On a recent Friday afternoon over Zoom, surrounded by flowers and donning a pink bow tie shirt, singer-songwriter Jazmine Sullivan was in good spirits. Just as she lays down her truth regarding love, life, and heartbreak as a singer of modern R&B, she took a deep breath and was preparing herself to be candid about another subject close to her heart: her mother’s journey with breast cancer. After her mother’s diagnosis, Sullivan had to put her world back together and chose to partner with Novartis, an international healthcare company based in Switzerland, taking on the role of an advisor for the company’s More Than Just Words initiative, a program that promotes health equity in breast cancer care and seeks to create solutions that improve breast cancer treatments and assistance for Black women. The statistics on breast cancer and Black women are harrowing. According to a study by the JAMA Network, “the Black community encounter more aggressive disease and cancer diagnoses along with delays in quality of care.” In addition, the CDC has found that Black women under the age of 35 are diagnosed with breast cancer at twice the rate of white females—so early detection, screening, and awareness of pressing health issues are key. And because of the pervasiveness and lack of awareness of the severity of the condition in the African American community, the initiative has tapped Black experts in the field such as Ricki Fairley, the CEO and co-founder of TOUCH, The Black Breast Cancer Initiative; Dr. Monique Gary, Medical Director of the Grand View Health Cancer program; and Jamil Rivers, CEO and founder of The Chrysalis Initiative, as well as Sullivan for outreach and help to communicate and serve the needs of Black females.
Despite all of the grief and pain this life-altering event threw Sullivan’s way, she leaned on her faith, her friends, and continued to accomplish great feats in career. Her January 2021 EP, Heaux Tales, a nuanced album focused on love and materialism and the fourth offering from the artist since 2015’s Reality Show, netted her a Gold certified single in “Pick Up Your Feelings.” Most recently, she is the winner of a 2021 NAACP Image Award and sang the Super Bowl national anthem in 2021.
The powerhouse R&B singer and Philly native sat down with EBONY to discuss her personal journey through her mother’s breast cancer diagnosis, her advisory role on the Novartis’ health initiative More Than Just Words, and how leaning on her faith helps her get through hard times.
EBONY: How did you put yourself back together after your mother was diagnosed with breast cancer?
Jazmine Sullivan: It was very difficult. It’s just the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do. When you or somebody from your family is diagnosed with breast cancer, you have to make a decision very early to be positive about it and to give it all in your fight. And that’s what we did. We leaned on God to get us through everything. We got closer as a family and decided what better ways we can live as far as our health and just put our best foot forward in fighting breast cancer. For me, losing my mom was not an option, so we gave it everything that we could. Thankfully and prayerfully, things are going so well. She’s in remission and she’s pretty much back to her old self. She’s my co-manager. She’s traveling with me more, so things are really good.
Learning that one has cancer can feel so heavy. How did the diagnosis change your mother’s personality?
It’s a grim diagnosis and anybody who gets diagnosed with that, I believe, goes through a phase where they’re sad and heartbroken and scared. She went through all of those phases where she didn’t know what to do or where to go. But like I said, we really tried to care for her as a family and leaned on God. We let her know that she wasn’t in this by herself and did everything that we could. I actually became a vegan to support her in her health efforts. I feel like the biggest thing you can do for somebody who gets diagnosed is let them know they’re not by themselves. Once we did that, I felt like her spirits lifted. She started looking up. She started looking at God and He got us through.
How did your partnership with Novartis start and what have you learned about breast cancer’s effect on Black women through it?
I told my mom early in her diagnosis that one day I believed she would have the opportunity to help women who are going through breast cancer, but I didn’t know it would come this quick and that I would be involved. It’s an extension of the work I do myself with my music and being a voice for Black women. This is another aspect of that. That’s why it’s so meaningful to me because I really love Black women. I really want to make sure that we prioritize our health and take care of ourselves. It’s about creating solutions, and help women try to beat breast cancer. We’re encouraging Black women to go and get mammograms and screenings; it needs to be a part of their self-care routine.
I learned that Black women are 40% more likely to die from breast cancer than white women and that Black women 35 and under are twice as likely to be diagnosed with breast cancer than white women of the same age. It’s jarring to actually see those numbers. That’s why this campaign is so important. They’re actually doing the work to try to lessen the disparities. I fight for Black women in so many ways and I want to continue to fight for our health. I want to make sure that we stay on this earth and we’re here, continuing to share our light and being the magical, wonderful beings that we are.
How do you support people in your role as an advisor for More Than Just Words?
A lot of the time we just don’t know information; but by opening up these conversations and letting Black women know the numbers, they’ll be able to see this is serious. I went on the website and checked the organization out to be sure it would be a good partnership for me. I like the fact that they have Black women advisors. I’m an advisor as well as my mother. We share our story. We’re telling folks what we’re going through and what Black women, in general, go through. We’re not just talking about it; we’re being about it. I feel like you can’t help Black issues unless you have Black people there at the table to tell you how we think, how we move, what we do, and why we do it. If there are no Black people and “they’re” talking about Black issues, then that’s a clear sign that there will be something missing in the equation when it comes to the outcome or the solution.
What would your advice be for those who are dealing with this life altering event in their own families and personal circles?
I’m not a doctor but I’d say to talk to their doctor and have a close relationship with your physician to know what you should do and how to move forward. For us, it was becoming vegan and being healthy overall. The better you treat your body, the better it’ll treat you. Also, I’ve been going to therapy lately, so don’t count out your mental health. Therapy has helped me process so much in my life. When you go through breast cancer or somebody you love is going through breast cancer, it changes things in so many ways. You have to talk about your feelings; opening up is going to help you move forward.
Self-care is so important when you’re going through a lot of pain. What has helped you get through this tumultuous period?
Music has been something for me to lean on, and singing has helped me get through it. I write a lot about my experiences and what I’ve gone through. I have no doubt that at some point I’ll write about what I’ve gone through with my mom and these changes that I’ve made in my life.
But what helped me the most, besides therapy, was my spiritual relationship with God, just being positive, and leaning on my family and friends. A lot of the tales on Heaux Tales were conversations I had with my friends and family and I just wanted to share that. I felt like there’s so much gold and wisdom in that, especially with my girlfriends. We’ve grown up together and I’ve known them since we were in high school. People see me because of what I do and they think amazing things about me because of this, but everything I am is because of the women around me—so I wanted to give light to them. Having a group of strong women supporting you—that could be the difference between failing or being your best self.
How do you plan to follow up on your critically acclaimed album, Heaux Tales?
There’s a lot of things that are happening. I’m in the studio right now working on new music. I’m doing some collaborations that’ll probably be out later this year or next. I’m performing at the upcoming BET Awards. I feel very blessed to be able to still do what I love and have the opportunity to share my gift.