Yvonne Orji on having 'nourishing' friends: 'You can't be in my close circle if you're not trying to thrive personally'

Yvonne Orji talks breast cancer awareness, wrapping up 'Insecure' and appreciating your incubation period (Photo: Getty; designed by Quinn Lemmers)
Yvonne Orji talks breast cancer awareness, wrapping up Insecure and appreciating your incubation period (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.

Comedian, actress and author Yvonne Orji is certainly making her mark in Hollywood, from her breakout role as Molly on HBO's Insecure to her hit comedy special Momma, I Made It! As buzz around the Oct. 24 season premiere of Insecure's final season builds, Orji is hoping to direct attention to Breast Cancer Awareness Month and the disparities Black women face when it comes to the disease.

Partnering with Merck, the Nigerian-American star is providing her voice to the three-part web docuseries Uncovering TNBC, which chronicles the journeys of three Black women battling triple-negative breast cancer, which is especially deadly to Black women. The actress, who has a background in medicine and public health, hopes the documentary shows viewers that no matter what they are going through, they are not alone.

"I think when people realize that more are with you than you can even imagine, I think that really helps," she tells Yahoo Life. "We created this forum where you can talk to your doctors and just really giving women their power back to ask the right questions."

Ahead, Orji opens about public health, finding friends who can push her to be her best self and appreciating success whenever it comes.

How do you prioritize your mental health?

I do therapy and then I kick it with friends. I surround myself with people who are so nourishing [because] that is so important for me. [I] also [surround myself with] people who are equally as adamant about their personal growth [because] you can't be in my close circle if you're not trying to thrive personally. It's not just about thriving professionally. We all gonna make it. But if your professional gusto doesn’t match your personal gusto in terms of being the best version of you that you need to be? We can't be friends. Like, we're not gonna work out ‘cause I'm going to be talking about the things that I'm learning in therapy, things I'm learning with myself or the new quest for joy that I'm on.

Iron sharpens iron. So I need people who will see my progress and be like, “That's cool, that's cute. But you can go further.” So we're always pulling each other up and giving each other grace and space of course, but [also] holding each other to a standard and an accountability level. Being successful is not as sexy if you're not personally successful.

What inspired your interest in public health?

I was originally going to be a doctor, so I went to GW [George Washington University] and I zoned all the pre-med requirements. I told a story about how when I was 12, I went back to Nigeria after being in America for six years. My aunt was actually having an ectopic pregnancy and it was really a dire situation; it was do-or-die and the doctors there didn't want to perform life-saving surgery on her because they didn't know if she could afford it. When my family got wind of it, we rushed to the hospital. My mom [went] into nurse mode and was they're just making sure that she was well before and after the surgery, and my dad berated the doctor because here in America you take a Hippocratic oath to perform the surgery first and then you can decide anything else later.

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

We have a whole other subset of breast cancer that spreads quickly, that has a higher mortality [for Black women].These three women [from the docuseries] talk about their experiences about how they were able to overcome to empower women when they feel [things are] already hard. When you're getting a diagnosis you're just like, “Oh my God is my life over"... your first thought is like, “What am I going to do?” Then you get a healthcare provider that may not be giving you the hands-on patient [care]...

You can see the way these Black women really struggled to get their voices heard, but also the way that they also worked hard to make sure that the humanity of Black women who are going through this disease [is] heard.

What steps have you taken to minimize your risk?

So I actually had a bit of a scare when I was in high school. It was crazy. I went to an all-girls boarding school and I had been feeling something in my breast and it just kept moving. I knew I was going to be late for class, so I [went to] the nurse... When she felt my breast, she was like, “Um, we have to call your mom immediately.”

And I remember being like, “I was just joking. Like, wait, I was only late to class. We didn't have to go my mama.” She was like, “No, there is something there.” I was a senior in high school and I remember being so scared [thinking], this is not how I anticipated this day. But I'm so glad that me trying to skip class actually turned into me getting the help I need. And then I ended up having to get a benign tumor removed from my breast. Thankfully it was benign, but I was 17 years old and that was the first time I ever had surgery. And I had a Black doctor who was so gracious that he was like, “She's young and I don't want to leave a scar on her breast. And so I'm going to cut around the nipple.”

Just even the foresight that he was just like, “I don't want her to live the rest of her life with a scar. She's so young, I'm going to help her out.” That's the kind of care and attention to detail that you want and you need from healthcare providers. To this day, I'll never forget that he was amazing. He walked me through the whole process. He was like, “The fact that you're having benign tumors... there's no guarantee that it will lead to anything, but just make sure that you’re up on your checkups."

And that gave me confidence and comfort to know that like, “OK, I have an advocate.” He was one of those success stories of dealing with healthcare providers that are in tune with [your] concerns and [know] how to help navigate scary situations. And I'll never forget how gracious he was and how much time he took to explain things to me.

With the final season of Insecure upon us, what is it like closing a chapter that has been a part of your life the last few years?

It's so hard to say goodbye, just like the quote from Boyz II Men. I am excited for you guys to see how we said goodbye. And you know, our fans are real vocal.

Insecure's Season 4 delved into friendship breakups, which can be just as bad as a relationship breakup. How have you dealt with that in your own life?

It's never easy when you do experience a loss. [This] happened several times in my life, but one thing that I always think of is for the season that they were in my life, I appreciate it. I take the good and for whatever reason, whether it's a shedding that needs to happen before an elevation happens. [But I say], “God thank you for protecting me. Thank you for guiding me and even bringing peace to me, while it hurts... maybe this will make sense at another time.”

And without fail, maybe a year or two can go by and then they'll reach out [and say], “Hey, I wasn't my best self in this moment.” And sometimes the damage is done and it's like, “Well, I appreciate it. And go be with God, God blessed.” And other times the door's open for some form of reconciliation. It may not always go back to the way it was, but at least there's no love lost. I think with time, with space and with intentional growth, things will be revealed. I think the big mistake is to try and hold onto something that's not working; this is not the season for it to work. And then sometimes people just honestly grow apart.

Do you have a mantra that you follow?

"All things work together for my good" — like, "what's mine once mine will never miss me." I'm grateful that before I got successful in this industry, I was able to have the character that I wanted to have, and the character that I do have that has nothing to do with the entertainment industry. And when it was my time to play Molly, it was my time to play Molly. I'm very well versed and understanding that when it's my time to do whatever is next, it'll be my time to do whatever's next.

And in the interim, other people will be popping and other people will do everything that's supposed to be for them. When I look at the careers of people like Regina Hall, who, coming up, I'm like, “Oh my gosh, I love her movies." And then to see her life, she had a couple of years of “she should be more popular than she was.” And now she's getting all of those flowers back again. So for me, it's just kind of like, man, everything in its time. Even when you think it's not someone's time, it's their time.

And we don't appreciate the incubation period because we feel like we should always be on. And it's like if your car is always on, it's going to break down, [so] at some point you've got to turn it off, you've got to preserve the battery. And I think it's so necessary and so important to give ourselves the space to not be on... come back and be refreshed because you can... give more.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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