Survival Tactics African-American women support one another in battle against breast cancer

October 03, 1993|By Linell Smith | Linell Smith,Staff Writer

As thousands of breast cancer survivors and women's health-care advocates plan their march on Washington later this month, many African-American women are stepping forward in their own communities to tell of their physical and psychological recoveries from breast cancer.

Their stories of hope help brighten a landscape of frightening statistics: Although the incidence of breast cancer is higher in white women, the mortality rate is higher among black women. Following discovery of breast cancer, the five-year survival rate is about 79 percent for white women and 62 percent for blacks, says Brenda Edwards, associate director of the Surveillance Program of the National Cancer Institute.

Studies have also shown that many breast cancers in white women are detected at earlier -- usually more curable -- stages than they are in African Americans. Many attribute this difference to the use of mammograms, breast X-rays which can detect tiny cancers before they can be felt.

Activists say lack of accessibility to cancer-prevention programs and misconceptions about the disease and its survivability have kept many low-income women from seeking early cancer detection and treatment for breast problems. Breast cancer survivors hope their knowledge can help to reverse that trend.

Seven years after her mastectomy, Patricia Lawson, a receptionist for T. Rowe Price Associates, recalls the situation of her fateful diagnosis. After noticing her breast had remained sore longer than usual during her hormonal fluctuations, she went to her physician for further testing.

At the time, she wasn't worried, she says. She was 42.

As she awaited her biopsy results, however, it suddenly seemed that the analysis was taking too long.

"When Dr. Harrison came back, he said, 'I've been trying to get hold of your brother,' " Mrs. Lawson recalls. "And then he said, 'The tests were positive.' And I wilted right there."

Caught early enough, her cancer did not need medical treatment beyond surgery. But Mrs. Lawson continues to value the healing powers of Sisters Surviving, a support group founded by her surgeon, Dr. Miles G. Harrison Jr. Sisters Surviving is one of the nation's first breast cancer survivor self-help groups for African-American women.

"You are with others who know how you feel," Mrs. Lawson says. "Others who support you regardless of how down you feel."

During the past few years, such breast cancer support groups as Women of Color in Los Angeles and Save Our Sisters in Wilmington, N.C., have joined other cancer-awareness activists in teaching women in low-income communities that breast cancer is a survivable disease.

And, increasingly, such prominent African-American women as singer Patti LaBelle and ophthalmologist Patricia Schmoke, wife of Baltimore Mayor Kurt Schmoke, are sharing their personal knowledge of the disease. (Breast cancer runs in Ms. LaBelle's family; Ms. Schmoke is a breast cancer survivor.)

"There used to be a time when no African American would talk about breast cancer, so we assumed that no one got it," says Robin Hurdle, director of the African-American outreach program Cancer Care, a nonprofit social services organization in New York. "People are beginning to realize that African Americans do get breast cancer: The neighbor next door, or her mother, or her aunt."

She encourages women to sign up for screening mammograms, tests given when there are no symptoms of breast trouble. Because more African-American women are younger than white women when they develop breast cancer, they should receive baseline screening mammograms at the age of 35, according to the National Medical Association, an organization representing about 20,000 black physicians and health professionals. (The American Cancer Society recommends a baseline mammogram at the age of 40.)

In her community work, Ms. Hurdle has found that many women disregard evidence of breast problems.

"Many women of color aren't just dealing with the idea of breast cancer, but with the potential financial issues which surround it. It's 'If I ignore it, I don't have to deal with the treatments, with the doctors, with the insurance, with the family I'm responsible for.' "

Many women mistakenly believe the diagnosis of a breast problem will seal their fate, she says. Stories spill out about friends and family members who sought advice on breast lumps, were operated on and died shortly thereafter.

"I always say to them, 'How long did the person suffer with the symptomology? Tell me how long they ignored the discharge, or the lump, or the pain, or the change in the breast before they got treated, and then we'll talk about what happened after that,' " Ms. Hurdle says.

She must often struggle against prejudice toward the medical establishment; distrust can run high in low-income communities.

"You have to correct the misconception that the surgeons cut you open and somehow cause the cancer to spread," she says.

Survivors's testimony

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