October 8, 2021 – Every so often, NAUDL introduces a “Perspective” essay on how debate skills matter in “real life.” In these pieces, the author shares a particular experience wherein some of the most critical facets of debate – communication, critical-thinking, self-conviction – are brought into focus outside of competition, the classroom, the courtroom or the boardroom. In this month’s perspective, Executive Director Rhonda Haynes shares how these same skills made a profound impact in her life. (Photo is of Rhonda in 2010, three years after a life-changing diagnosis.)
October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month, which has a deeply personal meaning for me. Fourteen years ago, I began a medical journey that changed everything – the way I navigated challenges, the way I questioned authority and experts, and most importantly, the way I advocated for myself — which led to a diagnosis that could have come too late.
In 2004, I noticed a lump and had it checked out right away. My doctor advised that the walnut-sized mass I was worried about was likely benign, but we agreed to follow it closely for a year. Over the course of that year, he ordered a mammogram and conducted a few ultrasounds and determined that I was fine. The official diagnosis: “Hormonal changes.” He looked at me squarely and advised, “come back when you’re 40.” I was 30 years old then and still fairly green in many ways. However, I wasn’t comfortable with a diagnosis of “hormonal changes” — and there was no way was I going to live with a questionable mass for 10 whole years. That made no sense. There was no amount of credentialing that could possibly override my intuition about my own body.
Feeling dismissed, I launched a search for a new doctor who would listen, take me seriously, and thoughtfully advise. In 2006, I encountered another male physician who agreed I was “fine,” but offered no logical explanation for the physiological changes I had experienced. I moved on to a third health care provider. In 2007, I finally found Jackie Webster, a nurse practitioner who seemed genuinely interested in me as a patient. She listened carefully to my concerns and inquired about the date of my baseline mammogram. It had been nearly four years. Jackie felt it would not hurt to order a follow-up test, offering “If my patients are uncomfortable, I am uncomfortable.” I had another mammogram, which showed significant changes. Jackie then ordered a biopsy that eventually confirmed a diagnosis of ductal carcinoma in situ (DCIS), which is stage 0 breast cancer. My treatment plan included a lumpectomy followed by radiation.
My surgeon, Dr. Theresa Lee, told me I was a “very lucky girl.” I asked why she felt that way, as I certainly did not feel very lucky at the time. Dr. Lee shared that she was also treating a 20-year-old woman with stage 3 breast cancer. She added that breast cancer in young women often reaches more advanced stages before diagnosis because patients and clinicians often dismiss the signs. Practically no one is ever diagnosed at stage 0.
At the time of my diagnosis, I was 33 years old. If I had listened to the first doctor who advised me to wait and have my second mammogram at age 40, I may not have received that rare classification.
As a non-debater, it is always both striking and affirming how strong the through line is between the intellectual tools I lean on personally and those that NAUDL and its partners seek to elevate through debate. Debaters are constantly honing research and effective reasoning skills that will allow them to advocate for themselves in their most pivotal moments. These skills are particularly necessary for people who are dismissed more frequently, just as I was as a young, Black woman by my first two doctors. I connect with our debaters on so many levels and I am inspired by their tenacity and agility in approaching complex issues. I also admire the way they raise concerns and critically evaluate solutions.
The power of voice, thoughtful analysis, and the ability to convey my position have been important in my life in ways I could never have imagined. When I consider the level of readiness that debaters gain in these areas with each practice and round of competition, I feel a personal sense of responsibility in expanding opportunities for these bright young leaders. These opportunities develop and expand the skills necessary to fairly challenge the status quo, speak truth to power, and become fierce advocates for themselves, their families and their communities. I am living proof that doing so can be life-changing, or even life-saving.