Natalie Williams sits comfortably at Ward 8's IHop restaurant, eating a salad with tomatoes and pieces of grilled chicken on a warm Friday in September. She takes a sip of water. She greets one or two people who stop by her table. She seems comfortable with who she is at that moment. But, her upcoming surgery the first week of October remains at the forefront of her mind.
"I keep looking forward to having two perky new breasts," she says, and chuckles. "That's what makes me laugh through the process."
Then, Williams gets serious. She discovered in August that her left breast had abnormal tissue. She recently found out her right breast has similar growth patterns, so a decision was made to undergo a double mastectomy at George Washington University Hospital in Northwest.
"The closer I get to the day, I feel a sense of anxiety and I'm scared about the procedure," says Williams, 41, who said initially the surgery was for preventative measures, now it's lifesaving. "Also, I'm anxious to get it done to be on the road to recovery."
Williams, who is "thankful" the cancer was caught early, says she is hopeful her experience will help other young women.
October is national Breast Cancer Awareness Month. Williams joins other high-profile women who put a public face on the disease, the most common cancer disease and the second leading cause of death among African-American women, exceeded by lung cancer, according to Susan G. Komen for the Cure, the nonprofit dedicated to eradicating breast cancer globally. In 2011, there were an estimated 26,840 new cases of breast cancer, and 6,040 deaths among African-American women.
"Our lives should mean something," says Williams, a Ward 8 resident. "You can't lead people without your own testimonies. I live in a ward that suffers greatly in health disparities – between obesity and poverty – all lead to breast cancer."
She says there is a larger conversation not discussed.
"White women are more likely to get breast cancer but black women are more likely to die from it." Between not going to a doctor when they need to, and not getting the treatment they need, Williams says, can lead to that disparity.
Komen substantiates her statement. Breast cancer in African-American women is lower than in white women overall. However, African Americans see a 41 percent higher death rate than white women.
In looking at her own story, Williams says her mother, Jean Williams, who lives in Richmond, Va., encouraged her to get a mammogram since her 40th birthday a year ago.
"I kept putting it off and rescheduling it," she points out, mainly because her family does not have a history of breast cancer. Also, life as a single mom, who runs a public relations firm who was fighting to become the Ward 8 Council member this past April, didn't have time to slow down.
In fact, her life has always been on the move. For 15 years, she worked in television news as a newscast producer and an anchor with stints at WUSA TV 9 in Washington, D.C., and other markets. Eleven years ago when her daughter, Nyela, was born, she started BlitzAssociates, a public relations firm that deals with crisis communications.
Born May 30 on Andrews Air Force Base, Williams grew up in Upper Marlboro, Md., and studied vocal music at Duke Ellington School of the Performing Arts. She attended Virginia State University, and graduated from Trinity College with a bachelor's in English. She served as senior staff in the Council of the District of Columbia in co-developing programs and assisting in legislation to improve Ward 8 on behalf of Council member Marion Barry. She has also worked with Robert Bobb and the late Ward 8 State Board Representative William Lockridge to improve the quality of public education for District students.
Williams has a theory on why a woman with no family history, who does not smoke or drink, gets breast cancer.
"It is the stress," she pontificates. "I've had my fair share of stress igniters, and working for Marion Barry was no cakewalk."
"I didn't just get breast cancer. I now have a platform." Williams is using this experience in a public relations blitz to bring attention to early detection of breast cancer and treatment to save lives.
Williams says she is expected to stay at the hospital for four days after the surgery, and then she will be "resting" at home.
"But don't be surprised if you see something on breast awareness by the end of the month," she says. Even before her diagnosis, she started a nonprofit called Women Empowered, which is designed to address issues affecting women – legislation, education, jobs, children and more.
"It's so important as there seems to be no connection between our young girls and our elders," she says. "The older generation has embraced me and provided so much wisdom to me. As I sit in the middle, I have the ear of our young, and the voices of our elders. I want to ensure that the knowledge can be passed through me."