond all of it is, everyday I pray for my divine health. Every day I pray over my body. I don’t take it for granted.”

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Lottie L. Joiner, assistant managing editor at Verite, is an award-winning journalist with more than two decades of experience covering issues that impact underserved and marginalized communities. She...