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Local Organization fights breast cancer among African American women

Gift for Life Block Walk raised breast cancer awareness

By Maricha Harris

Milwaukee Affiliate of Sister’s Network, Inc. is one of many organizations working to raise awareness about breast cancer and to reduce cancer related disparities. The network recently hosted their fourth annual Gift for Life Block Walk at the Martin Luther King Jr. Community Center. The event promoted early detection, increased community involvement and encouraged residents to value healthy lifestyles. During the one-day event, breast cancer survivors were celebrated and recognized. Participants were educated on the issues and had an opportunity to connect with community resources. Exhibitors and healthy cooking demonstrations engaged participants and live music entertained the crowd. Pictured here from left to right are State Representative Elizabeth Coggs, 10th Assembly District, Debra Weaver, Sister’s Network Milwaukee, associate member, and Phyllis Holder, founder and president, Sister’s Network Milwaukee. Associate members like Weaver are not breast cancer survivors, but they feel connected to the organization’s mission. Learn more about the Sister’s Network by visiting sisters4cure.org.

No one wants to be diagnosed with cancer, but for tens of thousands of Wisconsinites the unwanted diagnosis becomes an unfortunate reality. Within the African American community, cancer’s burden is particularly higher and more devastating than within the general population. Fortunately, Milwaukee Affiliate of Sister’s Network, Inc. is one of many organizations working to raise awareness about breast cancer and to reduce cancer related disparities. The network recently hosted the fourth annual Gift for Life Block Walk at the Martin Luther King Jr. Community Center.

Major purposes of the block walk were to promote early detection, increase community involvement and encourage residents to value healthy lifestyles. During the one-day event, breast cancer survivors were celebrated and recognized and participants were given information and resources. Exhibitors and healthy cooking demonstrations kept participants engaged and live music kept them entertained. October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month, but the fuel behind the Sister’s Network’s recent event goes beyond the significance of October. “We live to help others live,” said Phyllis Holder, founder and president of the Sister’s Network in Milwaukee and six-year breast cancer survivor.

Holder is motivated for the cause because of her story. Between her yearly mammograms, Holder began feeling pain in her armpit. She initially attributed the pain to wearing underwire bras. After waiting three or four months, she saw her doctor and was soon diagnosed with breast cancer. Holder underwent surgery chemotherapy, radiation and rehabilitation and is now living life after cancer and helping others.

In 2008, three years after her diagnosis, Holder founded the Milwaukee chapter of Sister’s Network. Inc., a national organization focused on breast cancer in the African American community. Addressing cancer related health disparities is a major priority for Holder and the core members of the Sister’s Network—who are also survivors—and one of the reasons they host events like the Gift for Life Block Walk.

“The community pays more attention to disparities in breast cancer, diagnosis and access to quality care when we step up and care about it ourselves,” said Holder.

Out of the 27,560 new cancer cases in Wisconsin in 2009, 3,480 were female breast cancer cases, according to an American Cancer Society (ACS) report. Breast cancer disparities are not found in numbers but in survival rates and life after cancer expectancy. Caucasian women are diagnosed with breast cancer more often than African American women, but African American women die more often.

According to the ACS, African Americans are the most likely racial and ethnic group to develop and die from cancer. Among the African American women who do survive breast cancer, their life expectancy is significantly lower than Caucasian women. Holders says on average an African American survivor may live to see 55 or 56 years old while Caucasian survivors may live to see 70.

Several reasons drive these disparities. One is late detection. African American women are diagnosed and treated later than Caucasians. Treatments are often harder, and the chances of survival are often slimmer.

Holder believes many reasons contribute to late detection in African American women. “Additional hardships affect [our] women, especially because they are often the heads of their households,” she said.

Financial burdens also plague African American women. Many families are uninsured or underinsure and may not seek or have access to regular medical care, such as annual check-ups. As a result, fewer preventative screenings are done in African American communities.

Fear also contributes. “I often tell women you can be scared to death or you can be scared to action,” said Holder. “Part of my testimony is to tell women not to do what I did. It was harder for me because I disobeyed my body and God. That made the valley a harder place to come out of.”

While the number one risk factor of breast cancer is being a woman, there are ways to prevent cancer—or at least increase the chances of survival if diagnosed.

“Early detection leads to early treatment, which certainly improves treatment outcomes,” said Holder. “Ask your doctor about appropriate screenings for your age,” she added.

Take good care of yourself. Holder urges women to maintain a healthy weight, eat a well-balanced and nutritious diet—one that includes fruits, vegetables whole grains and beans—exercise, abstain from substances like alcohol, tobacco and drugs and maintain medical care such as yearly exams and self breast exams.

To find out how to get involved with the Sister’s Network or to learn about their support groups for women currently battling cancer, visit www.sisters4cure.org or http://www.facebook.com/pages/Sisters-4-Cure/115376455170645.