By: Isha “Ice” Cole
Photos: Mykeon Smith
Life is forever changing. As we all know, at any given moment we can be at a high point and then hit the ground. The experiences that we go through in life, both good and bad, are ultimately lessons that shape us. Ebony Steele, co-host of the nationally syndicated Rickey Smiley Morning Show on 97.9 The Beat in Dallas-Fort Worth, knows exactly what it feels like to have your life change in the blink of an eye.
Prior to a career in radio, Ebony earned her Bachelor of Science degree in Mechanical Engineering at Tuskegee University. For many years, she was into modeling and was named Miss Tuskegee during her time studying at the University.
Ebony Steele met Ricky Smiley over 15 years ago while they both were working at the same mall, and he loved her personality. He explained to her that he just started doing comedy, and if he ever made it in TV or radio, he would bring her along as his female sidekick. Eventually the opportunity did come true!
Unfortunately, not long after Ebony began her new career in radio, she was hit with news that could change her life forever. In 2007, at the age of 35, Ebony Steele was diagnosed with breast cancer. She chose to put up the fight of her life, not only for herself, but for her family.
Ebony is now a three-year survivor of breast cancer, and has not allowed the disease to slow her down one bit. She has been active in the cause, throwing popular events like Eye Candy: Bare Chest for Breast Cancer. UrbLife.com recently spoke with Ebony about battling breast cancer, finding the right support system and her mission to empower young women.
Where are you from, and what was your life like growing up?
Ebony Steele: I’m from Birmingham, Alabama. I don’t want to say that I grew up traditional, because so many peoples definition of what is traditional is screwed. My mom and dad have been together since my mom was 15 and my dad was 16. They were in their sophomore and junior year in high school and they went to college together.
Then I was born, it’s me and my sister. It was almost like a Huxtable family, but yet and still I had a lot of friends that grew up in different situations. I think I was privy to what the American dream kind of was like as far as the Black family, but understood what other peoples ideals, challenges and opportunities were like.
I think that’s what helps me to be the person that I am today, knowing that you can have a traditional family with a Black man and Black woman that live together, married, love each other, have children, and that have built a family. At the same time, I understand that something’s in life that can be interrupted as well.
You are the co-host of the nationally syndicated Rickey Smiley Morning Show. Did you plan to start a career in radio?
ES: I never had any idea that I’d be working in a philanthropic way or working on the radio. After meeting Rickey, I went on to college at Tuskegee University and a few years ago, when it was time, he gave me a call and asked me if I was ready to do it!
I think I was always a person that was not just interesting to people, but people have always been interesting to me. So I felt that I would work in some form of entertainment. I didn’t know what it would be, but long behold this was it and I’m enjoying every minute of it.
Talk to us about your battle with breast cancer.
ES: I’m a three year breast cancer survivor. Actually, I started with Ricky in August of 2007 and I was diagnosed in October, so everything was new for me. I had moved from Birmingham, the city I grew up in, to Dallas and everything was changing. I knew that I was going there for a reason; I didn’t really know what my purpose was, but to be a survivor.
I was ignorant at the time; I thought breast cancer was an old white woman’s disease. I didn’t realize that a young healthy Black woman could get it, but it could happen to anybody.
I love being able to spread the word, not just to women, but what’s even more encouraging to me is when men contact me and say “Hey I notice that when I’m with my wife I feel a lump on her breasts, how do I bring it up to her or what should I do”? That is a blessing to me not to just tell people about it, but to be vocal about it and say on the air, I have breast cancer, and I’m having surgery in a few weeks. That was therapeutic for me.
How were you diagnosed?
ES: I was just laying watching TV and you know how you just scratch, so I found the lump myself and within the next few days I was at a doctor. From that first appointment it was about two weeks later and after a series of tests that I was diagnosed. It was something about that first time when the doctors said that they wanted to test me further. I knew something or had the feeling that something could be wrong.
What was that moment like when the doctors told you that you had breast cancer?
ES: I was just thinking about things that were so selfish at the time. I was like I just started this job, what am I going to do? Are they going to replace me? What am I going to look like with my hair being gone? Everything at first was really ‘me, me, me’ and selfish.
It wasn’t until weeks later when I was able to see my parents and sister and I saw the look on their faces. The look was them thinking of the possibility of me not being here and that’s when my entire intent to live totally changed and it was for them.
What type of procedure did you have in order to treat the breast cancer?
What is the treatment like after the surgery? Are you on medication?
ES: There’s a medication that is very common in breast cancer. I was considered pre-stage one, so I have to take that for five years. Actually, a mastectomy is not what they recommended, it was a lumpectomy. It’s a much milder surgery, but they go in and just cut out the little spot. Mine was like a centimeter, so it was no big deal. For me, I just wanted peace of mind to reduce the lack of it reoccurring, and that’s why I opted for the other.
Did you have to change your diet? Do you work out more?
ES: The things they recommend as far as changing your eating habits are [things like]not drinking liquor, drinking red wine instead. Also, exercising, since cancer is something that’s cellular for the most part, if your cells are healthy and you have oxygen moving through them, then that helps.
When you don’t have any pre-existing conditions or pre-disposition to genetics it’s kind of like, “how did it happen in the first place?” So I just live each life not in days or times, but more in moments, and just enjoy every moment that I can with my loved ones.
How important would you say it is to have a strong family or support system around you when you’re fighting a possibly terminal disease?
ES: I think it is imperative. I’m just lucky that my family is a close knit and tight family, where as some people might not have that situation. They may have co-workers or sorority sisters, you never know other people’s situation.
What I realized is that my circle to support me did not have to be as big as I thought it would have to be. Those people who I thought may have been there more were not, and the people that I thought would not be there were. Whatever the case in the end it worked out. I’m not more excited or angrier at anybody for being there or not being there. For the way that it happened, it was perfect for me.
You were one of this year’s Susan G. Komen Circle of Promise Ambassador. Talk to us about that experience.
ES: They have about 12, and I was selected as one of them. I’ve been Susan G. Komen Circle of Promise Ambassador since I was diagnosed really. I go on the circuit nationwide and speak for them at certain events or certain initiatives that they have in different cities.
In the past I was at the Essence Music Festival and I worked at the booth. I was the person to say, “Hey I’m a survivor; this is what it’s all about, and get checked.” You would be surprised at the number of people, as many as the Essence Festival has to offer, that actually come out to get the information.
What else are you working on currently?
ES: Well believe it or not, I own two dance studio locations in Birmingham. We do ballet, jazz, tap and modeling. The first year we had 17 students and after year three we have 420. It’s just very rewarding knowing that some of those girls that come on stage, this may be the highlight of their life, dancing and performing with a live band at the recital.
Also, I’ve always been into young women’s initiatives, and the movement with etiquette and the whole nine of being a lady. Recently, I did a women’s workshop in Birmingham at the worship center, which is one of the mega churches there, and talked to women about the baggage that we carry.
I’m about empowering women, and talking to them about not letting things hold you back and using cop outs and excuses as building blocks to move on. My cancer came as a physical one that I had no control over, but there are other cancers – i.e. bad relationships, abuse, even financial matters – that we can take more control over. So that’s what I encourage women to do.
What are some empowerment tips that you would give to the women out there?
ES: Set goals for yourself. If you don’t know where you’re trying to go, then you’re going to wallow in this place of confusion.
I just know for a fact from my upbringing as a Christian that the Lord cannot dwell where there is indecisiveness and confusion. Make decisions about what we want to do. Do we want to be in this relationship or do we want to go? Do I want to go to school or do I not?
The other thing is if you’re going to worry don’t pray, and if you’re going to pray don’t worry. It’s futile – nothing happens in either of those situations.
At least three times a year try something new. I hear people say, “I haven’t traveled to this place” or “No I’m not going to try Sushi, it’s nasty.” Try something new and expand your mind, because if all of your money is taken away from you, the one thing that you can’t take away is experience. So if you’ve experienced Sushi, traveling, scuba diving or experienced sky diving and nobody else has, that’s priceless. You can always use that to your ability
So many times as people, we criticize. Winston Churchill said, “The only way to never be criticized is to do nothing, say nothing or be nothing.” So just know that as long as you’re moving in time on this earth period, you will be criticized.