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Cancer in communities of color
The danger within, Part 5: Twenty years on

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.
To 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.
It 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.
“It’s 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.
It 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.
Special 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.

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