On October 3, 2023, the students of the Vel Phillips Memorial High School Black Student Union (BSU) hosted a panel of Black women who are breast cancer survivors. The panel consisted of Deloris Cowley, Gloria Ladson-Billings, Erin McCullough, and Denise McDonald and met with students over their lunch hour. Almost 60 students crowded into the room to hear the survivors tell their individual stories and to ask them questions about the disease. The panelists were greeted with lovely gift bags and t-shirts that read, “By the grace of God I am a survivor!” The event gave the attendees an opportunity to learn about the variety of treatment options available to people who are diagnosed with breast cancer. Students asked questions that ranged from basic ones like, “What is breast cancer?” to more complex ones like, “What helped sustain you through your breast cancer journey?”
The entire event was designed and led by the students who thought it was important to participate in October’s Breast Cancer Awareness activities by focusing on the experiences of Black women. According to the National Cancer Institute, 1 in 8 women in the US are diagnosed with breast cancer. Although the rate for Black is lower, the mortality rate is higher. Black women are 41% more likely to die from breast cancer than their White peers. Some of the reasons for this disparity is the higher rate of inflammatory breast cancer, delay in diagnosis and treatment, and higher incidence of triple-negative breast cancer which is aggressive and challenging to treat.
The students were interested in some prevention strategies and the panelists pointed out that the number one risk factor for receiving a cancer diagnosis is being a woman. The students were surprised to learn that men can also develop breast cancer. The panelists were careful not to “scare” the students about breast cancer but admonished them to know their family history, enjoy a healthy diet (lots of fruits and vegetables) live an active life style (get regular exercise), and pay attention to changes in their bodies. The students were reminded that knowledge is power and that a breast cancer diagnosis is not a death sentence.
The faculty/staff sponsor of the Vel Phillips Memorial High School Black Student Union is Mrs. Andrea Jones who helped the students identify potential panelists. The leaders of the BSU are Sodik Gbadamassi & Ameria Scott, Presidents; Azahria Washington, Vice President; Janiah Koon, Secretary; Dajon Shannon, Senior Representative; Patrick Poshi Kahite, Junior Representative; and Alana Eubanks, Freshman Representative. These leaders and the members of the Vel Phillips Memorial BSU are to be commended for their great work.