Singer Jazmine Sullivan started therapy to help her cope with her mom's breast cancer diagnosis

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Jazmine Sullivan opens up about racial disparities in breast cancer prevention and how she's taking care of her own mental and physical health. (Photo: Getty; designed by Quinn Lemmers)
Jazmine Sullivan opens up about racial disparities in breast cancer prevention and how she's taking care of her own mental and physical health. (Photo: Getty; designed by Quinn Lemmers)

The Unwind is Yahoo Life’s well-being series in which experts, influencers and celebrities share their approaches to wellness and mental health, from self-care rituals to setting healthy boundaries to the mantras that keep them afloat.

Since singer Jazmine Sullivan's 2008 debut album Fearless, she's earned a reputation for moving people with her music. One of those captivated by Sullivan's art is former resident Barack Obama, who recently included Sullivan's hit “Pick Up Your Feelings" on his 2021 summer playlist

Sullivan is now lending her voice to a cause that has become personal: breast cancer awareness. Sullivan's mother was diagnosed with the disease two years ago, which shook her world, but also motivated her to help others. 

"After going through that with her, I wanted to help other women possibly not go through what we went through, or help them on the journey as they are going through [it]," she tells Yahoo Life. "It is so crazy because I told my mom early on in her diagnosis that I believe that God was going to get her through this so that she can be a blessing to other people. So I'm so happy that I can do this and be a blessing — especially to Black women, because I love us."

Statistics show that Black women are 42 percent more likely to die from breast cancer than white women. It's an issue Sullivan is helping to draw attention to by partnering with Novartis on their More Than Just Words campaign. Here, she opens up about racial disparities in medicine and how she prioritizes her own health.

Why is addressing racial disparities in breast cancer prevention and treatment so important?

I think that a lot of Black women don't actually know the numbers... like, I didn't know before this campaign. And I believe once we have clarity of what's actually happening, we will take better care of ourselves and make our health and ourselves a priority. My goal in this is to make sure that Black women take care of themselves — not just everybody else, not just the kids, not just your man, not just the community — but make yourself a priority because you really can't help anybody else until you help yourself.

How can people move from discussion to action when it comes to addressing these disparities?

They can go on the [More Than Just Words] website; there’s information on how to actually speak to your doctor and the questions that you can ask as a Black person. So there's so much that the campaign is helping us to do. And then my part is just to keep and continue these conversations. I had personal conversations with my girlfriends making sure that they're good. It starts at home first and then you kind of branch out. So people should just start in their circle and they start reaching out and helping other people.

How were you able to support you mother after her diagnosis?

My mom’s everything to me; she’s the reason that I am singing because she believed in me early on and I believed that I could be anything really that I wanted. She goes with me to a lot of things now, especially since COVID restrictions let up a little bit. But I'm just supporting her by just encouraging her to live her best life [and] take care of herself. We became vegan very early on in her diagnosis. So we are taking better care of our health and just trying to do everything that we can do together. We got so much closer since she was diagnosed and so I'm just really happy that she's still here on this earth and we're doing this partnership together. It just fulfills us to be able to help other people, especially Black women. And with More Than Just Words [we’re] doing the work to create solutions, drive health equity with breast cancer and to help Black women get screenings. And that's really important to me and I'm glad I could do that with my mother.

Why is it important to take care of your mental health when supporting a family member after a difficult diagnosis?

Breast cancer changes everything about your life. I've actually started seeing a therapist and I'm taking care of my mental health because that's something that you just need to kind of figure out. I've been looking up so much since [starting] therapy and getting that pain and everything that I went through out.

What steps have you taken to minimize your risk?

Setting up my own mammogram, talking to my mother about our family history. What was crazy is that she actually has a sister that had breast cancer twice. So it really shouldn't have been as shocking as it was in our family, but I feel like a lot of families don't really talk about it. And that's the problem; we don't discuss our own family history with health, [which] became important to me as well [and] that trickled into the conversations that I'm having with my girlfriends.

How do you prioritize your own mental and physical health?

I became a vegan two years ago with my mother; we decided as a family that we just wanted to take better care of ourselves overall. And so we cut out meat, making sure that I do some type of exercise... all of that has aided in just us feeling better as individuals and just connecting as a family.

Do you have any small self-care rituals that you use to brighten your day?

I will do a facial mask. Sometimes I love to light candles and just chill. My therapist has been helping me with really looking inward and taking a breath. A lot of times we just move so much that we don't have a chance to kind of be still with our thoughts and really [think about] what it is that we're actually feeling. So I'm starting to do that. Journaling. I write songs; I would say that's always helped me.

Do you have a mantra that you follow?

Nothing specific, but just a daily reminder to put myself first, love myself, take care of myself, that I deserve the best in life, that anything that I'm faced with, I was already predestined to handle. Sometimes life comes at you quick and you'll be like, Oh my God, I don't know what to do. And then you take a second and [think], Actually I have all the tools that I need to get through this. So let me just calm down and I can get through it as I was destined for this anyway.

What brings you joy?

What brings me joy, honestly, is just being alive. It's cliché, but the fact that my mom is still here on this earth... there is nothing more precious than life itself. And I don't need a lot of frills. I don't need a lot of accolades. I don't need any of that. Just the fact that I'm here and my mother is here and my parents are here. We're still able to laugh and just see each other, [and] that means the most to me. 

To breathe is a blessing. We have to really remember that — whatever we're going through, the fact that you're here, you can get through it. If you're still here on this earth, you can handle it.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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