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Jazmine Sullivan's fight for equitable care in breast cancer

The full episode transcript for Jazmine Sullivan’s Fight Against Breast Cancer.


Into America

Jazmine Sullivan’s Fight Against Breast Cancer

Trymaine lee: I'm originally from South Jersey, but, like, Philly is my adopted home town. And I don't know if I'm makin' this up, but I remember bein' at the Five Spot on Bank Street and it'd be Kendrid and it'd be Jaguar, right, and I think I remember seeing a young Jazmine Sullivan there. Was that you back in the day, like, 14 years old?

Jazmine Sullivan: That was me. That was little me. (LAUGHTER) I would go there every other Tuesday. And then I had to get up for school in the morning.

Lee: Kind of a reuniting--

Sullivan: Yes--

Lee: --of sorts. (LAUGH)

Sullivan: Yes--

Lee: So thank you. Jazmine Sullivan is one of the biggest names in R&B. But I first saw Jazmine in the early-2000s at the Black Lily, a music series showcasing mostly female musicians and vocalists at the Five Spot in Philly.

Archival Recording: Turn the mic up.

Lee: There were always amazing artists coming through. But Jazmine, to be so young and so talented, stood out.

Sullivan: (SINGING) "I know you gotta little life in you yet. I know you've got a lot of strength back there. I know you got a little life in you yet. I know you've got a lot of strength back. I should be crying but"--

Lee: Since those days at the Black Lily, her talent and career have only grown. She's 34 now with 12 Grammy nominations, four highly-acclaimed albums, and a seriously long list of songwriting credits. But recently her world turned upside down.

Sullivan: My mom, I don't know if you know but two years ago she was diagnosed with breast cancer.

Lee: Jazmine took time off to be with her family. And since then she's gone public with her story, hoping it will help other people around the country feel less alone. October is National Breast Cancer Awareness month. And this year the stakes are even higher.

In 2020 breast cancer became the most common cancer in the world. And Black women in the U.S. are 40% more likely to die from it than white women. So earlier this year Jazmine started working with a campaign called More Than Just Words.

The goal is to amplify awareness of the racial disparities in breast cancer screening, treatment, and care. With breast cancer disproportionately impacting Black people and screenings dropping because of the pandemic, this conversation is more crucial than ever. I'm Trymaine Lee. And this is Into America.

Lee: Today we speak with R&B star Jazmine Sullivan about her journey through her mother's breast cancer diagnosis and how she's using the experience to support other Black families going through their own struggles with the disease. I wanna talk about someone very special to you in your mother Pam. And I just wanna ask you what she's meant to you. Obviously, she's your mother and you love her. What has she meant to you and your career?

Sullivan: My mom has been my biggest cheerleader, my biggest support. Pretty much the reason that I'm here now is because she fought for me to be here. She went in board rooms that she might not even have had any business bein' in and she was like, "My daughter has a gift, and I need you guys to pay attention and listen to her."

Lee: Jazmine's mother, Pam Sullivan, is a singer herself. She used to be a background vocalist under the name Pamela Joy. So when she heard her daughter sing she recognized the talent.

Sullivan: Even when I really didn't believe in myself or believe that I should be in certain spaces, she told me I was crazy and was like, "Girl, (LAUGH) you deserve every good thing in the world." And so that's what she's meant to me. And that's what I try to be for her now.

Lee: How tough has it been? I know your mother, Pam, 2019 was diagnosed with breast cancer. How tough was it to see her go through that? And how did you find, and your family find, ways to pour into her?

Sullivan: Well, it was the worst news that I could've ever gotten in my life. But immediately I knew that it was something that I couldn't do on my own. And so, like, me and my family, we came together so quickly and we really depended on God. Like, that was our strength.

And pourin' into her and letting her know that this battle was not hers, it's the lord's and we're gonna get through this and the roles have definitely switched, where now I have to be her biggest cheerleader. And it comes so easy to me 'cause I've watched her do it for me for so long. So that's where a lot of my focus is, is just making sure that she's good like she made sure I was good and making sure she's healthy and happy. And yeah, that's where we're at.

Lee: You know, it's a battle unfortunately that so many people, so many women, Black women especially, have gone through. Growin' up, did you know anyone else that had breast cancer in the family or just family friends or anything?

Sullivan: Growin' up, I had heard, like, whispers about it in our family, but I never really focused on it. And that's interesting that you bring it up because I feel like that's an issue with a lot of Black households, is that we don't know our family history when it comes to health. We don't talk about health at all. It's always kinda kept mute. And that's one big problem that aids in the health disparities with breast cancer is that we don't talk about it enough.

Lee: That silence is one reason why Jazmine decided to open up to her fans about her mother's cancer in an Instagram post. That was in May of 2020.

Sullivan: If I could help it I don't want anybody to go through what I went through, as well as if they are goin' through it the best thing you can do is have support. And so me sharin' my experience with my mom is gonna help somebody else who may be goin' through it with their mother not feel like they're alone.

And that's so important for anybody who's goin' through breast cancer is that they feel like they're bein' heard, they're bein' seen. They're not forgotten, that they're cared about. And that's what I try to do and show for my mom. Like, "Girl, we in this (LAUGH) thing together. It's not just you"--

Lee: We got this.

Sullivan: "You may physically have it, but we are in this." And that's what you need in order to survive this.

Lee: Jazmine is serious when she says she was on this journey with her mom. Talk to us about the moment in solidarity that you shaved your head for your mother.

Sullivan: Yes. I did it as a surprise. She didn't know I was doin' it. I just wanted her to know I was ridin' for her. Like, her struggle is my struggle. My struggle is her struggle. If we not havin' hair right now we not havin' hair. (LAUGHTER)

And so that's what that was about. And I didn't, like, take a second thought about it. 'Cause at the end of the day what's more important is her feelin' like she has love and support and not feelin' alone, more than me havin' hair on my head.

Lee: Now, you said it was a surprise. Did you just, like, pop in on her, like, boom--

Sullivan: I popped in on her (LAUGH) bald head. I was like, "Hey, girl." She was like, "Oh, my God." (LAUGHTER)

Lee: It must've been a surprise for her to see that.

Sullivan: She was very shocked. She was like, "You didn't have to do it." But I also felt like she appreciated it.

Lee: Said, "We bald. We gonna be bald. It's us." (LAUGH)

Sullivan: That's right. I looked like you too, yep.

Lee: Yeah. (LAUGH) You was already beautiful, but it just made it better. That's all--

Sullivan: Oh--

Lee: That's all--

Sullivan: Thank you.

Lee: That's what I hear you sayin'. (LAUGHTER) Jazmine's post on Instagram unleashed a flood of support for her family. And it made Jazmine realize that as a Black celebrity she had the chance to make an even bigger impact. So this spring Jazmine started working with the health care company Novartis on a campaign called More Than Just Words. The campaign centers Black women and aims to increase awareness around the racial disparities in breast cancer.

Sullivan: I felt like it's my duty really to help other Black women who are goin' through the same thing or prevent it from happening. So we have conversations, where we try to figure out how to move things along.

Lee: You know, as Black people in this country, for centuries of systemic racism and white supremacy and structural racism, we end up having these disparities, whether we're talking about income, academics and education, but also health. In this process of you understanding breast cancer and how it impacts our community and Black women especially, what have you learned about the disparities? Like, how wide is the gap between what white women are goin' through and what Black women are goin' through?

Sullivan: It's astronomical. Like, when I seen the numbers I was like, "Wow, this is crazy," but also not. Because as Black people, we experience disparities in every part of our life.

Lee: According to the Center for Disease Control, Black women under the age of 35 are diagnosed with breast cancer at twice the rate of white women at the same age. And Black women die from the disease at higher rates than any group in the U.S. But breast cancer is not just impacting Black women. Less than 1% of all breast cancer cases develop in men, yet The Journal of Clinical Oncology reporters that Black men are 76% more likely to die from breast cancer than white men.

Sullivan: Let me tell you, I honestly didn't even know or consider Black men getting breast cancer until Beyoncé's father had breast cancer. I was like, "Oh, my gosh." But that's the thing about not bein' informed and not havin' this information and not bein' taught that, especially in our Black communities and our Black schools.

I don't remember at all health being a priority except for, like, goin' to the gym when I was younger. We have to deal with that. And that's what we're working on with More Than Just Words and tryin' to figure out different ways that we can attack this situation.

Lee: The American Cancer Society points out that one reason Black people die from breast cancer at higher rates is because they're more likely to be diagnosed at a later stage, meaning the disease is more aggressive and harder to treat. More Than Just Words wants to close that gap by encouraging Black folks to learn the early signs of breast cancer, get more regular screenings, and get those screenings sooner. Because that's a big part of saving lives. The website also has tools like a guided checklist for doctor's visits to help Black patients get equitable treatment.

Sullivan: This campaign has done a lot for me even, like, as far as even talkin' to, like, my girlfriends. Before that, you know, we weren't necessarily talkin' about health. And now we're talkin' about getting mammograms and having those important conversations as well.

We're tryin' to get Black people to have these conversations and not shy away from them, as well as Black women be vulnerable and know that they don't have to handle everything on their own. Like, bein' vulnerable and talkin' about it and havin' these conversations shows your strength.

And there's strength in community. And, you know, we have to get over that mindset that we have to bear these burdens alone and we don't need anybody else. We need each other to get through this. And so that's what we wanna help Black women do is not feel like they have to handle the burden of life, health, love, anything on their own.

Lee: We have to take a quick break. But when we come back, Jazmine tells us how her mother's doing and how her own life has been changed through this fight.

Lee: We're back with R&B singer/songwriter Jazmine Sullivan. Is there one moment from this journey with your mother that stands out to you and your entryway into, like, activism and being vocal about this? Is there something that (SIGH) stands out?

Sullivan: I think when we decided to change our eating habits because that was a struggle that we've had all our life, that, you know, me in my 30-plus years of living and then her and her 60-plus years of living, you're used to a certain way of, like, doing things and eating.

And that was big for us. Bein' as the weight really has been an issue for us really all of our lives, it was big for us to kinda surrender to the idea of not doin' things the way we used to and, like, choosing better for ourselves and actually going through with it.

And I was really proud of myself and of her because it's hard, you know, to be like, "Oh, you've been doin' this for 30 years and now you're not gonna do it anymore." But we really believed that life would be better on the other side of that. And so we went forward with it. And life really was.

Lee: How's Miss Pam doin' now? How's she makin' out?

Sullivan: She's good. She's in remission. She is refocusing on her health. Now she has, like, this renewed sense of life. And she's like, "I wanna study everything I need to study about, like, bein' vegan and different foods and things that I should do and take." So she's really good and feelin' positive, and we're blessed. And I just thank God for gettin' us through this. And I thank God for the opportunity to be able to help other Black women.

Lee: And as a Black woman who watched your mother and other Black women go through this, has this changed, you know, how you're stayin' on top of your health? I know that you guys are goin' the vegetarian route and all this, but are you, like, hyper-aware now of gettin' your mammograms? Like, I mean, you're still pretty young, but how has your health journey changed?

Sullivan: Well, I'm not that young actually. Around 34, 35 I should be (UNINTEL)--

Lee: Jazmine, I've been seein' you since you was 13 years old.

Sullivan: Yeah. (LAUGHTER) I am at the age where I would be thinkin' about having mammograms and making appointments and stuff. And that's so funny that yes, I've been having conversations with my girlfriends because sometimes you do forget how old you are. (LAUGHTER)

Lee: Right.

Sullivan: So this was a good reminder of, you know, being with this initiative where it was just like, "Okay, you have to make sure that you're takin' care of yourself. While you are talkin' about this message, you have to make sure that you're doing it for yourself." And it definitely has helped me stay on my A game.

Lee: This summer Jazmine's activism, music, and journey with her mom all came together in one really special moment. I know you just recently won, you know, best album of the year through BET, a BET Award for Heaux Tales. And you brought your mother up. What was that moment like, to bring your mother up, knowing that, you know, y'all had been through so much together?

Sullivan: Yeah. I had to share it with her. We've shared everything else throughout my life, so this moment, where I was able to go onstage and get an award, I truly believe I would not have been there and gotten to that point without her love and he encouragement. So it was her award just as much as it was mine. (CHEERING/APPLAUSE)

Sullivan (on Tape): Ooh, glory be to God. (APPLAUSE) Two years ago we would've never expected to be here. My mom was diagnosed with breast cancer two years ago, so we didn't see any of this happening. But God has been so faithful to us and (APPLAUSE) thank you. My mom is now in remission, and this is my prize. This is my gift. It means more to me than anything that she's here with me. (APPLAUSE) She supported me all my life and pushed me and loved me all my life. So I'm so grateful for her.

Sullivan: I wanted people to see that she was doin' well and hopefully to have some hope with their own situation and believe that things can turn around. So I was glad that she was able to come up there and we shared that moment together.

Lee: That's a beautiful thing. What's next for you? You have this amazing album, Heaux Tales. What's next?

Sullivan: Working in the studio. I have some things comin' up, some guest appearances on a couple songs. I'm not sure if I can even talk about it, but there is--

Lee: Nah, you can--

Sullivan: --music--

Lee: --talk about it. Go ahead and say it. You-- can talk about it. It's all right--

Sullivan: There is music comin' out. People ask about a tour, and I always say, you know, "Depends on COVID." Let me tell ya, I wanna make sure that everybody's safe, myself and everybody that would be comin' to the show. But we are thinkin' about that, just some one-offs and stuff. So there's music definitely coming.

Lee: Obviously, having gone through something very personal that was bigger than any kinda career or music, it's your mother and your mother's health, but as an artist, how do you balance, whether it's a family member going through cancer or just personal things but then also your business is like, "I gotta be onstage. I gotta engage with people. I have to be at the studio." How do you balance that? You've been in the business for a while. How do you balance the two?

Sullivan: I'm still struggle with balance actually. I just talked to my therapist about that. (LAUGH) One way is to have therapy and have somebody to hold you accountable and be able to talk to. But I literally just brought up the fact that I want to be able to have a little more balance in my life. So far, I have been tryin' my best. (LAUGH)

Lee: That's all we can do.

Sullivan: That's all we can do. (LAUGHTER) I've been tryin' my best. I think I've been doin' pretty good, but I wanna be better in that way. But yeah, definitely therapy has helped I think with that.

Lee: Goin' through tough times sometimes makes us stronger, right? Like, you learn somethin' about yourself. In this journey with your mother what have y'all learned about each other and your dynamic and relationship?

Sullivan: Well, it's actually two-fold, right? So I learned that my mom, and I've always known she was strong, but when she had to go through this and how graceful she handled it, she was very quiet during the whole process. And my mom, she's a talker. (LAUGH)

Lee: She's not quiet, is she--

Sullivan: She's a fighter--

Lee: Yeah, she's the opposite of it. (LAUGH)

Sullivan: She was very quiet, but it was a quiet strength. And I see more than ever how strong she was and it made me realize that I had that in me 'cause she's my mom. But also, you know what's crazy, just how fragile she is and that she may not say it sometimes but I knew when she needed me.

'Cause I would look at her and I would know that she needed me to encourage her or she would need me to just sit with her or she would need me to, like, stroke her head. You know what I'm sayin'? And she wouldn't necessarily say it, but, you know, we need help. Everybody needs help. No matter how strong you are you need help sometimes.

Lee: You know, that moment sounds like such a very special moment for a mother and daughter because our mothers spend their whole lives taking care of us and nurturing us and having those warm arms and hugs for us, but then you found yourself, you know, maybe it was a privilege to be able to do that for her.

Sullivan: It was my privilege and my honor to reciprocate what I've gotten all my life. And I know she loved it and she needed it. And so yeah, it was very special to be there for her in those moments and kinda almost, like, be the mom to her, you know? She was like the child to me. Now it's reversed back now (LAUGHTER) 'cause she's feelin' better--

Lee: That ain't gonna last forever. That's gonna be a little while, all right. Calm your little self down now.

Sullivan: Yes. (LAUGHTER) Listen now, just back to me tellin' you what to do.

Lee: Exactly. This is an inspiring story, but it's about Black love. I think all this comes down to Black love in our families and our communities. And thank you so much for lifting up your voice and using it in this way. And I definitely want to talk to your mother, Miss Pam. So seed the ground.

Sullivan: She is so scared. Like, my girlfriend--

Lee: She in good hands--

Sullivan: --just tried to get (LAUGH) her on a podcast, and she was like, "I don't know what to say." Meanwhile, she's been yelling at us all our lives. I'm like--

Lee: See, come--

Sullivan: --"Now you"--

Lee: --on now--

Sullivan: --"don't have nothin' to say, girl." (LAUGHTER)

Lee: Now you quiet? Now you quiet?

Sullivan: Now you quiet, yes. (LAUGHTER)

Lee: As always, we wanna hear from you. You can tweet me @TrymaineLee. That's @TrymaineLee, my full name. Or write to us at that was intoamerica@nbc and the letters Into America is produced by Isabel Angell, Allison Bailey, Aaron Dalton, Max Jacobs, Joshua Sirotiak, and Aisha Turner. Original music is by Hannis Brown. I'm Trymaine Lee. Be well. We'll catch you next Thursday.