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Breast cancer survivor: ‘I’m not going to be a victim. I’m going to be a vessel.’

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Jefferson County Commissioner Sandra Little Brown, a cancer survivor, speaks during the Brenda's Brown Bosom Buddies Fifth Annual Sistah Strut at Legion Field. (Mark Almond, The Birmingham Times)

By Denise Stewart

For the Birmingham Times

Jefferson County Commissioner Sandra Little Brown, a cancer survivor, speaks during the Brenda's Brown Bosom Buddies Fifth Annual Sistah Strut at Legion Field. (Mark Almond, The Birmingham Times)
Jefferson County Commissioner Sandra Little Brown, a breast cancer survivor, speaks during the Brenda’s Brown Bosom Buddies Fifth Annual Sistah Strut at Legion Field. (Mark Almond, The Birmingham Times)

At 8 o’clock on a late-September morning, Paula Garfield laced up her sneakers and took her place at the start of the annual Sistah Strut at Legion Field.

Sistah Strut—a 5K run-walk hosted by the nonprofit Brenda’s Brown Bosom Buddies—raises awareness about breast cancer in the black community; celebrates survivors and families; and helps fund the organization’s outreach and prevention initiatives.

“I had to be here. I want to be a visual representation of what God can do,” said Garfield, who was dressed in a pink baseball cap and T-shirt. “A cancer diagnosis does not always mean death. It does not always mean impairment. Put your faith in God, and He can do some things.”

About 350 people registered for this year’s Sistah Strut (held on Sept. 24, 2016), and many more came out to enjoy the music and food at the event, which was supported by Jefferson County Commissioner Sandra Little Brown and Birmingham City Councilor Sheila Tyson.

For Garfield, a 63-year-old physical therapist, this was no ordinary walk.

Sobering Stats

Breast cancer hits the black community hard in Alabama and across the nation—a fact Garfield knows all too well after facing two bouts with cancer. In 2015 she underwent chemotherapy and radiation treatments for triple-negative cancer in her right breast. And this spring she had a bilateral lumpectomy when she was again diagnosed with breast cancer.

Throughout October, the American Cancer Society and other groups focus on raising breast cancer awareness and advocating for prevention.

Brenda’s Brown Bosom Buddies, a 501(c)(3) organization, depends on contributions to offer services and support for women of color, says founder and Executive Director Brenda Phillips Hong.

“Sometimes we don’t have anyone to take us to the doctor or to get treatments,” she said. “Sometimes we just need someone to talk with and to go with us on this journey.”

A 2015 report by the American Cancer Society showed that the incidence of breast cancer is increasing among black women. This comes after a gap that for decades indicated fewer black women were diagnosed with breast cancer, compared with white women.

In Alabama, the incidence of breast cancer in black women is 125.9 per 100,000, and the mortality rate is 30.7, according to the American Cancer Society. That same report shows the incidence of breast cancer in whites at 117.5 per 100,000 and a mortality rate of 20.4.

Marshaye Lynn, a 43-year-old educator who participated in the Sistah Strut, said she decided 11 years ago that she would not be a statistic. She was treated for breast cancer the first time in 2005 and again earlier this year.

“I am humbled by my experience, but I am also challenged,” she said.

For Lynn, the key to fighting breast cancer is simple: “Lean and depend on the Lord.”

According to the American Cancer Society, “Between the ages of 60 and 84, breast cancer incidence rates are markedly higher in white women than black women. However, black women have a higher incidence rate before age 45 and are more likely to die from breast cancer at every age.”

Participants walk during the Brenda's Brown Bosom Buddies Fifth Annual Sistah Strut at Legion Field (Mark Almond, The Birmingham Times)
Participants walk during the Brenda’s Brown Bosom Buddies Fifth Annual Sistah Strut at Legion Field (Mark Almond, The Birmingham Times)

Spreading the Word

Lynn, Garfield, and Commissioner Brown all have battled triple-negative breast cancer—a very aggressive form of the disease, which is prevalent among African-American women, who are three times more likely than white or Hispanic women to be diagnosed with this type.

Brown learned quickly about triple-negative breast cancer after her diagnosis

“They say it’s more common in blacks. They say it is one of the most aggressive forms of breast cancer,” Brown said, addressing the crowd at the start of Sistah Strut.

“But I decided I’m not going to be a victim. I’m going to be a vessel,” she said. “God is using me to spread the word.”

Following her surgery four years ago, Brown began almost immediately speaking throughout the community and working with events to raise awareness about breast cancer, encourage family support for survivors, and stress the importance of mammograms and breast self-exams.

“I’m your sister. Start today, and tell everyone that early detection is the key,” said Brown, who also issued a challenge to men: “Men, you need us—and you definitely need the ta-tas.”

Black Men in Support

Minister Tracey Muhammad has launched a campaign to rally more black men to support women with breast cancer.

“Last year, there were hardly any men here,” he said. “I knew that had to change.”

During this year’s Sistah Strut, Muhammad called up all the men in attendance—and they filled the stage and surrounding area.

“When they are going through this, we have to stand with them,” he said. “But some men leave their wives. They should not go through this alone.”

Muhammad’s wife was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2012 and it made him think: “I asked myself, ‘What can I do to help my wife?’ ”

His wife passed away, but Muhammad continues to fight for other women dealing with the disease through the Be One in 1,000 Men initiative.

“I want to get 1,000 men to contribute $25 each to Brenda’s Brown Bosom Buddies. That would be $25,000. We can do that,” he said to the men at Sistah Strut, thanking them for attending the event and encouraging them to support Brenda’s Brown Bosom Buddies throughout the year.

Participants walk during the Brenda's Brown Bosom Buddies Fifth Annual Sistah Strut at Legion Field in Birmingham, Ala., Saturday, Sept. 24, 2016. (Mark Almond, The Birmingham Times)
Participants walk during the Brenda’s Brown Bosom Buddies Fifth Annual Sistah Strut at Legion Field in Birmingham, Ala., Saturday, Sept. 24, 2016. (Mark Almond, The Birmingham Times)

“There for Each Other”

Organization founder Hong was living in Detroit and working with Grammy Award–winning R&B singer Anita Baker when she was diagnosed with breast cancer 27 years ago.

“A friend came from Birmingham and went to treatments with me,” she said. “As I recovered, I tried to find groups of people to talk with, and none seemed to fit. I thought to myself, ‘I’m about to go crazy.’ ”

Slowly, Hong identified women in similar situations, and they met occasionally. When she moved home to Birmingham in 2002, Hong recognized the same needs and worked to launch Brenda’s Brown Bosom Buddies in 2010.

Currently, the organization provides support services, community education, and assistance to pay for mammograms for women in need. As the group continues to grow in structure and size, Hong and her team are looking to purchase a vehicle to transport Buddies, as well as get a building so people have a private place to meet and find support through their struggles.

“We need to be there for each other,” Hong said.

Event organizers Vevelyn Wilson (left) and Brenda J. Phillips Hong pose during the Brenda's Brown Bosom Buddies Fifth Annual Sistah Strut at Legion Field. (Mark Almond, The Birmingham Times)
Event organizers Vevelyn Wilson (left) and Brenda J. Phillips Hong pose during the Brenda’s Brown Bosom Buddies Fifth Annual Sistah Strut at Legion Field. (Mark Almond, The Birmingham Times)

Brenda’s Brown Bosom Buddies can be contacted: Online: brendasbrownbosombuddies.org Mailing address: P.O. Box 310532 Birmingham, AL 35231. Phone: 205.588.0703 FAX: 205.798.5104. Email: brendasbrnbosbuddies@gmail.com

Local Resources for Breast Cancer Patients

Following is a list of some local resources for breast cancer patients and their family. They are not intended to serve as recommendations from The Birmingham Times. The list, originally provided by the Susan G. Komen for the Cure North Central Alabama Affiliate, is offered as a service. Each entity should be reviewed individually.

Financial Resources

Patient Advocate Foundation: Offers legal help when disputing insurance claim denials and provides financial assistance information.

Phone: 1-800-532-5274

Web: www.patientadvocate.org

CancerCare Co-payment Assistance Foundation: Offers health insurance co-payment assistance to breast cancer patients undergoing some types of chemotherapy.

Phone: 866-552-6729

Web: cancercarecopay.org

Susan G. Komen for the Cure and CancerCare’s Linking A.R.M.S.: For those who are eligible, Linking A.R.M.S. provides financial assistance grants of up to $350.  These grants can be used for oral chemotherapy and hormonal therapy medications, pain and anti-nausea medication, medical equipment and lymphedema support and supplies.

Phone: 877-465-6636

Web: www.cancercare.org

Partnership for Prescription Assistance: Offers low cost and free prescription drug programs for those with limited income.

Phone: 888-477-2669

Web: www.pparx.org

Screening

Alabama Breast and Cervical Cancer Early Detection Program (ABCCEDP):  The ABCCEDP provides free breast and cervical cancer screenings for women who meet eligibility guidelines.  Free services include a pelvic exam, pap smear, clinical breast exam, mammogram, and diagnostic services such as an ultrasound, colposcopy, or biopsy, if needed.

Phone: 1-877-252-3324

Web: http://www.adph.org/earlydetection/

Lodging and Transportation

ACS Joe Lee Griffin Hope Lodge: The American Cancer Society’s (ACS) Joe Lee Griffin Hope Lodge in Birmingham, Ala., offers a solution to cancer patients who must undergo treatment far from home. The Hope Lodge provides housing free of charge on a first-come, first-served basis to cancer patients and their families during their course of treatment. The lodge not only reduces the financial burden, but also provides a much-needed supportive environment.

Phone: 205-558-7862

Web: http://www.cancer.org/treatment/supportprogramsservices/hopelodge/birmingham/index

Air Charity Network: Provides air travel to treatment centers.

Phone: 877-621-7177

Web: www.aircharitynetwork.org

Corporate Angel Network: Provides air travel to treatment centers.

Phone: 866-328-1313

Web: www.corpangelnetwork.org

CancerCare: Offers limited financial help to cover treatment-related transportation and childcare costs.

Phone: 800-813-4673

Web: www.cancercare.org

Head Scarves, Wigs, and Prostheses

Hope Scarves:Free head scarves for breast cancer patients.  Each scarf is sent along with a survivor’s story and words of encouragement.  To request a Hope Scarf, visit www.hopescarves.org or call 502-264-3215.

For Ladies Only Health Boutique

650 Old Towne Road Vestavia Hills, Alabama 35216

Phone: 205-979-4377

Touching You, Inc.

1564F Montgomery Highway, Birmingham, AL 35216

Phone: (205) 823-6407

Web: http://www.touchingyou.com/

Y-ME National Breast Cancer Organization: Provides wigs, prostheses and mastectomy bras for women with limited financial resources.

Phone: 800-221-2141

Web: www.y-me.org (redirects to abcdbreastcancersupport.org)

Support Groups

American Cancer Society: Several support groups are hosted by the American Cancer Society in the greater Birmingham area.  To find a location and time please visit: http://www.cancer.org/treatment/supportprogramsservices/app/resource-detail.aspx?resourceId=21142

The Cancer Support Community: An online support group which provides women a chance to share information, give and receive social support and gain a sense of empowerment. Website:  http://www.cancersupportcommunity.org/

Yoga: The North Central Alabama Affiliate of Susan G. Komen for the Cure hosts yoga every Monday night for survivors and co-survivors at 6pm.  Yoga is held at our office: 1909 27th Avenue South, Homewood, AL 35209.  Please call 205-263-1700 for more information.

BRCA Support Group: Provides education and support to individuals with BRCA 1 and BRCA 2 gene mutations & their families. The group meets at the Levite Jewish Community Center Library, located at 3960 Montclair Road. 2014 meeting dates are May 6th, July 1st, September 2nd, and November 4th, from 7-8:30pm. For more information, contact Julie Whatley at 205-801-8266 or jcwhatley@uabmc.edu, or Gail Schuster at 205-879-3438 or gail@cjfsbham.org.

ACOR: The Association of Cancer Online Resources is a unique collection of online cancer communities designed to provide timely and accurate information in a supportive environment. It is a free lifeline for everyone affected by cancer & related disorders.

Male Breast Cancer Survivor Resources and Support

Komen Male Breast Cancer Webpage: Comprehensive information about male breast cancer including resources and information about on-line and one-on-one support.

HIS Breast Cancer Awareness

John W. Nick Foundation, Inc.