For seven years the women of the Living and Loving Life Breast Cancer Support Group have been a shining example of what it means to not only survive, but thrive.

Providing a lifeline for members, the group meets every fourth Thursday of the month to confide in each other about not only fears, but future hopes and dreams.

So it was a welcome change for them when a gift arrived, totally out of the blue.

The women were given full use of a lavish tour bus, donated for a day by the University of Maryland, College Park Gymnastics team. The bus included a driver that escorted the women around on the one-day getaway complete with a shopping spree, door prizes, giveaways, and dinner.

“Everybody came together as sisters and we shared the love, the happiness, and the fun and freedom of getting you’re mind off yourself,” said Meredith White, who joined the group after being diagnosed with breast cancer in 2003.

“Your mind and your body go through a totally different change when you go through a disease such as this,” said White.

“This program is vital to survivors- not only to women but also men. We have people coming in from other hospitals because sometimes they don’t have a support group.”

The organization is a spin-off of the Baltimore City Cancer Program, which began in 2001 and was the brainchild of former employee Stacey Stephens. The group offers a space for survivors to open up and share with others who are at all points in their journey with cancer.

“I love that they offer workshops such as one on money management. They have someone come in who can talk with you about how to go about taking care of the bills that you are racking up,” said Marlene King, a survivor who has been through the disease twice—in 2008 and 2011. “You can ask questions of the women who have gone through it already. Knowing that you can make it through makes a big difference,” said King.

Women learn about the different forms of treatment and are encouraged to ask any and all questions while becoming their own prime health care advocates.

The group offers a family day of fun, food, and games annually, along with “A Day Away” where participants most recently traveled to New York City to see the Broadway play “A Streetcar Named Desire.”

According to the American Cancer Society (ACS), last year an estimated 288,130 women were diagnosed with invasive and non-invasive, or “in situ” breast cancer.
An estimated 39,520 succumbed to the disease.

In the state of Maryland, 118 of every 100,000 Black women were given breast cancer diagnoses between 2004 and 2008, with 39 dying between 2003 and 2007.

The incidence number is 127 out of every 100,000 for White women, with only 25 dying during the same respective time periods, showing that while Caucasian women are more likely to develop cancer, African American women are greater risk to become breast cancer fatalities.

Though the disease develops much less frequently among males, less than one percent of all cases, according to the National Cancer Institute (NCI), it would be a grave mistake to think that men are not at risk.

Breast cancer is most commonly seen among males 60 to 70 years of age, with the out of control division and growth of cells beginning most frequently in the ducts of the male breast tissue and spreading to the near-by lymph nodes, reports the NCI.

Though the group welcomes all men who are comfortable sharing their stories in the presence of women, group organizer LeVesta Jackson-Crute says more support for men is on the way.
“We are planning to add a male component in 2013 for men who are breast cancer survivors,” said Jackson-Crute. “The 2013 Living and Loving Life calendar will be out in early September and will consist of survivors ranging from ages 24 to 92 and 2 male survivors.”

Though Jackson-Crute is not a survivor, she has a special passion for women who’s courage and strength outshine the problems brought on by second most prevalent type of cancer among women in the United States next to skin cancer.

“We feel that the survivors go to the doctor, see this clinic, they get they’re radiation, chemotherapy, or surgery- but this is an outlet for them,” said Jackson-Crute.

Women whose families have a history of breast cancer are at greater risk of developing the disease, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Women who are overweight, smoke cigarettes, or drink alcohol are also putting themselves at an increased risk unnecessarily.

Though the fifth leading cause of death among women, with proper screening and regular self-examinations, cancer does not have to be a final or fatal word, experts said. Women above age 40 are encouraged to get annual mammograms, as pre-cancerous lesions can be identified before the development of terminal cancer.

The Baltimore City Cancer Program offers free breast exams, mammograms, and pap SMEAR tests for women without health insurance that qualify.

Alexis Taylor

AFRO Staff Writer