Culver City Observer -

By Sandra Coopersmith
Observer Columnist 

All Revved Up for Relay for Life

 

By Sandra Coopersmith

Features Writer

"Life is what happens to you while you're busy making other plans."-- John Lennon, "Beautiful Boy (Darling Boy)"

Anyone who's gone through a life changing experience like cancer can relate to that lyric. I certainly can. Following my diagnosis of breast cancer in 1991 I immediately turned for help to the American Cancer Society (cancer.org, 1-800-227-2345) and will always be grateful for the valuable resources they offered, all without cost to me: a Reach to Recovery volunteer who provided peer support, rides during treatment, and group therapy for women newly diagnosed with breast cancer.

The following year I became a volunteer and have participated in many fundraising walks, most recently last year's Relay For Life of Baldwin Hills, which includes participants from Culver City, Ladera Heights, View Park, Windsor Hills, Crenshaw, Leimert Park and South Los Angeles. It is held at Yvonne B. Burke Athletic Field in Windsor Hills.

I fundraise for Relay every other year and make a personal donation annually. This being an in-between year, I was still planning to attend so I could help out in the Luminaria booth and gather material for this story. Over the last few weeks I attended several Event Leadership Team meetings, and was awed by the dedication and efforts of those present. I was excited and raring to go! Saturday, June 23, couldn't come fast enough for me.

And then, right before Relay, I came down with what I thought was a hellacious case of stomach flu. By Saturday morning the intense pain drove me to the ER, where I spent the day undergoing a barrage of tests and learned that I have a mass by my right ovary that is pressing against the bladder. Not good, and by the time this goes to press I will have seen a surgeon who is a gynecologic oncologist so that surgery can be scheduled for July.

Okay, back to Relay.

From what I learned through various sources, including the extraordinarily committed, super-helpful and always-on-the-run Event Co-Chair Madeline Wilson--whose goal in life is apparently to figure out how to clone herself--this year's Relay was a joyful and inspirational event despite running the gamut weather-wise.

"It was rainy, windy, hot and cold," Madeline told me, "but no one seemed to mind!"

That doesn't surprise me because Saturday was a very full day with scheduled activities proceeding like clockwork. They included yoga, Zumba, dance, comedy, health discussions, music, vocals–you name it. There was a raffle of a barbecue grill, courtesy of Home Depot. Breakfast was sponsored by Dulan's on Crenshaw, lunch by Puerto Nuevo Restaurant and Benny's Tacos, and dinner by Sorrento Italian Market. The always-popular Yogurtland made an appearance. And Madeline shared the wonderful news that the event generated a new high of over $68,000 with checks still coming in!

Survivor-Speaker Stephanie Beverly-Smith's presentation, which she was kind enough to share with me, was a high point and spoke to her inner strength as she has had to face a battery of challenges.

In 2008 at age 42, while in a meeting at work, she suffered an aortic aneurysm, fell to the floor unable to speak, and woke up four weeks later in ICU at Cedars-Sinai.

"As a result of that emergency surgery, I suffered organ failure, both heart and kidney failure, nerve damage and temporary paralysis of my right extremities," she said. But she quickly added that she received excellent physical care and rehabilitation at Cedars-Sinai and eventually recovered from the paralysis, although left with certain conditions.

As if that weren't enough, as she was preparing to go back to work she discovered a large lump in her right breast while showering.

She promptly contacted her gynecologist, who arranged for a mammogram, ultrasound and biopsy all within that week. She was diagnosed with two cancers in her breast. She initially had two lumpectomies but ultimately had a mastectomy. Two sentinel nodes were removed but found to be negative for involvement.

Stephanie had immediate reconstruction after her systemic therapy, which included Taxotere, Cytoxan, and Herceptin, and continued with adjuvant Herceptin for another six months. She experienced all the typical side effects of chemotherapy: neuropathy, general sickness, baldness, tiredness, forgetfulness, very low white and red blood cell counts.

Until she was introduced to Women Of Color ("WOC") and heard other cancer survivors speak about their feelings, triumphs, questions, struggles and their faith, she didn't realize how many of her psychosocial needs were not being addressed.

"I had been to other cancer support groups in West Los Angeles and in El Segundo and they were very supportive and informative, but I was the only person of color there in a room of 15 to 20 people each time," she said. "There are unspoken cultural differences, the way we experience society that's unique.

"When I sat in on my first WOC support group, I felt like I was exactly where I needed to be," Stephanie said. "There was no cultural editing or interpretation going on. That fact allowed me to express the emotional fragility that I was experiencing, and those emotions so overwhelmed me that I didn't even realize how much depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress I was actually experiencing until I heard others describing those same feelings I was having."

She recalled days in the beginning of her cancer journey when she "just cried and couldn't stop crying. And there were days when I just couldn't see the positive in anything around me. I was going through an existential crisis, and because there is still so much stigma around mental illness in our community, I didn't want to accept what I was feeling. We're currently working on projects that will enable women to get the care they need so they can care for their mental health and go back to living productive lives, fulfilling their God-given purpose.

"The stigma of 'Are you not praying hard enough? Is your faith not strong enough?' is slowly being removed," Stephanie added.

She explained that some of the work they are doing involves how to reduce stress, lowering cortisol levels and changing the stats that have only 12 percent of African Americans seeking psychological counseling compared to 40 percent of the dominant culture. They also are studying the role faith plays in supporting mental health in their community and how to better equip faith-based resources to meet the community needs.

"Being a breast cancer advocate has opened my eyes to the depths of some of the disparities in healthcare access, treatment and health outcomes, so much so that I am determined to be an advocate for change in my community and hopefully the country," Stephanie declared. "Equity through minimum standards within universal healthcare is one of the answers, in my opinion."

I could not end this article without sharing Patricia Wright Chappelle's story, having met her at the Relay for Life last year. She heads the Survivors Committee and is founder of PinkMonkeys Unite, a faith-based cancer support group that began online about six years ago depicting her personal journey that included two separate diagnoses of breast cancer, a total of 18 months of chemo and a bilateral mastectomy.

"Convinced that I was going to die, I turned to alcohol and drugs, bad relationships...everything but God," Patricia said, "but by the grace and love of God I did get sober and realized that God had a plan.

"Just as I was ashamed to go the conventional group-therapy route because of the addiction, maybe there were others who felt the same way," Patricia said. "I knew there was a need to create a group that welcomed freedom to talk about anything that was a challenge to embrace the miracle of surviving cancer, an atmosphere free of judgment and criticism, free to talk about the intensity of battling other illnesses, habits as well as domestic violence and anger. All these other issues [that] we called 'monkeys' could be a hindrance to embracing the most important victory of our lives...surviving cancer and finding the warrior within."

What began as a group for women facing breast cancer soon expanded to support all cancers.

"We now reach out to many men, women and children offering spiritual support, a 24-hour prayer line, hospital visitation and monthly group meetings," Patricia explained.

"Our mascot, a stuffed monkey, represents the 'monkey on your back.' Colored ribbons that represent every cancer are the corresponding color of the monkey. We began our 'Bring a Smile to a Child' program by sending these monkeys out to the children. They send back pictures with their monkeys; some even use them on their IV poles to lighten the load of this journey called cancer.

"For the past six years PinkMonkeys Unite has supported the American Cancer Society through team fundraising through this Relay. PinkMonkeys Unite is about the celebration of each and every day we kick cancer monkey butt!"

They are currently building a strong Executive Board, having recently joined with Dr. Juana Gatson, Research Fellow at the Division of Cancer Research and Training at Charles Drew University of Medicine and Science. Their Survivors Meetings are held twice a month at Westmont Counseling Center in South Central Los Angeles, and they offer a Closed Group on Facebook as well.

My thanks go to photographer Bobby Green and to dedicated, fiercely proactive women like Madeline, Stephanie and Patricia whom I considered a privilege to quote, true heroes in this grueling battle.

Should I have to re-enter the fray, I have fellow warriors for support.

 

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