NEW YORK NEWS
Cancer in communities of color
The danger within, Part 5: Twenty years on
by DAMASO REYES
Special to the AmNews
Originally posted 4/8/2004
“I was like the shoulders of my family,” recalled Melvina Johnson, a
survivor of breast cancer, on why she didn’t share her diagnosis right
away with her family 21 years ago. “But talking helps the healing
process,” she said, explaining why she has become such a selfless
advocate for cancer patients.
know Melvina Johnson is to see the face of cancer as it could be. Now
in her seventies, Melvina not only survived cancer, she has worked hard
over the past two decades to share her experience with other women, so
that they know they are not alone when it comes to this most difficult
of personal battles.
“I was devastated,” Melvina said in an
interview at her Harlem home. She went in for a routine mammogram,
which detected a mass. When the biopsy was done, she got the news that
so many women fear: She had breast cancer. Surgery removed the cancer
without removing her breasts.
Melvina is a perfect example of how
cancer can be defeated by early detected and aggressive treatment. At
the Breast Examination Center of Harlem, to name just one facility,
free and low-cost mammograms and clinical breast exams are available to
the public. Each year hundreds if not thousands of lives could be saved
right here in New York City if only more women went in for screenings.
is no accident that women of color have lower survival rates when it
comes of breast cancer. It has everything to do with the lower
screening rates we see in places like central Brooklyn and the South
Bronx. When caught early, breast cancer is highly curable. When
detected late, it has often spread to other parts of the body and more
aggressive treatments are needed. Many times even this is not enough.
that fear that we have to overcome,” Melvina said of the irrational
fear many people in communities of color have about cancer. “You’re
body talks to you but we don’t listen,” she added. It is often that
fear that prevents people from going to get screened, turning a cancer
that could have been easily treated into one that becomes fatal.
is just as important for cancer survivors to let people know about
their own experiences. Being open and sharing in the workplace or a
church group can often inspire people to get screened, saving their
lives. Which is what Melvina does through SHARE, an organization which
offers support services for women with breast and ovarian cancer,
including support groups. Melvina also helps to teach water aerobics
classes at the Harlem YMCA designed for recent cancer survivors. It was
hard for a reporter in his twenties to keep up with this breast cancer
survivor in her seventies.
Over the past weeks the stories and lives
of cancer survivors have filled these pages. One thing is clear: Cancer
does not discriminate. People of all genders, ages and races are
vulnerable to this disease, which comes in forms as diverse as New York
City itself. But through education and screening we can win the battle
against cancer. There is no reason why Black men and women should die
at a higher rate from prostate or breast cancer than their white
counterparts. Each one of us has both the ability and the
responsibility to change that fact.
Have you encouraged all the
smokers you know to quit? Have all of your friends and family had the
cancer screenings appropriate to their age and risk factors? Have you
had all of your screenings? Over the years cancer has become a part of
our lives, but today with all of the resources and information
available, it no longer has to be the reason for our deaths.
thanks to all of the survivors who participated in this series. By
sharing your lives and struggles there may soon come a time when these
stories become less common. Thanks also to Melanie Johnson and the
staff of Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, without whose help
this series could have never come to fruition.