When Anita Jacobson was diagnosed with breast cancer a year and a half ago after a routine mammogram, she said fear didn’t even cross her mind. Despite having lost family members and two close friends to different forms of the disease, she said she left the doctor’s office with a plan to face it head on, and now she encourages other women to do the same. Jacobson is on the board of Sisters Conquering Cancer (SCC), a local group that fosters community and support for cancer survivors and loved ones, particularly minority women.
“The ladies are not shy about speaking up,” Jacobson said. “We almost speak in unison, and we’re on the same path.”
A visit to the UVA Breast Care Center led Jacobson to a cancer BINGO night, one of several local events that SCC hosts to spread awareness about cancer in underserved, minority communities. The group was founded in 2009 by a small group of African-American women who had been diagnosed with cancer, and it’s since expanded to include a board of directors and medical advisers.
UVA emergency physician Pamela Ross, a medical ambassador for SCC, said the group’s effectiveness comes from the fact that it’s not made up of doctors and experts.
“The power in the group has to do with the fact that they’re the real people that are going through it,” she said. “They don’t present a very technical experience, which can sometimes interfere with a person’s ability to relate when trying to learn about cancer.”
The mission of SCC, which is seeking official 501(c)(3) status, is threefold: to provide outreach, education, and support for women and men dealing with all types of cancer. Robinson said anyone and everyone is encouraged to attend the group’s events, but the original focus was to reach vulnerable, underserved populations, especially low-income African-American women.
“Lack of access to education is contributing to our still-higher mortality rates amongst African-Americans,” said Takisha Robinson, a 26-year-old medical student and president of the organization. According to the American Cancer Association, black men’s cancer mortality rate is 33 percent higher, and women’s 16 percent higher, than their white counterparts.
Families in low-income neighborhoods may not have access to the Internet or other methods of networking, Robinson said, so SCC is taking a grassroots approach, meeting with people individually and hosting events in community centers.
“We don’t want to be in your spam box,” she said. “We want to be at your kitchen table.”
Events sometimes include a presentation from a medical professional about breast health and self-exams, with vouchers for free mammograms handed out. Eventually, Robinson said she hopes the group will partner with local schools to also reach a younger demographic.
Not everybody takes the news of cancer by the horns like Jacobson did. Robinson said there’s a stigma around cancer in the black community, and women are inclined to keep their diagnoses to themselves, both fearful of the unknown and concerned about burdening loved ones.
“We’re trying to cultivate what Anita has naturally,” Robinson said. “We follow examples of women like her, who are bold.”
Jacobson had a tumor removed from her left breast last June, and at age 71 she said she doesn’t plan on slowing down.
“I eat right, I exercise, I get plenty of sleep, and I harass people who don’t get their mammograms,” she said.
To contact the group, visit the Sisters Conquering Cancer Facebook page.