Sisters' Network provides comfort zone Cancer support group focuses on black women


HOUSTON -- Like other black women who have battled breast cancer, Karen Jackson found the odds stacked against her when she learned the fearsome diagnosis three years ago.

While black women are slightly less likely to develop breast cancer, their mortality rate is 5 percent higher than for white women, in part because many black women do not seek treatment until the cancer is more advanced.

Then, when Jackson went to a support group, she found herself isolated and ignored. The group, which was mostly white, did not think about ordering wigs suitable for black women, she said. When the members talked about finding breast prostheses, there was little information on where to get models in dark hues or certain sizes.

Jackson, 54, a social worker by training, responded by starting Sisters' Network, a national support group for black women with breast cancer. In three years the network has grown to 11 chapters.

Sisters' Network aims to provide emotional and psychological support, to be a resource for medical research and to educate the community about cancer. It also provides a speakers bureau, in-home support and a newsletter.

The network holds outreach campaigns in churches and youth groups, and conducts an annual Gift for Life Block Walk, in which hundreds of volunteers fan out across a black community, handing out brochures and pinning pink ribbons on people to spread awareness of the dangers of breast cancer.

"Breast cancer used to be something you didn't talk about in the black community," Jackson said. In addition, she said, many black women have a strong perception that the predominantly white medical establishment is brushing them aside.

"As a black female, you find that you have to worry not just about the illness, but about who is treating you," Jackson said.

Some authorities on breast cancer say the perception that doctors treat black women differently probably arises from differences in income.

"Poor women do not receive as optimal a treatment as non-poor women," said Dr. Otis Brawley, director of the Office of Special Population at the National Cancer Institute in Washington. The unfortunate corollary, he said, is that as a group, "black women do not get as optimal a treatment as white women."

Such income differences, he said, also help account for black women's greater tendency to receive radical mastectomies rather than lumpectomies. For example, women who receive lumpectomies and radiation must come in for treatment every day for eight weeks, which requires transportation and time off from work, while women who get mastectomies make just two follow-up visits.

Pub Date: 10/19/97

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