Corporate lawyer, Harvard graduate, black female CEO and entrepreneur with products in Target and Whole Foods, possessing any one of these titles is a testament to strength and perseverance in the face of adversity. Chris-Tia Donaldson holds all of these titles, plus one more - breast cancer survivor.
While her hair care brand Thank God It's Natural, also known as tgin, was making its way onto the shelves of stores like Walgreens, Target, Rite Aid, and Sally Beauty, Chris-Tia was undergoing chemo and radiation for breast cancer. Chris-Tia has been sharing her journey on her Instagram, @tginceo, and she agreed to share her story with the NaturallyCurly community from the experience of the mammogram to the decision to freeze her eggs, and how she managed to do this while growing her company.
Your company is named Thank God It’s Natural, can you tell us how you came up with that name?
So, back in 2009, I wrote a book called Thank God I’m Natural to help dispel some of the most common myths and misconceptions about kinky hair. Like so many black women living in America, I spent almost a quarter century wishing for hair that looked nothing like my own, and thought I couldn’t wear my hair in its natural state, because my tresses looked nothing like Alicia Keys’ or Mariah Carey’s. Having a relaxer was so restrictive. It meant spending your entire Saturday in a beauty shop, or running from the rain, or not being able to go swimming when on vacation. When I decided to let go of chemical straighteners and go natural, I felt I had finally reached a point in my life, where I could say Thank God I’m Natural.
As a follow up to the book, we released a line of products by a similar name, called “Thank God It’s Natural” or “tgin”.
Can you tell us about how you first discovered your lump?
I was actually taking a shower and noticed it then. Initially, I thought it was hormonal related, because I had a cyst removed from my breast in my 20s. Given my age and the fact that I felt perfectly healthy, breast cancer was the furthest thing from my mind. After two to three months passed, I made an appointment to see my doctor. Although she did not think it was cancer given the lump’s size, shape and the fact that it was soft and movable, she still recommended a mammogram just to be safe.
What is it like to get a mammogram? Is it scary?
Actually, it isn’t that painful. You would be totally surprised by the number of women who are scared of the idea of getting a mammogram. I would describe it as uncomfortable, but it’s fairly quick. It’s kind of in the same camp with getting a pap smear. It’s by no means fun, but you have to do it.
You run your own hair care company. How did you manage to keep tgin going while fighting breast cancer?
I talk a lot about this on Instagram. When I first was diagnosed, my doctor asked me when could I start chemotherapy. I told them I had a meeting with Target on 3/22 that I had to look good for. Based on that, we scheduled my treatments in such a way, that I would be off and looking and feeling good for that meeting. But, I soon learned that, you can’t plan for everything, because we ended up getting calls to do meetings with Walgreen’s and Rite Aid and I just had to wing it even though I was at my weakest.
During the nine months when I was in treatment, I was resting and checking and responding to email when/if I could, which was like every couple of days. During this time, we turned down pretty much all marketing opportunities and focused solely on shipping orders and staying on top of social media.
By the summer, which was 6 months after I was diagnosed, I was done with chemotherapy and starting radiation, so I felt a lot better physically and was able to pick up and do more. Now, I’m back at 90%, and it's business as usual.
With hair and beauty being such a large part of what you do, were you concerned about losing your hair?
Of course, I was really nervous about losing my hair, especially since I run a hair care company. I’m supposed to be out there being the face of this hair care company, wheeling and dealing, and spreading knowledge of all things natural, so I felt a little nervous at times donning a wig. But it’s all good. I’ve never had any major issues or anyone say anything to me too crazy. The natural community has also shown me nothing but love since learning of my diagnosis.
Now product development is a different story. I’m the primary tester of our products before they are released for testing by a group and so I was in a real crunch to expedite our product development cycle in order to develop our Edge Control and Curl Bomb Moisturizing Styling Gel before I had to shave my head for treatment.
Now that my hair is growing back, it’s back to the same old testing. But my hair is a little different now and I’m waiting to see if it will go back to its old texture.
Your diagnosis came at an inopportune time, how did you cope or deal with the diagnosis?
I went to therapy every other week. Although I had a team of really good doctors that are experts when it comes to cancer, dealing with a patient’s emotions didn’t prove to be their strong points. During a time like this, doctors are quick to prescribe prescriptions for Xanax and other anxiety drugs to help you cope with the many emotions you may experience. I opted for the natural route and chose to work with a therapist to help me process what was happening to me.
Although I had a team of really good doctors that are experts when it comes to cancer, dealing with a patient’s emotions didn’t prove to be their strong points.
Many women feel alone or don’t feel empowered to speak out when they’re going through this, why did you decide to share your journey on social media?
I decided to share my story, because when I was first diagnosed and going through treatment, I would often “lurk” (okay maybe “stalk”) on the pages of people going through breast cancer treatment. Most people were extremely positive, and I would kind of live vicariously through their pictures, which allowed me to see the light at the end of the tunnel.
I never wanted to be “cancer girl.” I just wanted to be a resource for people who were going through the same thing. Plus, I wanted to bring awareness to the fact, that young women like myself, under 40 and of African-American descent, also get breast cancer.
It turns out a lot of women who are facing their own personal challenges connected with my story.
What has it been like publicly sharing your journey?
To be honest, it has been very therapeutic. A lot of times tragic things happen to us and we are so quick to move on. Sharing my story has allowed me to process what has happened to me, accept it and sit with my feelings, which is something I almost never do.
I have also learned along the way that a lot of women are going through their own personal challenges, not all cancer, and just want someone honest and authentic who they can connect with about issues related to anger, sadness, etc.
I don't look anything like what I've been through this year. From March to June, I had 8 rounds of chemo every other Tuesday, a lumpectomy, 5 biopsies and 33 rounds of radiation. .. . . I was so scared the day I went for my first chemo, but God kept me in his arms. The first half of my treatment I was taking a drug nicknamed the "red devil", which earns its reputation for its color and its side effects. Chemo was by no means a breeze, but it was bearable and you get through. I've never been pregnant before, but after talking to some of my girlfriends with difficult pregnancies the side effects seem pretty much the same.. . During this time, I was at my weakest ever. I would lay on the couch for days. I wasn't even strong enough to stand up and take a shower, so I had a little chair in my bathtub. Some days I couldn't even walk or lift my arms to take off my tank top. I'm not sharing this with you so you can feel sorry for me, but because it's a testament to the power of God and how he still can do exceedingly abundantly great things in our lives even when everything looks the farthest thing from perfect. @tginatural literally took off without me during this time. Ain't that God!.. . Today, when you see me out in these streets wheeling and dealing, it is a testimony to what God can do, not what I can do. When you see us in more Targets or Whole Foods, Rite Aids and Walgreens didn't nobody do it but God, because literally I was useless. This year, we tripled our door count for FY17 and I was on the couch, barely checking email and didn't do a single natural hair expo, but God. Won't he do it.. . Up next, Target, Walgreens and love. #breastcancer#breastcancermonth#breastcancersurvivor#blackwomengetbreastcancer#youngwomengetbreastcancer#morethanpink #susangkomen#fightlikeagirl #tgin#tginatural #tginceo#ctbreastcancerunder40#breastcancerunder40 #thisisonlyatest
Is there a question or comment you get the most from your followers?
One of the posts that got the most reactions was one where I was talking about forgiveness and repairing friendships. I basically shared how a lot of my friendships were in pretty bad shape due to the sacrifices I had to make with growing the company. Often times, when people hurt us or we hurt others, we have a tendency to avoid difficult conversations or don’t prioritize having them. I realized that holding onto grudges and past hurts may have contributed to my diagnosis. I now make it a point to deal with things head on instead of letting them fester.
Oftentimes people struggle with the right ways to help their loved one after they've been diagnosed with cancer. What is the most comforting and encouraging thing someone did for you?
When I was undergoing treatment, I loved when my father and uncle would tell me I sounded great or looked like I was doing better, even when I didn’t believe it myself. I swear they had to be lying to me, but it made a difference and forced me to look at my situation differently.
Do you have a family history of cancer?
I am the first person in my family to get breast cancer. My mother died of non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma when I was 17.
Is there anything someone shouldn’t do or say when a loved one has been diagnosed?
I know what you’re going through, my [fill in the blank] died of cancer. I hate hearing about people who have lost their battle to cancer even though it’s just a fact of life.
Can you tell us about your treatment, and the ways you’ve dealt with its side effects?
I had a lumpectomy, followed by 8 rounds of chemotherapy and 33 rounds of radiation. My doctors were extremely aggressive with their choice of treatment given my age. In older women, they tend to only do a lumpectomy and radiation, if the size of the mass is small, because of their shorter life expectancy.
In terms of the side effects, the biggest thing is extreme fatigue and mild nausea. Although I’ve never been pregnant before, I would say it is akin to a really awful pregnancy. I basically dealt with the side effects by taking it easy and resting a lot.
You talked about freezing your eggs? What was that like?
I had actually made the decision to freeze my eggs when I was 35, because I was still single. My doctor actually advised against it, because she felt I was young and healthy, and that egg freezing was something she “would only recommend to a cancer patient.” Well, I did it anyway, and I’m glad that I did. It’s not clear whether chemotherapy will have an impact on my ability to have kids naturally, but at least I have some eggs in the bank just in case.
What would you like to say to young women who may be hesitant or scared to get a screening?
Advancements in cancer treatment have come a really long way. If caught early, breast cancer is a treatable disease and is not a death sentence. The important thing is to know your breasts, stay in tune with your body, and talk to your doctor if you experience any major changes.
Also, trust your instincts. If something doesn’t feel right, listen to your gut. If you don’t feel like your doctor is giving you the best advice, seek a second opinion.
What's next for you and for tgin?
The plan is to continue to focus on building and growing the business. Next year, we’ll be in more Target and Sally Beauty stores, plus we’re making a foray into the drug store market by launching in Walgreen’s, CVS and Rite Aid.
Given the overwhelming feedback to my story on Instagram, I’m writing a book called This is Only a Test: What Breast Cancer Taught Me About Love, Hair, Faith and Business.