Their pink scoop-neck blouses and halter dresses exposed their scars. But these women had nothing to hide anymore.
Breast cancer survivors gathered around pots of boiling water, pink tablecloths, and teacups to celebrate the women of the Sisters Network Triangle NC chapter.
The group is part of Sisters Network, a national organization for African-American breast cancer survivors.
Breast cancer is the most commonly diagnosed cancer in black women. And member L.A. Cuttler says they don’t talk enough about it.
“A lot of it is culture,” Cuttler said. “In African-American families, you’re told to hold stuff in. Whether it be about having the flu, or an aunt who has mental health issues — you keep that stuff in the house.”
Cuttler grew up in foster care and only met her biological mother a few years ago.
They formed a short relationship before her mother died in 2016, and she never told Cuttler that she also had survived breast cancer.
Many black women are taught that breast cancer, or any cancer, is not to be talked about, said Cuttler, a clinical therapist. Just hearing the word cancer can be devastating, she said.
But Cuttler said it’s still hard to forgive her.
“I was so mad at her because I told her that I had it and she never opened up her mouth and said she had it, too,” Cuttler said. “Now my daughter is going through breast cancer. But had my mother told me, I could have prepared myself and my daughter and granddaughter better.”
Second to lung cancer
Breast cancer deaths are second only to lung cancer deaths among black women, according to the American Cancer Society.
In 2016, about 30,700 black women were diagnosed with breast cancer and 6,310 women died from it, the organization reported.
“The black community needs to stop ignoring and pretending cancer is not there,” said survivor Coleen Crespo, and secretary of Sisters Network.
“Culturally, we have been taught not to show weakness,” she explained. “So when something hurts, you don’t go to the doctor because it’s probably OK, and if it’s not, then we just don’t discuss it.”
There is good news.
The American Cancer Society found rates of breast cancer deaths among black women have declined since 1991 due to improved early detection and treatment.
But Crespo, who was diagnosed 11 years ago, said there’s still work to be done.
Sisters Network is teaching black women and communities to speak up, learn from each other and talk as a community, Crespo said.
“When you have cancer, people think you’re on your deathbed,” said Renee Wardlaw, a survivor and long-time member of the Sisters Network. “But, I mean we have people who live 20-some years after cancer or people who have beat cancer twice, so it is possible.”
Still, the breast cancer death rate is 40 percent higher for black women compared to white women.
This is due, in part, to genetic variations that make black women more susceptible to aggressive cancers for which effective treatments have not been developed, as well as obesity, the stage at diagnosis, and access to treatment, the American Cancer Society reported.
“We’ve lost parents and we’ve lost children,” Crespo said. “No one is immune.”
But the Sisters Network is hopeful.
“These cancers don’t mean it’s the end of the road,” Cuttler said. “It just means you have to take some extra steps to get well.”
Race and religion don’t matter
Even though the network is an African-American organization, “it doesn’t matter what your race, creed or religion is,” Crespo said. “If you’re a survivor, our sisters are here to help you.”
“We’re able to assist women who need assistance with co-pays, groceries or medication,” she said. “Sometimes they need their electric bill paid or their whole rent. And other times they just need their house cleaned.”
There are 30 Sisters Network chapters across 14 states, which leaves over two-thirds of states without a chapter for women to join.
In the future, the members hope to reach underprivileged neighborhoods and increase fundraising to help more women fight breast cancer.
“We don’t just help black women,” Cuttler said. “We help women, period.”