tampabay.com

Spirit of support and survival

These women don't hide their fears about breast cancer; they share them.

By WAVENEY ANN MOORE, Times Staff Writer
Published October 30, 2007


Rain threatened, but the Sistahs kept their plans to meet under a picnic shelter one recent Saturday for barbecue, games and conversation.

A few weeks ago they went to a conference in Chicago. Last Sunday it was a Bucs game.

Sept. 1, it was a funeral.

For members of Sistahs Surviving Breast Cancer, a group of African-American women from St. Petersburg, Pinellas Park, Largo and Tampa, their gatherings provide a lifeline of hope, information and support.

Organized about 18 months ago by Jackie Brown, a paralegal in the Pinellas County Attorney's Office, the group has grown to 26 members who got wind of it mainly by word of mouth. Its success is a reflection of what some view as changing attitudes in the African-American community, where cancer traditionally has been rarely discussed, and then only in whispers and with euphemisms.

Those who attend the monthly Sistahs meetings speak freely about their fears and concerns.

"Pretending it isn't there doesn't make it go away," said Evelyn Daniels, 62. Daniels, who joined the group in July, was diagnosed in 1999 with a particularly aggressive form of breast cancer. The retired Pinellas County schools librarian said she told herself she was going to beat the odds that said only 16 percent of patients with her type of cancer survived after five years. The Sistahs group, with its program of speakers, information and discussions, fosters that same positive attitude, she said. It's an atmosphere unlike that of another group she was part of a few years ago, Daniels said.

"We just mullygrubbed around and talked about dying. This group is so much different. We just don't talk about cancer. We do other things," she said. "The emphasis is on living, whatever time we have to live."

Still, it was a blow when Latrice Dennies, a 31-year-old wife and mother, died in August.

"She was taking a shower when she found a lump in her breast in 2005," her husband Arthur, 32, said. Despite treatment, the cancer spread and she died one day before her daughter Arnesha's eighth birthday on Aug. 23.

The Sistahs helped his wife.She could talk to others like herself, said Dennies, who created a MySpace page for the group.

They did the same when Lena Miller developed brain cancer. "They share with tears and everything. We really get along," said Miller, 60. "Jackie Brown checks almost every week just to find out if I want anything, if I need anything."

Brown, 49, whose idea it was to start the group to address the unique needs of African-American women, said it has grown to its present size in 18 months.

"One of the things is that women now have an outlet, because they see their own culture talking about it. The women are seeing now that we do survive this thing, so they're feeling more comfortable talking about it and that we can relate to each other," said Brown, who serves on the American Cancer Society's operating board, the community advisory panel for H. Lee Moffitt Cancer Center and the board of Gulfcoast Oncology Foundation.

She wants to help others "who might have to take the same journey I've had to take," the mother of two adult children said.

"All of it is being a blessing to somebody. If I can encourage, educate another woman, it helps our mortality rate go down."

Brown has been cancer-free for three years.

"I don't use the word remission. I say it's gone. My body has been healed. If you're saying it's in remission, you're expecting it to come back, and I don't," said Brown, whose heart was damaged by a breast cancer drug.

Over the past months, she said, a few members of the group have suffered setbacks. One had a stroke and three others had recurrences of the disease. Then there was Latrice Dennies' death.

It has been difficult, Brown said.

"We're not just a group. We're a family. We have a bond because of this disease, but we're not in bondage to this disease, so when something like that happens, we react just like a regular family does," Brown said.

"With Latrice's death, we look at it as though she is no longer in pain, but we were there to help give her support. ... It's not an easy thing to watch. It was hard. Even though we're only together once a month, you develop a closeness and love for each other."

Waveney Ann Moore can be reached at wmoore@sptimes.com or (727) 892-2283.

For help, support

Sistahs Surviving Breast Cancer meets at 6:30 p.m. the second Tuesday of each month at Mount Zion Progressive Baptist Church, 955 20th St. S, St. Petersburg. Call Jackie Brown at (727) 365-1678 or go to www.myspace.com/sistahssurvivingbc.

Reach to Recovery, one-on-one program with American Cancer volunteers to support breast cancer patients.

Look Good ... Feel Better, a program that teaches beauty techniques to female cancer patients in active treatment. Call 1-800-227-2345 or go to www.cancer.org

If you go

Free mammograms and Pap smears for low-income women ages 50 to 64 without insurance. For information about this screening program, call the Pinellas County Health Department at (727) 824-6917.

Mammography voucher program for low income Pinellas County women 49 and younger without insurance. Call the Mammography Voucher Program at (727) 820-4117 to see if you are eligible for assistance.

By the numbers

Breast cancer and African-American women

19,010 estimated new cases of breast cancer expected in 2007

12% lower incidence rate of breast cancer than white women

5,830 estimated deaths in 2007

For help, support

Sistahs Surviving Breast Cancer meets at 6:30 p.m. the second Tuesday of each month at Mount Zion Progressive Baptist Church, 955 20th St. S, St. Petersburg. Call Jackie Brown at (727) 365-1678 or go to www.myspace.com/sistahssurvivingbc.

Reach to Recovery, one-on-one program with American Cancer volunteers to support breast cancer patients.

Look Good ... Feel Better, a program that teaches beauty techniques to female cancer patients in active treatment. Call 1-800-227-2345 or go to www.cancer.org

If you go

Free mammograms and Pap smears for low-income women ages 50 to 64 without insurance. For information about this screening program, call the Pinellas County Health Department at (727) 824-6917.

Mammography voucher program for low income Pinellas County women 49 and younger without insurance. Call the Mammography Voucher Program at (727) 820-4117 to see if you are eligible for assistance.