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Beauty Is Me — Yolonda Ross’ Journey to Breast Cancer Survivor Advocate

Beauty Is Me — Yolonda Ross’ Journey to Breast Cancer Survivor Advocate

When The Chi actor Yolonda Ross started the show’s fourth season, she couldn’t have known that after portraying her character Jada Washington’s experience with breast cancer, that she would become an advocate for breast cancer survivors. On October 30, 2021, Ross is co-hosting Beauty Is Me, an event to support Chicago-based grassroots organizations, Equal Hope, the Tatisa C. Joiner Foundation, and the Center for Health Equity Transformation (CHET). Ross will unveil five portraits of breast cancer survivors that share one title, “Beauty Is Me.” The models for her photographs were breast cancer survivors Ross met while doing research for her role.

Storytelling is a powerful tool. Fiction can allow space for audiences to feel empathy and compassion and to connect to the universal human experience. BGN spoke with Yolonda Ross via Zoom about her advocacy for Black women with breast cancer. 

Ross began by sharing, “The season has had a huge effect on me because, without having actually gone through cancer, now I feel part of a family of survivors. I’ve lost friends and family members to cancer, but I felt like I was on the outside of things. Now, I feel like I have more of an understanding of what women go through.”

Ross took the time to go deep into researching her role and was welcomed into a blessed society of Black women who are cancer survivors and who shared their experiences openly with the actor, which added layers of authenticity to her performance. She said, “They [the breast cancer survivors] have given me a wealth of information not only about the disease but about the disparities in the healthcare system, which needs to change. We hear about healthcare disparities but then to see them and how they have affected people’s lives up close and to hear some of the stories that the women have had to endure is heartbreaking.”

We asked Ross why it’s so important to raise awareness around Black women and breast cancer, and her answer was compelling. “I was literally just talking about this with a survivor earlier,” Ross replied. “Unfortunately, when it comes to breast cancer, and other cancers, Black women are not always treated the same. We can go to the doctor with symptoms seeking guidance, but we are not always sent for the proper tests — the MRIs, CAT scans. A lot of times we’re just sent home with, ‘Oh it’s just this,’ or ‘Oh it’s just that. Here — I’ll prescribe you a little something for the pain.’ Sometimes breast cancers are not seen in mammograms because the breasts are dense, and patients should get MRIs. There is also just being misdiagnosed or not diagnosed because you’re sitting home just thinking that there’s just something going around. So many doctors aren’t sending us in for the right tests. They aren’t detecting the cancers early, and early detection is the key.”

The conversation moved on to the upcoming event that Ross is organizing for the grassroots breast cancer survivor organizations. She told us how the event came about. “This viewer, Rhonda Feinberg, was so moved by Jada’s whole storyline, particularly the episode with the hair cutting, that she reached out to me. We ended up speaking at length about the show. I told her about the organizations I was working with, and I told her how healthcare is so skewed. In the neighborhoods in Chicago that these women are in, they might not have the most up-to-date equipment, might not have the best doctors, and even to get treatment, [might] not be able to take time off from work. All these things Black women have to deal with, on top of the cancer diagnosis. Rhonda was just like, ‘How can I help?’ She told me she is a survivor and admitted to not being aware that Black and Brown women go through a different experience dealing with cancer than white women do. She wanted to know how to help, and I was like, ‘You know money always helps, just to be blunt about it. Money always helps a situation; money helps you get the awareness, [and] it helps to navigate things so that a few more people can get access to good healthcare.’ So she donated $100,000 to the three organizations I’ve been working with.”

The power of Yolonda Ross’ authentic portal of Jada’s experience touched Rhonda Feinberg’s heart and inspired her to take action. Ross told BGN more about the genesis of the event. “I was back here in Chicago to do an event for Equal Hope at the Black Women’s Expo. I was at their booth helping to sign people up for mammograms and things like that, but I was thinking I’d like to photograph some of the women who are breast cancer survivors in Tatisa C. Joiner’s foundation. [They] call themselves the Butterflies. They call themselves butterflies because they go through a metamorphosis — a journey. Tatisa helped me find five women for me to photograph, and designer Mallory Talty has a huge stock of vintage clothing, so we asked the Butterflies what beauty meant to them. Once they told us, we dressed them in the vintage clothing that conveyed their beauty, and I photographed them. Now I have five big, beautiful portraits that are going to be unveiled at the event on the 30th. And Rhonda Feinberg is coming to town to make the donation. She will meet the people from the organizations. It’s really a celebration of Black women cancer survivors.”

Yolonda Ross’ powerful performance had a ripple effect that will positively impact the lives of so many Black women dealing with breast cancer. What a blessing.

Stream The Chi Season 4 on Showtime.

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