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Survivor’s mission: Raise awareness of breast cancer among black women

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by Kate Santich, Orlando Sentinel

blackwomenOn Saturday morning, Sherlean Lee will go door to door in an Eatonville neighborhood she doesn’t know trying to talk about something a lot of people don’t want to discuss — breast cancer.

Some doors, she knows, will be closed in her face. At others, women will stand in awkward silence, some defensive, some dismissive.

It won’t deter Lee. She and her small army in pink will keep knocking.

As founder and president of the Sisters Network Orlando, and a breast-cancer survivor herself, she has made it her mission to empower the African-American community through education and emotional support. Early each October, as National Breast Cancer Awareness Month begins, that means a Saturday morning “Gift for Life Block Walk” in a predominantly black neighborhood, where Lee and other Sisters reach out to those who may live in ignorance or fear.

“My aunt on my father’s side died of breast cancer, and then my first cousin had it … and nobody ever told me,” said Lee, who lives in Kissimmee. “My mother used to whisper that somebody had ‘the big C’ — she never even said the word. You’d be surprised how many people are still like that.”

Her group’s motto — “Stop the Silence” — is a particularly urgent directive to African-American women, who are actually less likely than white women to get breast cancer but more likely to die from it. African-American women as a group are more likely to be uninsured or underinsured and may not get regular checkups — meaning they may not be diagnosed until their cancer has spread, making the disease far less treatable. But they are also prone to more aggressive types of tumors.

“This is a very insidious thing,” Lee said.

At 65, she has passed the critical five-year milestone with no sign of recurrence, but cancer is never far from her thoughts. Retired after more than 32 years working for the U.S. Postal Service, she is busier than ever — giving speeches, putting on health fairs, visiting women in the hospital or participating in support groups. All of it is unpaid.

“She is completely selfless and committed,” said state Rep. Geraldine Thompson, an Orlando Democrat who announced in early 2007 that she was battling breast cancer. “When I met her, I was just struck that she was giving so much of her time and energy without any thought of getting something for herself.”

The two met when Lee led a contingent of Sisters to visit Thompson after the newly elected legislator got out of the hospital. Thompson was facing six months of chemotherapy, followed by radiation treatments.

“They let me know that if I needed anything — whether it was a meal or help with laundry or just the chance to talk to somebody who’s been there and done that — they were available,” she said.

Dr. Nikita Shah, a breast-cancer oncologist with M.D. Anderson Cancer Center Orlando, calls the mission “absolutely critical” because it reaches the most vulnerable population. She also regularly refers newly diagnosed African-American patients to Lee’s group.

“All I need to do is pick up the phone and say, ‘Hey, Sherlean, I need somebody,’ and she is there is there. … She’s phenomenal.”

For Lee, who has won several awards for her community service, the work is merely karmic payback. Late one night in 2002, she happened to notice a disturbingly large lump in her breast. Then 58, she’d been having benign breast cysts for more than three decades. So she didn’t panic, but she did call her doctor the next morning.

A biopsy revealed the lump to be benign. Lee decided to have it removed anyway, though she might just as easily have opted to leave it alone. When she awakened from surgery, her doctor sat by her bedside, a look of concern on her face.

As the doctor was removing the large benign lump, she had found a second — and cancerous — lump underneath.

“If I had let that [first] lump stay, I wouldn’t be talking to you now, because the [tumor] was very aggressive and it was already fairly large,” Lee said. “After that, I had an epiphany: Because God spared me, I felt I needed to do something to help others.”

The Sisters Network is a national organization based in Houston, with chapters across the country. But back when Lee was diagnosed, the closest chapter to Orlando was in Jacksonville. So in 2005, when she was well again, Lee started one here.

These days, the group is about 40 women strong and spends much of its time arranging health fairs, doing presentations at churches, supporting fellow survivors and even educating men that they are not immune from the disease.

Lee shows no sign of slowing down, especially with the growing number of women who have lost health-care coverage during the recession and can’t afford mammograms.

“I’ve been so blessed,” she said — despite having had a mastectomy and chemotherapy and having to return once a year to her oncologist for blood work and scans to ensure that the cancer hasn’t returned. “I am alive.”

Kate Santich can be reached at 407-420-5503 or ksantich@orlandosentinel.com.

The fifth annual Gift for Life Block Walk takes place Saturday, starting with registration at 8 a.m. at The Life Center Church, 63 E. Kennedy Blvd., Eatonville. There is no cost to walk, but T-shirts are available for $10, with proceeds going to the nonprofit Sisters Network Orlando. The walk is followed at 11 a.m. by free health screenings, speakers, refreshments, door prizes and exhibits. For more information, call 407-962-0036 or go to sistersnetworkorlando.org.

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Written by Symphony

October 9, 2009 at 5:00 pm

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