Two breast cancer diagnoses in her 30s have not stopped Chris-Tia Donaldson, lawyer and founder of natural hair care brand Thank God It’s Natural, from living her best life in the present.
photos by Sarah Bell
“I absolutely feel safe. And now I know I’m safe,” says Chris-Tia Donaldson. After two breast cancer diagnoses in less than five years, Donaldson’s declaration may seem unusual. But it has taken the lawyer and founder of popular natural hair care brand Thank God It’s Natural (TGIN) such harrowing trials and tribulations in her personal and professional life for her to gain a more positive outlook on life.
Based in Chicago but known internationally, Donaldson has become a leading figure in the natural hair movement among the black community. Once a small side project, TGIN has soared scale (their collection includes body products and a men’s line) in popularity and can be found in stores like Whole Foods, Target and Ulta Beauty. But prior to starting her business, Donaldson, a Harvard Law School alumna, was a full-time attorney for Oracle, one of the world’s largest software companies.
Her diagnosis in 2015 at age 36 came as an understandable shock. Although she described herself as a “workaholic,” Donaldson was also a vegetarian and considered herself “healthy.”
“I did drink, but I worked out like religiously, faithfully, hard. You know, running five miles three times a week. Cardio fiend, going to Shred 451, but doing all this stuff and [being] very driven, very ambitious,” she recalls over a Zoom chat last October. Donaldson also balanced a full-time job as an attorney with TGIN. Reflecting on that time, Donaldson thinks that she was probably under major stress, but didn’t know what it looked like or how to manage it.
“If you feel a little off, you’re more willing to say, ‘Let me just sit down and take it easy,’” she says. “Maybe 10 years ago, I wouldn’t have done that. I would have sat down and tried to work and bang out what I needed to get done, try to work through things instead of just honoring what my body was trying to tell me.”
During her initial treatment, Donaldson underwent chemotherapy, a lumpectomy and 33 rounds of radiation. She also froze her eggs. “I was very submissive because it was stage II,” she recalls. “I was kind of on this cancer conveyor belt. I went with what they told me and I didn’t do anything non-traditional. But I did reflect on my life and try to figure out why did I get here.”
Unfortunately, after beating her first diagnosis, Donaldson was diagnosed with a more advanced stage of breast cancer in 2018 at age 39. The experience was much more difficult than she could have ever imagined. “I thought I was going to die,” she says. “I thought my life was over. I thought it was the end.”
Those types of thoughts crippled her mind for the first two years of her new diagnosis, but, surprisingly, Donaldson credits the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic as a gamechanger in altering her mindset.
“COVID hit, life hit and one day, something just went off. And it’s like, ‘You’re not going to die,’” remembers Donaldson. She credits her spirituality and faith in God, something that wasn’t as strong as it is now prior to her first diagnosis. “I felt like he was telling me, ‘This illness is not going to result in your death,’” she says. Suddenly, she began to receive signs repeatedly, from butterflies to music to her grandmother’s favorite candy. “I tell myself everyday, I’m safe. I’m divinely protected. I’m surrounded by a family of angels, ancestors and spiritual guides that are leading me into the right direction,” she says.
The pandemic also helped her tap into silence. Describing this time as a “blessing,” Donaldson says this past year gave her time to make her health a priority. “It was a real time to just get quiet and meditate, honor my body and put my health first,” she says. “Just put myself first in a way that I think most people [don’t] get to experience because we have so many distractions when outside is open for real.”
Ever ambitious, Donaldson continues to push herself, but this time, her efforts are for a cause more closely tied to her new everyday life. Donaldson launched the tgin Foundation, a 501(c)(3) not-for-profit organization that aims to support uninsured women undergoing treatment for breast cancer. The tgin Foundation also aims to highlight health disparities on survivor outcomes. According to the organization, in the city of Chicago, where it and Cancer Wellness are based, black women are 42 percent more likely to die from breast cancer than the general population.
The foundation also aims to fuel awareness about early detection in women under the age of 40. A portion of the proceeds of TGIN’s Green Tea Super Moist Leave-in Conditioner goes to breast cancer research and early detection education and outreach services. More than $10,000 in the past year has been donated to the Metropolitan Breast Cancer Task Force of Chicago, a not-for-profit organization based in Chicago that provides free mammograms and breast navigation services to un- and under- insured women. Most recently, the tgin Foundation held a fundraiser to support the renovation of a breast oncology waiting room to make it more open and inviting to visitors.
And last year, Donaldson released “This Is Only a Test,” a memoir about her life. From growing up in inner city Detroit to graduating from Harvard (twice!) and founding her own business, Donaldson’s life was already memorable. Now, as a twotime cancer warrior, she proves her story of resilience, strength, spirituality and grace is as relatable as it is empowering.
“It’s just God,” she says. “I feel like he put me in a situation so he could just show people that miracles do happen. Because I am a miracle. I’m literally a walking miracle. I’m a total miracle and I feel like I’m a living testimony of the power of your thoughts and faith.”
In the present, Donaldson has learned to let go of the things that don’t serve her. “I think there’s a sense of guilt sometimes in our bodies from holding on to things,” she says. Many of us hold on to our emotions and can’t forgive others, or ourselves. Like many warriors, during her first diagnosis, Donaldson blamed herself.
“You’re always trying to go back over your life and figure out why, at 36, did I go wrong? And I’m a lawyer, so I’m constantly replaying that reel, trying to look for data, look for evidence, look for anecdotes,” Donaldson adds. “But you have to learn to let go of whatever would have, could have, should have caused this and just learn not only to be present, but to forgive whatever was in the past.” Now, Donaldson accepts and honors her body, whatever and however it chooses to show up, every day. “I’m trying to get better at that,” she says. “And that’s my ultimate goal.”