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A Black woman’s breast cancer diagnosis led to a community of survivors embracing natural beauty products

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Tiah Tomlin-Harris still remembers the feeling of not being able to breathe when her doctor told her she had triple-negative breast cancer, a rare and aggressive form of the disease, at age 38. She was shocked and terrified of what she didn’t know.  

When she brought a list of questions to her doctor, she was met with pushback. The former pharmaceuticals manager wanted to know if there was anything she could change about her lifestyle to prevent the cancer from spreading. But the doctor told her those kinds of adjustments wouldn’t change things, and she needed to focus on seeking treatment.

Still, she continued to research and speak with others in various stages of cancer. She found cancer education was hard to come by — especially for Black women.  

“As I had more and more conversations, I noticed there was a gap in cancer treatment,” said Tomlin-Harris, who is now 47. “I had questions, and I needed to connect with people that look like me.” 

She created an online support group in her hometown of Atlanta for other women on their cancer journey — particularly Black women, a population that is disproportionately affected by cancer and often say they are mistreated by health professionals. According to the American Cancer Society, Black women are 41% more likely than white women to die from breast cancer, and 1 in 6 of all Black women in America will die from cancer. 

During her research, Tomlin-Harris, who has a master’s in chemistry, learned that Black women are also exposed to more toxic chemicals from the hair and beauty products they use, like hair relaxers and skin lighteners, which have links to causing cancer. When she was diagnosed with cancer again four years later, she felt it was time to implement a healthier lifestyle and wanted other Black women to be aware of prevention efforts. In 2017, she turned her support network into a nonprofit organization, My Style Matters.  

“I wanted to help women make healthier and safer choices and for there to be an organization for Black women by Black women,” she said. “I wanted for those who’ve never been diagnosed to lower their risk and for those that have been diagnosed to utilize tools to help manage their side effects.”  

The organization has grown to a network of more than 350 women that many say has become a “sisterhood,” where they not only learn about breast education and product toxicity at no cost, but they also check up and support one another during their cancer journeys.  

Phyllis Stewart, a two-time breast cancer survivor and member of My Style Matters, said the organization has been by her side since she was diagnosed with cancer. She is now a volunteer and frequently participates in events and outreach.  

“I really got a chance to understand advocacy and how important it is for this fight. I’ve built sisters for life,” said the 59-year-old Stewart. “Black women definitely need to stick together, because if you don’t, you really could lose your life.” 

Tomlin-Harris used to buy hair relaxers, shampoos and makeup that looked pretty; she didn’t focus on the ingredients. But after learning of her second diagnosis, she threw away all her products with toxic chemicals — from cleaning supplies to skin care. 

“I honestly believe that we purchase what we can afford,” Tomlin-Harris said. “You look in Black communities and you see beauty supply stores everywhere, and you don’t see any of those products in there that are deemed as ‘clean beauty.’” 

Recent studies have identified two groups of chemicals — parabens and phthalates — found in many beauty products that may contribute to the development of cancer. One of the organization’s educational programs includes helping women discover the importance of nontoxic beauty products and how they can easily find them.  

My Style Matters member Ebony McCoy with a ‘Kick Can’t-cer Care Kit.’
My Style Matters member Ebony McCoy with a ‘Kick Can’t-cer Care Kit.’Courtesy Tiah Tomlin-Harris

The organization gives six weeks’ worth of hair and beauty products at no cost to women undergoing cancer treatment called the “Kick Can’t-cer Care Kits.” The kits include makeup, skincare, hygiene products, dumbbells, cleaning products and breast massage oil, which are all locally sourced so that women can continue to use the same safe items in their area.  

Tomlin-Harris selects the items by using apps that test how safe a product is, like Clearya, which spots harmful ingredients and identifies nontoxic products while you shop, and the Environmental Working Group’s Skin Deep database, which includes a “Black-Owned Brands” filter.

To combat the use of toxic products, My Style Matters also hosts “Hey Girl Hey Parties,” where they do house visits with members and provide education on breast health. During the parties, women can be found in the kitchen learning how to cook with organic fruits and vegetables. They also learn how to make DIY products without toxic chemicals, like lip scrubs and hair masks, emphasizing the pillar of clean beauty.  

April Donaldson, a 44-year-old metastatic cancer survivor, was introduced to Tomlin-Harris at an event after she was diagnosed with triple-negative breast cancer in 2020. After hearing another Black woman share a similar story, she reached out to Tomlin-Harris and soon became an active member of My Style Matters.  

“It’s definitely a sisterhood that no one wants to be invited to, but it’s a beautiful thing to see how these connections are made,” Donaldson said.  

While undergoing chemotherapy, she received multiple boxes of organic fruits and vegetables and a personal care kit of nontoxic products, which taught her the importance of health and wellness.  

“For a lot of us women of color, we live in areas where there are food droughts or you’re so sick a lot of times you can’t go out and get groceries, so it was a huge help to have those deliveries to help support the lifestyle changes you’re trying to make to fight the disease,” Donaldson said.  

My Style Matters has made it a mission to reach younger women through events like “Teen Talk Tuesdays,” where teen ambassadors lead conversations on breast checks and other forms of cancer prevention.  

“When I was growing up, breast cancer was not on my radar,” Tomlin-Harris said. “Looking back, had I known what I’ve learned now, I would’ve made some different choices. If we can start educating them now, we’re planting those seeds for them.” 

My Style Matters’ “sistahood meetup” in Atlanta in 2022.
My Style Matters’ “sistahood meetup” in Atlanta in 2022.Courtesy Tiah Tomlin-Harris

Donaldson believes it’s vital to reach young Black girls so they can be aware of the importance of self-breast exams and how they are at a disproportionate risk. “It takes truly all of us to work together collectively to save our lives as Black women,” Tomlin-Harris said.  

Part of that work is tackling the racist beauty standards underlying these toxic products targeted at Black women.   

Tomlin-Harris says Black women may sometimes feel they have to fit into Eurocentric beauty standards. Studies show the use of skin lighteners and chemical hair straighteners are disproportionately used by women of color due to racialized beauty norms of fair skin and straight hair.  

“As you were growing up, you had to look a certain way,” Tomlin-Harris said. “These are things that we were told, and so we did things to help make ourselves beautiful not only for ourselves but [in] competition with other women.” 

At My Style Matters, members say they are thankful to have this support system — whether it’s giving each other rides to appointments or catching up with one another weekly. 

“The sisterhood has made a difference in my life personally, and that is why I give back my time to the organization,” Donaldson said. “If I can be that support for another woman of color, then that is fulfilling for me.” 

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