Lorraine Hutchinson

(left) Lorraine Hutchinson and her daughter

It’s 10:30 on a late-May morning, and Lorraine Hutchinson has pulled her car to the side of the road to talk to EBONY.com. She’s on her way to prepare chicken and waffles at the request of a co-worker’s wife, a breast cancer patient who’s just undergone a difficult first round of chemotherapy. Days before, Hutchinson, Deputy Fire Chief and third–in-command for the San Diego Fire-Rescue Department, was leading a slate of seven battalion chiefs as wildfires threatened the Southern California coastline. “I’ve always had a servant mentality,” says Hutchinson, 49. “There’s no better feeling than to have helped someone in their worst time.”

Selected from a pool of 8,000 applicants when she was hired in 1990, Hutchinson is one of only two African-American women working in San Diego’s 1,100 member fire-rescue unit. Though she has spent the bulk of her adult life extinguishing physical and emotional blazes for others (first as a medical assistant in the mid-1980s), she was stunned to learn that she would be on the receiving end of care when she was diagnosed with breast cancer in November 2012. “I usually took care of people, and now I had something that could possibly kill me,” she says.

Second to lung cancer, breast cancer is the most common cancer among African-American women. And while incidences of breast cancer occur at a higher rate for Caucasian women, Black women are 41 percent more likely to die from the disease than their White counterparts.  While barriers to health care access are among the culprits for this gap, researchers count health behaviors (such as getting yearly mammograms and clinical breast exams) as central to curbing the spread of breast cancer before it becomes aggressive and fatal. When Hutchinson received a mammogram reminder from her health plan months prior to her diagnosis, she added the appointment to an already bustling to-do list.

“At that time, I was the Deputy Chief of Logistics. It was a busy job, and on top of that, I was pursuing a bachelor’s degree in organizational leadership. There were a lot of dynamics at that time that made my life stressful,” she says, noting that when asked to schedule a follow-up after her mammogram, she waited several months to make the appointment. “[The doctor] left me a message and wanted me to come in for a follow-up and said, ‘There’s nothing to worry about.’ I thought that since there was nothing to worry about, I would call them back when I had the time.”

Several months later, after she’d graduated and moved into a less-demanding position at work, Hutchinson went in for the requested follow-up. After an ultrasound and biopsy, she was diagnosed with Stage 1B breast cancer, which is said to have a 100 percent survival rate. What stunned Hutchinson was that she did not have a family history of breast cancer. “I had in my mind that because I didn’t have a family history of cancer, I was not at risk. But I’ve since discovered that most women who are diagnosed do not have a family history, and I basically started my family history,” says Hutchinson, a married mother, step-mother and grandmother. “I’m embarrassed to admit this now,” she says of the months that lapsed between her initial mammogram and the  diagnosis. “Had this been an aggressive cancer, it would not have been good for me to wait as long as I did. We caught my cancer at an early stage, but I don’t want other women to have the false sense of security that they can wait as long as I did.”

Hutchinson and her medical team were proactive about getting rid of the known cancer cells (“I had three breast lumps instead of one,” she says – none of which she could feel) and eliminating cells that may have been lying dormant in other areas of her body. After undergoing a left breast mastectomy six weeks after diagnosis, Hutchinson began her first of four chemotherapy treatments. Though there were several days during her recovery that she could not get out of bed – “It took me a year before I felt normal,” she admits – she maintained the exercise program she began four months earlier when she learned that she was diabetic. At that time, she entered a medically-supervised weight loss program and dropped 35 pounds in six weeks. But during her chemotherapy, she took a hiatus from the calorically-sparse diet and instead committed to walking through her neighborhood for an hour a day. “I exercised through my chemo, and that was a push. But the lifestyle changes I’d made because of my diabetes helped me beat breast cancer as well.”

Today, she is breast cancer- and diabetes-free.

In April, the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation’s San Diego chapter named Hutchinson its 2014 Honorary Breast Cancer Survivor, and she will serve as its spokesperson in the months leading to the city’s 18th annual Race for the Cure on Nov. 2. Komen’s seven California affiliates have launched an initiative to address the institutional and individualized survival disparities between Black and White breast cancer patients, pumping nearly $400,000 into alleviating systemic barriers in health care and ensuring better outcomes for patients in underserved communities. While a number of cancer researchers charge the disproportion to limited access to quality screenings and effective treatment for African Americans, Hutchinson is spreading a message of personal advocacy. “For all the reasons women put off getting a mammogram, not one of them is worth dying for,” she says.  “I hear probably every week of someone I know or someone who knows someone who has breast cancer. I don’t anyone else to have to go through this, but if it’s going to happen I want to be a positive influence.”

As Hutchinson ends her call with EBONY.com, she speaks to her desire to help in any capacity, including driving 1.5 hours to prepare a meal at the home of another breast cancer survivor. “A lot of people supported me through my journey, and there’s nothing I won’t do to pay it forward.”

Houston native Mame M. Kwayie is a communications professional and freelance writer. Her work has appeared in the Houston Chronicle, on EBONY.com, Clutch Magazine, and Madame Noire Magazine. She recently earned an M.A. in Writing and Publishing from DePaul University, where she served as the Editor-in-Chief of Crook & Folly, the university’s literary and arts journal.She lives in Chicago.