Black women celebrate cancer survivors, release annual calendar
By Keldy Ortiz, New Haven Register, POSTED: 11/29/14, 5:51 PM EST | UPDATED: ON 11/29/2014
NEW HAVEN >>
If Lona Collins had not done a breast self-examination, she may not have been sitting alongside many other women recently, who like her, were of color and have dealt with a form of cancer.
In 1979, Collins discovered a lump on her left breast. Though she never had to go through cancer treatments because she discovered the lump early, for her, it was important to seek medical help quickly because of her family’s history of cancer. Her grandmother and oldest sister, both of whom are deceased, had uterine cancer.
Thirty-five years later in a room at the Greek Olive restaurant with supporters from Sisters’ Journey, a nonprofit organization which supports women who have been diagnosed or suffered through breast cancer, Collins, a Hamden resident, joined 71 others for the organization’s annual holiday party to get together and support one another.
“It’s as if they’re a family born from one mother,” said Collins, who learned about Sisters’ Journey from the organization’s president, Dawn White-Bracey, this past June. “They always are there with their arms open.”
Since the calendar’s inception in 2000, each year, 12 women are selected, some through word of mouth or at various events, to have their picture taken and their stories of breast cancer survival told in the calendar. All are women of color.
The women who attended the Nov. 18 dinner have appeared in different calendars in the past. The calendar has been an effective tool in spreading breast cancer awareness and knowledge about Sisters’ Journey, which has helped hundreds of women to date.
Geraldine Cotton, who helped organized the event and is a two-time breast cancer survivor, said the dinner is not only about women survivors, but rather giving a voice to all who have experienced the trauma of cancer.
“Some (here) may not be cancer survivors, but some are family of cancer survivors,” said Cotton, who told her story in the 2004 calendar.
Sisters’ Journey, while supportive of all people involved in the battle against breast cancer, sets its lens on helping women of color. The organization was started in 1999 by White-Bracey’s mother, Linda White-Epps, who died from breast cancer in October 2003. It centers its efforts on opening a line of communication in the breast cancer community. The organization’s mission is educating, empowering and encouraging women of color. One of the goals, said White-Bracey, is to get the word out to get screened earlier rather than later.
According to sistersnetworkinc.org, breast cancer is the most commonly diagnosed cancer among black women and an estimated 27,060 new cases of breast cancer were expected to occur among African American women in 2013. The median age of diagnosis is 57 years for African American women, compared to 62 years for white women. Breast cancer incidence rates increased rapidly among African American women during the 1980s, largely due to increased detection as the use of mammography screening increased, then rates increased more gradually during the 1990s.
And while the risk for African-American women to get breast cancer is lower than white women, the risk of dying from the disease is 42 percent higher, according to the Susan G. Komen for the Cure, a national breast cancer nonprofit. One reason is not having health insurance.
Dr. Anees Chagpar, director of the Breast Center at Smilow Cancer Hospital at Yale-New Haven, said while more African-American don’t have health insurance and don’t seek medical care, all women should pay closer attention to their health.
“This may have something to do with socioeconomic reasons,” Chagpar said. “So often we prioritize others own health. Women need to be proactive about their own care.”
At one point during the evening on Nov. 18, a prayer was offered and tribute paid to loved ones to show those taken by the disease were not forgotten.
“Breast cancer affects everybody, it touches everybody,” said Thomas Nelson, one of five men present in the room supporting someone who has battled against cancer. Nelson came with his mother, Barbara Nelson, vice president of the board for Sisters’ Journey. “The best thing you can do is have a physical presence.”
During the dinner, a question was posed “what did a person learn from having cancer and if anything positive could come from it?”
“The first time I asked somebody that, they said ‘I’m glad to be alive,’” White-Bracey said. “A cancer diagnosis can be devastating. I ask that question because it always gets people thinking and it opens up discussions like it did here tonight. You learn something from every experience.”
Responses from some women in the group led to tears. Some said they would go through the experience again because the journey through treatment brought their families and friends closer together.
While the calendar is produced to give voice to people’s stories, not all women were forthcoming at first.
Elsie Dixon, who was featured in the 2011 calendar, didn’t talk about her experience. When she felt a lump on left breast in June of 1990, she thought it would go away. It wasn’t until she mentioned the lump to her daughter that she saw a doctor. Dixon’s doctor recommended getting a mammogram, which confirmed she had breast cancer. After seeking a second opinion, Dixon couldn’t deny the reality that she did have it.
After discussing the situation with her children, Dixon had a mastectomy. She then needed chemotherapy, which she successfully concluded with family by her side.
“There’s nothing wrong with telling people you have cancer,” said Dixon, who recalled needing convincing by White-Bracey to tell her story in the calendar. “A lot of people would never have known. Everything turned out great.”