July 8, 2022 – Yolonda Ross went all-in when she learned that the single mom she plays in Showtime’s acclaimed series The Chi has breast cancer.
In season four, episode seven, Ross, who plays Jada, shaved her long hair on camera, bringing to life the very real struggles her character – and actual breast cancer patients – face before beginning breast cancer treatment.
“When I found out my character was going to be going through cancer, the one thing I said about it was that I didn’t want it to be a TV or film cancer,” says Ross, 47, who is also a writer, director, and activist who has starred in Netflix’s The Get Down, ABC’s How To Get Away with Murder and Denzel Washington’s Antwone Fisher, just to name a few of her roles.
“I didn’t want to just put a scarf on my head and suddenly I had cancer. It was too important a moment for that,” she says.
Ross’s preparation for the role began off-camera. She researched organizations in Chicago’s South Side such as Equal Hope, the Tatisa C. Joiner Foundation, and the Center for Health Equity Transformation (CHET), all of which are helping Black women with breast cancer. That’s when she began learning about the health disparities Black women with breast cancer face.
“I wanted to sit down with women who had gone through cancer or are currently going through it,” she says. “Meeting with them was more than I expected. They touched me more than I was expecting to be touched.”
Talking about the emotional side of breast cancer was especially meaningful to Ross.
“There’s talking about cancer as someone going through it, and then there’s talking about it as a Black person going through cancer,” she says. “We don’t talk about stuff as it is. So that’s another thing we need to do to overcome any stigma. Talking about emotions and talking about health will help, especially since that’s a lot of the problem with us getting certain care. We don’t talk about it when we’re feeling something isn’t quite right, and that keeps us from getting the care we need.”
Ross continued to connect with the Chicago-area women who were getting cancer treatments as well as the leaders of each organization even after the season began.
“I learned how some of the organizations are helping with breast cancer prevention and some are helping change the structure of things in hospitals so that when they see a brown woman come in, they don’t get into a certain mindset and don’t follow through on the work they should be doing with her,” she says.
Letting people know that these health care groups exist was another huge goal of hers.
“Some of these organizations are right there in the neighborhood,” she says. “A woman two doors down might not even know this. She gets breast cancer and doesn’t know this organization is right there and could help her. That’s what I really wanted to help with.”
Before long, the actor was asked to take on even more important roles within each nonprofit.
“They would have events that would come up, and they would ask me if I would attend,” she says. “It was that easy. I learned about each organization and soon enough became part of them.”
Her advocacy ultimately inspired a $100,000 donation from the Feinberg Foundation that was then granted to these grassroots Chicago organizations and, last October, she co-hosted Beauty is Me, a photo exhibit and fundraiser where she unveiled her five portraits of breast cancer survivors. Then, in May, she was honored by The Creative Coalition for her advocacy work.
Ross says it’s a no-brainer to use her platform to help others.
“I know I’m not the biggest star out there, but I believe that if something moves you enough to talk about it, why not use your platform to help others,” she says. “I know that women of color are fighting this fight, and if I can say something or do something to help shine a light on these organizations or these doctors or find ways for people to help, I’m going to, and this is going to be part of my life forever.”