Breast cancer and Black women


Rev. Tammie Denyse

Recent study challenges current treatments, outreach

By Charles Hallman

Staff Writer

According to the National Cancer Institute, Black women have the highest incidence of breast cancer of any U.S. population group. But at least one cancer survivor strongly disagrees with this assessment.

“Caucasian women are the ones who have a higher incidence rate of breast cancer” than Black women, says Rev. Tammie Denyse, who has been a cancer survivor for nearly eight years. She co-wrote “The Unmet Needs of African American Women with Breast Cancer,” a study published this spring.

“I am not a medical professional,” she adds, “but I am not sure that Black women have the higher risk of getting breast cancer” or the highest mortality rate, as the institute purports. “I don’t know if that is accurate.”

(According to the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention, as of 2008, Black women are second to White women in breast cancer cases, but Black women have the highest death rate.)

Denyse co-authored the study with University of California-Davis Comprehensive Cancer Center researcher Marlene M. von Friederichs-Fitzwater. It includes interviews with 137 Black women breast cancer survivors from the Sacramento area, asking about their treatment, concerns and needs.

“No two women are alike…except that we are breast cancer survivors,” says Denyse.

Although she did not conduct every interview, “One thing that I experienced from conducting some of the interviews was that the people did not just answer the questions, but [also] said, ‘I want to say something else,” Denyse points out.

“Some of the women I interviewed personally were very angry, and that’s why they chose to participate. They didn’t feel that their concerns have been heard in their own support community, and especially in their own support team.

“One of the largest surprises for me was the number of women who said that they wished they were asked about clinical trials,” admits Denyse. “When our survey showed such a high percentage of women [78 percent] saying that they were interested in participating in clinical trials, I was surprised and pleased.”

Although the study didn’t ask any religion-type questions, “Some of the women solely believe that they are alive today because God healed their bodies and saved them from this disease,” notes Rev. Denyse.

“You had some women who believed that God ‘cursed’ them with breast cancer, and you had some women who were very angry with God for giving them breast cancer, because they felt they were faithful to God. And you have some women who say this was all a result of some unresolved issue [they] had in the past that has now manifested as a cancer in [the] body.”

Denyse is president-founder of Sacramento-based Carrie’s Touch for Black women with cancer and cancer survivors. “I could not find support in Sacramento that met my needs as a woman of color,” she explains.

“I attended a few support group meetings, and they just didn’t meet me on a cultural level or a spiritual level. I specifically decided to found the organization because I was diagnosed with breast cancer seven and a half years ago.”

Carrie’s Touch “participates in research on various levels — we are not just a support group,” notes its founder.

Denyse earlier this spring visited Ghana. “Our organization is partnering with Breast Cancer International and Peace and Love Hospital, and trying to bring about some new programs that are going to help raise awareness, provide some education and some survivor support for the women who are going through the cancer [in Ghana].

“When I arrived, I had no idea what to expect. What we saw [in the hospital] was heart wrenching. I’m still speechless at what I saw.”

She also discovered some similarities between African women and U.S.-born Black women, including “lack of awareness” of the disease. However, “It is not the norm [in the States] for the tumors to have burst through the skin and spread throughout the body, and eating away on this woman before we take action,” says Denyse.

What also troubled her was learning that “many of the women still reach out to traditional medicine men that throw their bones and say whether or not they believe that this woman will survive the disease,” continues Denyse.

“If the bones say that they will survive, the women will do absolutely nothing while the cancer still is eating away in their bodies. If the bones say that they will not survive the disease, the medicine man begins to use traditional methods of healing for these women that really don’t address the cancer.”

To get Black women in her area to get mammogram screenings, whether free or not, “requires a different type of recruitment — a flyer on the church bulletin wall doesn’t do it,” says Denyse. “Our outreach is very different than in other communities.”

Finally, Carrie’s Touch has produced an 18-month “Breast Cancer Exposed” calendar. “All 18 persons in that calendar agreed to participating in the project at a different level, at a different point and different phase,” concludes Denyse.


Next: Two local breast cancer survivors share their thoughts about the study.

Charles Hallman welcomes reader responses to 




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