When Serena Holtz told her son she had been diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer (MBC), she made it clear she never wanted to hear the words that someone had “lost their battle with breast cancer.”
“I told my son, ‘I win either way. I don’t lose,’” Serena said. “If by some miracle I am healed and I get to spend more time on earth, that’s fine. I’ll talk to the world about the Lord’s miracle. But if I get called off the battlefield, I didn’t lose.”
It’s a perspective Serena has adopted after being told she had no signs of breast cancer twice, only to receive an MBC diagnosis earlier this year. MBC is breast cancer that has spread to other parts of the body. It is the most advanced stage of the disease. Today, there is no cure.
Serena was first diagnosed with ductal carcinoma in situ (DCIS) in 2010 and underwent a lumpectomy. As a registered nurse, she worked for the African American Health Program, which seeks to eliminate disparities for Black people in Montgomery County, Maryland, by providing free health services.
Serena’s diagnosis spurred her to become a volunteer breast health educator through Know Your Lemons, which seeks to teach people about the importance of early detection and screening. She started volunteering at health fairs to teach people about the warning signs of breast cancer, but she consistently found that Black people were reluctant to talk about the disease.
“Breast cancer is taboo, especially in the Black community. Say your grandmother or your great-grandmother had a lump — she didn’t talk about it. And then when she dies, you never know what she died of,” Serena said.
“I tell people that it’s very important at family reunions to talk about your ancestry and ask about what family members died from. It’s so important for us not to be secretive. It’s not taboo. It will save your life if you know the signs.”
In her efforts to spread the word about the importance of breast health at her church, Serena started a breast cancer support group called Livin’ the Pink Life in 2015. She was then appointed Team Captain for the Kingdom Women team for the MORE THAN PINK Walk in Washington, D.C. Her passion for raising funds for research also spurred her to expand Livin’ the Pink Life into a fundraising and educational gala.
Always in search of new ways to educate people about breast health, Serena began filming a short documentary each year about her experience with breast cancer to further emphasize the importance of knowing the warning signs.
Eight years after her initial breast cancer diagnosis and amidst her busy work and volunteering schedule, Serena’s cancer returned in the form of triple negative breast cancer in 2019. She underwent a double mastectomy and chemotherapy, returning to work and volunteering once she had healed.
Serena never imagined that breast cancer would metastasize (spread). But three years after finishing her chemotherapy, Serena felt a lump in her armpit.
“I talked to my doctor and said, ‘Please do an ultrasound. Something’s wrong. I know something’s wrong,’” Serena said. “I had to argue with my gynecologist because she said I no longer had breast tissue, so she did not think it was cancer. She wrote in her note that I ‘insisted that something was wrong’ and wanted an ultrasound. The day after the ultrasound, my doctor said we needed to do a needle biopsy. And we found out that it was MBC. It was in my spine, my liver, my lung and the lymph nodes.”
Since taking disability leave from her job, Serena’s breast health education efforts have now shifted to informing others about MBC. She has found that many people are not aware that MBC is a terminal diagnosis and that more research is needed to find new treatments for the disease.
“Now that I have MBC, I’m really pushing education. It’s not like I didn’t see how serious things were before when I was diagnosed, but now there’s an urgency. Because with MBC, you don’t know how long you have. Today, there is no cure. You just have to live with it,” Serena said.
“When I educate people, I also ask them to give because there’s not enough research for MBC. We don’t know enough about it. If we did, I think we would’ve found a cure for breast cancer altogether. I always tell people, ‘Please donate. You never know who’s going to need it. It might be you.’”
Serena is a Worship in Pink Ambassador at her church and continues to volunteer with Know Your Lemons to teach people about breast health and the warnings signs of breast cancer. After the Livin’ the Pink Life gala was postponed during the COVID-19 pandemic, she is excited to host her fifth gala during National Breast Cancer Awareness Month in October.
The gala’s theme of “It Takes a Village!” resonates on a deeply personal level for Serena, as she points to the support of her husband, friends and church family on the good days and the difficult days. Her faith is her source of positivity and strength.
“Some people have faith, some people don’t, but my faith and appreciation and understanding of who God is has brought me a mighty long way,” Serena said. “I just tell everybody: stay prayerful and have faith in God and that’ll bring you through everything.”