A Passion to Educate Black Women

Wanda Brown, 54, is celebrating six years of survivorship this month, and her knowledge of the disease is a far cry from that day back in 2004 when she found the lump in her breast.

Wanda Brown, 54, is celebrating six years of survivorship this month, and her knowledge of the disease is a far cry from that day back in November 2004 when she found the lump in her breast only weeks before her annual mammogram. Even when the doctor told her it was definitely cancer, she says she wanted to wait six weeks to have surgery until after her birthday at the end of January.

“I didn’t know any black women with breast cancer,” she says. “I thought it was a white woman’s disease.”

It was pure ignorance, she says today as the founder of Columbus, Ohio, affiliate of the Sisters Network, Inc., the national organization for black women with breast cancer. It was Brown’s oldest daughter, who was 32 at the time, who put her foot down. She told her mother she could not wait and she could die from this disease. Not until then did Brown, also the mother of a 12- and 19-year-old, begin to realize her daughter was right. She scheduled the lumpectomy for mid-December. The final pathology showed it was an aggressive cancer: stage 2, triple-negative disease with three positive lymph nodes.

“They didn’t give me any details from the biopsy,” Brown says. “After surgery I found out it was triple negative, and that is a whole different beast. Then I decided to become an advocate because I have 15 nieces, and I do not want them to die of ignorance.”

She chose a clinical trial that called for 39 weekly doses of chemotherapy followed by 37 daily radiation treatments. “I was there for nine months,” Brown says. “One of the nurses announced she was pregnant the first week, and I got to see the baby when it was born.”

It was also her nieces that prompted her to do the clinical trial, she says, something she encourages other black women to consider so there will be study results on minority women.

Now a network administrator for the state of Ohio, Brown is working to change the attitudes about breast cancer among black women, who Brown says won’t talk about things like cancer outside their homes. She says the group is making breast cancer part of the social conversation everywhere they can, including churches, AA meetings and beauty parlors.

“There are women who have it and who won’t tell anyone,” she says. “We also know that in the black community, the loss of a breast is seen as losing a part of your feminine self. I have met women who would rather die than lose a breast.”

She relays the story of one woman she talked with whose daughter brought her. She was concerned that the loss of her breast would mean the loss of cleavage. Brown, in her no-nonsense way, pointed out to the woman that it was her cleavage or her life.

Today, Brown says there are 25 active members in the Columbus affiliate, with a total membership of 60. Each year the group walks the streets of Columbus’ black neighborhoods in the Gift for Life Block Walk where they educate women about breast cancer and offer free mammography screenings.

“We want them to see survivors. So we go out as a group to show them it’s OK, and they can survive. It takes away the fear,” she says, adding that in her community, when someone says they have breast cancer, the person often thinks of them as dead. “If it’s diabetes, they’ll tell you what to do to live. If it’s cancer, they say, ‘I am so sorry.’ They have already killed you.”

Brown hopes the group will find a celebrity spokesperson who would be willing to be visible and speak about the disease specifically to black women.

Aside from becoming an activist, Brown says she is also getting her Master’s degree in human services, so she can use what she is learning about cancer more effectively in her community. Her oldest daughter has also returned to school to earn a nursing degree.

“What used to be important, isn’t any more,” Brown says. “Instead of having a big house or advancing in the job, my goal now is to get one woman a mammogram.”