Carolyn Whitney and Vivian Chalmers, friends from their school days, stood in the crowded lobby of the Student-Alumni Center at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center (UTHSC) on Saturday morning, Feb. 7, and gave each other a big hug.
The women, both breast cancer survivors, were among more than 530 African-American women who attended the first LIVE! breast cancer summit at UTHSC. The free event officially titled, “LIVE! African-American Women Surviving Breast Cancer through Education, Early Detection, Screening and Treatment,” was designed to unite, support and empower African-American women to take charge of their breast health.
The Research Center on Health Disparities, Equity and the Exposome (RCHDEE) at UTHSC convened a Breast Cancer Awareness and Action Coalition of more than a dozen organizations to host the educational and motivational event.
“Together, we are committed to the reduction of breast cancer’s mortality rate by increasing awareness and action among black women, the population that discovers the disease much later and dies from it much earlier than any other group in our region,” said Patricia Matthews-Juarez, PhD, co-director of the RCHDEE. Dr. Matthews-Juarez, was recruited to Memphis in 2013 along with her husband, Dr. Paul Juarez, to start the research center. While working with the many excellent breast cancer organizations in the African-American community, it became apparent that together they could increase the impact of their efforts, she said.
The summit opened with remarks from Memphis Mayor A C Wharton, Congressman Steve Cohen and UTHSC Executive Vice Chancellor and Chief Operations Officer Dr. Ken Brown, JD, MPA, PhD, FACHE.
Thelma Hurd, MD, a surgical oncologist and director of the Breast Surgery Program at the University of Texas Health Science Center in San Antonio, gave the keynote address, stressing the need for education, empowerment and personal advocacy in fighting the disease.
“Not only is African-American breast cancer mortality two and a half times higher in Shelby County and the surrounding four counties; Memphis has had the unique distinction of having the highest African-American breast cancer mortality rates in the United States for the last 20 years running,” Dr. Hurd said. “This is a major, major problem for Memphis. And I would actually put forth that given the impact of breast cancer on the community, it is as important as cardiovascular disease, as important as other diseases, including diabetes, which are impacting the community.”
Dr. Hurd said a first step in the battle is for African-American women “to stop thinking that breast cancer is a death sentence.” With current treatments, early detection and diagnosis at earlier stages, breast cancer is one of the few cancers that is becoming a chronic disease, with 10-, 15- and 20-year survivals no longer the rare exception and more commonly becoming the norm, she said.
“We need to understand that knowledge is absolute power in breast cancer. There is nothing that says we, as African-American women, can’t have that knowledge,” Dr. Hurd said. “It’s out there, and there are many ways that we can access it.” She cited work by organizations, such as the West Tennessee Area Health Education Center, Inc., in Fayette County, which is not only teaching the community about breast cancer, but also training lay health educators. “And it’s that level of intervention, when you’re talking about really creating a new level of community resource knowledge that people can go to, that’s going to be critical in moving forward.”
Dr. Hurd pointed to four things every woman with breast cancer should know about her tumor, things a new study found only five percent of African-American breast cancer survivors know. They are: the stage of the disease, whether it is estrogen or progesterone receptor positive or negative, whether it is HER2-positive or -negative, and what the grade is.
“This is your currency for talking to anyone in the health care system,” Dr. Hurd said. “If you don’t know this, then you really can’t have meaningful discussion. You can’t really think about the information you’re being given, because it’s all really conceptualized through that lens.”
Dr. Hurd said while 75 percent of the disparity in breast cancer mortality is due to socioeconomic factors and clinical factors, such as the stage of disease at diagnosis, she cautioned not to assume that poverty equals paralysis. “We have to be ever diligent to make sure that we don’t get so focused on poverty that we stop realizing our power as individuals and as a system within the community to really affect change.”
The summit offered participants access to more than a dozen vendors of health care and breast care services.
The coalition has also mounted a photo exhibition of portraits of African-American women who are breast cancer survivors. Designed to put a face on breast cancer in the African-American community, the “LIVE! Just As We Are!” exhibition opened on Feb. 6 at the Benjamin L. Hooks Central Library and will remain on display throughout February for Black History Month. It will then move to locations around the city and region.
More from the LIVE! summit:
- Listen to organizers talking about breast cancer in the African-American community on the Bev Johnson Show on WDIA AM 1070:https://www.mywdia.com/onair/bev-johnson-2788/action-awareness-13230615/
- In addition to UTHSC, the coalition staging the summit included: Common Table Health Alliance; Shelby County (TN), The Links, Incorporated; Baylor College of Medicine/Intercultural Cancer Council; Tennessee Department of Health, Office of Minority Health and Disparities Elimination; Carin’ and Sharin’ Breast Cancer Education and Support Group; Sisters Network Memphis Chapter; Surviving, Thriving, African-Americans Rallying Support Group (STAARS); Seeds2 Life, Inc.; Community Action Team of Shelby County; Community Health Advisory Specialty, American Cancer Society; The Church Health Center; Tennessee Cancer Coalition; Tennessee Men’s Health Network; Faith Health Division of Methodist Healthcare; Sheats Endodontics Group; Woodcuts Gallery and Framing, Nashville, Tennessee.