“I’ll do whatever I have to do to get out of here,” Nikki “Trip” Tripplett, 39, remembers thinking when she showed up at one clinic for breast cancer testing. But the self-employed, underinsured Texan wasn’t talking about fighting and surviving breast cancer. She was talking about getting out of that particular rundown facility. She was determined to receive her care in a cleaner, better-managed medical center than her bare bones government-issued insurance allowed.
“I needed chemo once a week, but they had it scheduled every six to eight weeks because that was how long it would take to get an appointment,” Tripplett tells Glamour. “When I tell you, ‘Sometimes you almost die before you get treatment,’ it’s not a joke. When it comes to cancer and the medical world, you’re poor unless you’re rich.”
Tripplett says that financial discrimination was her toughest fight when she was battling breast cancer. Tougher than the white women who wouldn’t move their purses so a black woman—accompanied by her girlfriend, no less—could sit down next to them in a waiting room. Tougher than the doctor who said, “I’m pretty sure you’re not going to be milking any babies with those.”
“If you are not insured, then you might as well be black or Hispanic or gay or a lesbian because you will be treated just like we are treated every day,” she says. “But being insuranceless is the new black.”
Once she was diagnosed, Tripplett, a real estate agent, says she and her girlfriend called medical offices endlessly, trying to find the right words to say in order to get her the help she needed. When she heard, “We don’t take your insurance,” she’d say, “I’m sure somebody else there does.” When she heard, “Your girlfriend can’t come in the room,” she’d say, “Oh, good thing she’s my best friend, so now she can come in.”
“We would put on the pressure on anyway that we could,” Tripplett says. It paid off—eventually, she landed in the hands Jamie E. Terry, M.D., who specializes in breast surgery at Texas Breast Specialists-Houston Medical Center, and received excellent care. Tripplett can’t rave enough about Dr. Terry. So now she advocates for others to stand up for themselves and get the physicians they deserve.
“I want all black people, all broke people, all gay people to know: You gotta take a whole bunch of nos to get to yes,” she says. “But I don’t want anybody giving up.”
And words matter. That’s one of the most important lessons Tripplett learned on her cancer journey. But she also learned how to speak without saying anything at all. She just smiles—to reveal a gold grill that says “F-CK CANCER.”
“It’s offensive awareness,” she says. “I want as many people who can be offended to be offended by it. Because I was offended when cancer picked me. I was offended that I was going to lose my hair. I was offended by the things that I was about to go through that I wasn’t prepared for.” It’s a reminder to everyone that cancer can happen to anyone.
After multiple surgeries, chemotherapy, and radiation, Tripplett will continue to take a once-a-day pill for three more years as part of her battle. “Cancer broke me down,” admits the advocate for Avon (she’s also a state leader for the Young Survival Coalition in Texas). “But at the same time it built me up. I became the person I didn’t know that I was supposed to be.”
“Never for one minute believe that you must defend [what happens in] your bedroom or [what’s in] your bank account in order to defend your breasts—or your life.”