Insecure’s Yvonne Orji on Her Breast Cancer Scare and the Importance of Listening to Your Body

Photo: W+G Creative
Yvonne Orji was 17 years old when she had a breast cancer scare. Thankfully, the lump on her breast was benign, but the experience stuck with her. Before gracing our screens as Molly on Insecure, the now-Emmy-nominated actress obtained a master's degree in public health from George Washington University.

Now, she's using her platform and her public health background to shed light on triple-negative breast cancer (TNBC) a form of breast cancer, whereby cancer cell growth isn't driven by estrogen receptors, progesterone receptors, or excess HER2 protein. This means that TNBC doesn't respond to hormone therapies or medications that target HER2 proteins. Consequently, it's more difficult to treat.

Black women have a disproportionately high risk of developing TNBC when compared to women of other races and are also more likely to die from the condition. "We've already got so much on our plate, "Orji says, mentioning fibroids, and diabetes as conditions that impact Black women more. "And when we go to our healthcare professionals, we are often dismissed. We are often not given the kind of care we desire and deserve."

To help raise awareness, Orji partnered with the pharmaceutical company Merck to narrate a web docuseries called Uncovering TNBC, which shares the stories of three Black women navigating their diagnoses. She spoke to Well+Good over Zoom this week about the importance of TNBC awareness and how she prioritizes her own well-being.

Well+Good: What was it like for you to work on this project?

Oriji: One thing that these women in the documentary really did was empower me, so I know that they are empowering everybody that comes in touch with their story. They're warriors in such a way that, while they were going through this very scary period, they're thinking about, "Man, I really wish somebody told me this. Great, I'm going to start an organization where I can help Black women so that they don't have to go through what I went through." So, even when we're trying to receive our healing, we're over here trying to help the next man. That's what we do so well, but it's exhausting. We can't have the luxury of just being sick. Now we got to be sick and be advocates for other people. To see their strength just personified and shining through, I was like, 'Man, there is nothing the human spirit can't overcome, can't handle.' We literally are magic as Black women.

And as somebody who worked in public health, I was very fulfilled. It's one of those moments where you're like, "You know what? Nothing is ever wasted." I have this degree that a lot of times sits on the shelf, but like I told my mama, it don't ever expire. This was one of those moments where I'm able to dust it off and put into practice all the things that I learned many years ago in my grad program about how to spread awareness, how to reach communities, how to use your voice to amplify messages. I'm grateful that I get the opportunity to do that.

Why is breast cancer awareness advocacy important to you?

As someone who had a scare at 17, you're never too young to start understanding what your body feels like normally, so that if there are ever any changes, you can be like, 'Well, this wasn't there last month. Okay, well hold on. Let me make an appointment.'

How many times do we have a pain and we're like, "Oh, that's cool. I'll just live with it." We're not supposed to live with pain. We're not supposed to just grin and bear it, but so many Black people do because, when you think about all the other socioeconomic factors that impede us, taking a day to go to the hospital is just like, "Well, if I do that, then I lose this. Then I've got to get time off, and I actually want vacation days." It's just like we are always juggling this or that.

What is one thing you wish women knew more about when it comes to catching and treating breast cancer?

We stress awareness because it is the one thing that we can actually do. You know how they say start your breast cancer screenings at 40 or do this at these ages? While those are really good barometers, there are always outliers. Even though this is not a risk factor for you at this age, it's like "Understood, but also can I get that test just in case?" If it's ruled, it's ruled out. Look at God. You don't have to worry about anything, but, on the off chance it's like, "Oh my gosh, someone your age wasn't supposed to..." Well, here we are. It's easy to say that if you have healthcare,  but we know that so many people don't. It is, in a sense, how in America that is a luxury as opposed to just a national right is beyond me. But that's a story for another day.

On the Uncovering TNBC website, there's a discussion guide that you can print out and take with you to your appointments so you can ask your doctor if you have TNBC or just say, "Hey listen, here's this new thing I just found out about. What are the possibilities that I could have it? Is there a special screening?" Just ask so that they know, "Okay, she's at least aware."

So much of advocating for yourself goes back to putting your health first. When you're busy and just managing the stress of living during these times, how do you make time to care for yourself?

It's just important. I schedule it. I put it in. Some Mondays I'm like, "We're not taking any meetings this Monday if I'm traveling over the weekend. We'll start everything on Tuesday." It's slowing down in a way that makes sense for you.  My therapist had to tell me doing nothing doesn't mean you're lazy. Because I was like, "I feel like I'm lazy." She's like, "Or you have been working nonstop for the last decade. So, you're tired, and you have to give yourself grace and the ability to not do anything." I'm like, "You're right. Yeah, okay."

How long did it take for you to feel like rest wasn't a waste of time? 

Earlier this year I made a conscious decision. My words for this year were "ease" and "flow." It sounds great, but when you're a Nigerian who has worked all their life, ease and flow is like, "Well, what does that mean?" I wanted it, but I didn't know how to achieve it in real-time practice. It was a lot of conversations with myself. It was a lot of me feeling like I'm letting myself, or letting other people, down by not going balls to the wall, but it's just like, I don't even want to go balls to the wall. I just don't know how else to be. It was a learning, and it took a couple of months for sure.

What is the best self-care advice you ever received?

It's one that we all know: you can't pour from an empty cup. So many of us still be trying to tip the jar over, and it's like, "But it's empty. It don't exist no more. You have nothing to give." Listen to your body. If you get nothing from this, a "no" in your body and in your spirit is probably a "no." Listen to that. Or an "ow" in your body or an "ow" in your spirit or, "That didn't feel good," you're sending messages from your brain to your body every day. Check that.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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