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ANGEL stands for African-American Women Nurturing and Giving Each other Life. The Angel Network is dedicated to promoting wellness and empowering women though health education. Its mission is to reduce cancer health disparities by offering early detection screening and health education.
Get more info on the next ANGEL Network Quarterly Program
Published in The Gazette October 3, 2013
When she was heading off to science camp in 5th grade, LaDonna Reed appreciated the letters hermom gave her to take along - one for each day of camp.
But when it was time to go home, she was disappointed to find her neighbor, not her mom, there to pick her up.Her mom was in the hospital undergoing her first mastectomy, at 42 years old. “I just remember bandages and tubes and drainage.” said Reed.
Along with the mastectomy, her mother underwent chemotherapy and radiation, and Reed was by her side as much as she could be.
“Five years later, to the day, the cancer showed up in her other breast.” Reed said. Unfortunately, this time the chemo shut down her kidneys. After being on dialysis for nine years, Reed’s mom finally received a transplant.
Then, in October 2005, Reed’s older sister was diagnosed with breast cancer. “My mom flew out from California to Ohio to take care of her,” she said. “While she was there she became extremely ill and continued to get worse.” When she flew back home, Reed’s mom was taken by ambulance directly to the hospital, where it was discovered the cancer had returned with a vengeance.
“The cancer had metastasized and was all over her body” said Reed. Her mom passed away at home on Christmas Day 2006 and Reed was by her side again. “She was ready and it was very peaceful,” she said “I am glad I was there.” Today, Reed is a steadfast volunteer with the ANGEL Network. “I do it because it’s what my mom would be doing if she were still here,” she said.
The ANGEL (African-American women Nurturing and Giving Each other Life) Network is part of Penrose Cancer Center and helps to educate and screen African-American women for breast cancer.
Free education, support groups, free instructional breast exams, and referrals are also part of the program. Their mission is “to reduce cancer health disparities by offering early detection screening and health education.” Reed was touched and inspired by seeing her mom’s courage. “My mom told me we have to share information and give back to our community.”
Mary McMearn’s husband was out of town when she got the call that she had breast cancer in 2007.
“After my mammogram, while I was waiting for the results, it seemed like an eternity,” said the pastor’s wife. “I had to ask myself, ‘are you doubting?’” Ultimately, the 65 year old was forced to find her own strength and cope with the distress by herself for a bit.
“I was on my own for three or four days,” she said. “I didn’t want to tell anyone else until I had a chance to share it with my husband.” During those few days, she spent her time in prayer looking for comfort.
“I was able to find assurance on my own,” she said. “I got the message that it was going to be bad, but it wasn’t going to kill me.” Knowing she wasn’t going to die was enough. “I never had any fear after that,” said McMearn.
When she was finally able to tell her husband, she recalls seeing his body go rigid. “But when I also shared with him the assurance I had received from God, he relaxed and wasn’t as worried.”
After going through a mastectomy, she also required chemotherapy and radiation at Penrose Cancer Center. Sometimes her husband was by her side during treatment. Sometimes it was her daughter and son-in-law. Sometimes it was all of them. But she had support with her for every treatment she had.
“I had my own little entourage,” she said. “For my first chemo, a lady from our church was there too.” She lost her hair seven day after her first chemo treatment and her five year-old grandson commented “Grandma, you look just like me.”
McMearn gives all the credit for her strength and confidence to faith, family and friends. “In that order,” she says.
With such a great support system to lean on, she was not only able to endure everything, she was able to grow from the experience. “I grew stronger and my faith grew stronger,” she said. “Mental health plays such an important role in the physical healing.”
Published in The Gazette October 17, 2013
Living in California in 1989, Jamie Wonnett was overwhelmed when she was diagnosed with breast cancer at age 40. “The first thing I thought was, I’m going to die,” she said. Wonnett had always lived a faith-based life and, she pointed out “I’m strong like my dad.” It was relying on her faith and trusting in her own strength that helped her fight through this battle.
“I woke up one morning,” Wonnet said, ‘and told myself ‘Jamie get to it. It’s time to drive yourself ahead’.” Wonnett was working at a hospital at the time and, after consulting with doctors, she elected to undergo a bilateral mastectomy with reconstruction.
Shortly after, in 1990 she began working at the Evans Army Hospital at Ft. Carson and was driven to help other women manage the challenges of breast cancer. “I told all of the nurses to send anyone who had breast cancer to me,” she said. “I will talk with them and help them through it.”
Along with Tammy O’Neil and others, Wonnett soon helped establish the ANGEL Network through PPenrose Cancer Center. ANGEL stands for African-American women Nurturing and Giving Each other Life. “Five or six of us got together and just started building on it,” said Wonnett.
By promoting wellness and health education, the ANGEL Network provides women with free education programs, free instructional breast exams, referrals, cancer support groups and more. Although initially started to work with African-American women, the ANGEL Network is open to women of all races and ethnicities. Wonnett proudly notes she also had a hand in helping to bring the Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure to Colorado Springs as well.
After recovering from treatment, Wonnett decided she wanted to try something she never would have done before. She started riding a Harley. “Now, I’m a Harley girl, I love to ride,” she says, “As a matter of fact, I rode my Harley to easy-chair yoga class today.”
No question, a breast cancer diagnosis is entirely different today than it was 24 years ago. “I’m old school now,” said Wonnett. “Treatment has sure come a long, long way.”
Twenty years ago, Cordelia Smith was teaching hospitalized children at Charity Hospital in New Orleans. “I believe the name was changed to University hospital, but it was still referred to as Charity,” she said. Because she was a faithful mammogram patron, the 40 year old was certain the painful lump she discovered under her arm could not be breast cancer. “I underwent a biopsy and confirmation of stage two breast cancer during the same doctor visit,” she said. “It was very surprising.”
Smith’s cancer journey would begin two years after one of her sister’s had been diagnosed with breast cancer. Treatment in New Orleans included a lumpectomy, radiation, chemotherapy and physical therapy. “The doctors treated my cancer aggressively, removing 14 out of 15 lymph nodes,” she said.
After having surgery October 1st, Smith recalls missing work during October and most of November. “I was amazingly able to work most of the time throughout treatment,” she said. “And because my immune system was weak, the nurses would keep the sick kids away.” Lymph nodes are located under the arm and are similar to filters, where bacteria, viruses or even cancer cells get caught. If cancer cells are found in lymph nodes it means that the disease has left the breast and moved on to other parts of the body. Checking the underarm area during monthly self breast-exams is equally important.
At this time Smith has a demanding career as the principal at M.L. King Elementary School in District 11. She also finds time to work with the ANGEL Network at Penrose Cancer Center and Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure.
In addition to relying heavily on her faith, keeping a positive outlook and having the sturdy support of family and friends was invaluable to Smith during her treatment. She also recommends a strong, trustworthy team of healthcare professionals too.
“It’s crucial to have caring people around you,“ she said, “along with a good surgeon, good oncologist and good nurses.”
Five years ago a third sister was diagnosed with breast cancer. “Each of us had a different experience with different courses of treatment,” said Smith. “But we were still able to help each other and be there for each other.”
My mother is 85 years old and lives in a small community in South Carolina. Mom, who lives with poorly controlled type-2 diabetes, now has only seven of her own teeth left. She did her best to take care of her teeth, following dental routines of the day throughout her life. Unfortunately, though well intended, some of that advise was mistaken. She went to the dentist yearly, when money allowed. Brushed vigorously after each meal with a firm bristled brush and used Listerine- the strong, tan colored stuff that burned the heck out of your mouth because of its high alcohol content. She flossed, devoutly, when that became the rigor and had the prettiest teeth and a beautiful smile. As a young woman she lost her first adult tooth after a severe toothache sent her to a dentist who, literally, broke her jaw while extracting the offending molar. (According to Mother, southern dentists routinely extracted the teeth of their black patients rather than try to save them. Her dentist didn’t even offer alternatives to save the tooth. Perhaps, he made assumptions as to his patient’s ability to pay for restoration. Whatever the reason, she like many young black people of that era lost several teeth to these practices before reaching middle age. She noted this did not seem to happen with White patients.) As we now know, brushing immediately after a meal, when the enamel has been softened by acids in food, especially, using a firm toothbrush, wore away her protecting enamel. Also, the alcohol in her mouthwash dried her mouth making it vulnerable to bacteria which can cause periodontal disease. The typical southern diet of highly sugared beverages (Mom always had a huge pitcher of sweet tea in the fridge), starches and fried meats didn’t help and contributed to her adult-onset-diabetes. According to the American Diabetes Association: “Emerging research also suggests that the relationship between serious gum disease and diabetes is two-way. Not only are people with diabetes more susceptible to serious gum disease, but serious gum disease may have the potential to affect blood glucose, control and contribute to the progression of diabetes. Research suggests that people with diabetes are at higher risk for oral health problems, such as gingivitis a condition of the gums characterized by inflammation and bleeding (an early stage of gum disease) and periodontitis (serious gum disease). People with diabetes are at an increased risk for serious gum disease because they are generally more susceptible to bacterial infection, and have a decreased ability to fight bacteria that invade the gums."
Today, my mother is a strong advocate of proper dental hygiene. She suffers with ill-fitting dentures, which seem to break once or twice a year. She tells all who will listen to take care of their teeth because once they are gone your quality of life is diminished (My words not hers. She puts it in a decidedly more colorful way.) With or without her dentures, she isn’t able to chew foods well and has digestive issues. Some foods she must avoid altogether or risk damaging her delicate dentures. Repairs to her dentures are very expensive and while they are being repaired she is without teeth for days or weeks at a time. Without her dentures, speech is lisping and awkward. She now has mandible bone loss due to missing teeth which causes her face to have a sunken, aging appearance.
It is imperative we break this degenerative cycle of poor oral health, particularly, in children living in disparate communities. It is detrimental to their future physical, social and economic well being.
I received a call from a close precious friend, Senga, asking me to call a lady who was deep into her advanced stage, breast cancer journey. She wanted me to give words of encouragement to her. I really didn't know much about her struggle. I did know that she was part of the Angel Network. A group of phenomenal women. What mattered the most was that I make that call. So, I did.
On the line was a vibrant, courageous, strong, and phenomenal woman, confident, and grounded in her faith. She was sometimes a bit sassy, too. We spoke of faith, the love of her family, and the love of her church.As time went on, Baby Girl and I met. I was surprised to see such a fragile woman wearing a mask over her nose and mouth, due to her compromised immune system. I could still see the smile in her eyes. She greeted me, “Hey I'm Sharon! How are you.” As she spoke those words to me I could feel an inner strength in her voice. My most precious memory of our time together is when she spoke of the last time she went to church.She described how she struggled to make it to the front of the church. So pleased that she made it to her pew. She described the cool, comforting feeling of the wood in the pulpit. We spoke a lot about her church. Sometimes, I visualize it to help me get through my own journey with cancer.Now, her new journey has begun. I have prayed for her, and will continue to pray for her. I know from experience, when prayers go up, blessings come down. As for me, I would like to thank her family for the gift that she was. She loved you all so much. She spoke of you on almost every call. I'm reassured how important family is.To the two ANGEL Wings, Senga and Carolyn: with your wings, you showed compassion and comfort, by her side in love and grace. Fluttering silently, not caring who heard, or saw you. Doing what you do, by grace, not for form or fashion, helping and assisting others. To the team at her beloved Payne Chapel Church: You, too, guided her in love and grace supporting her and her family. Then there was the Penrose staff: making her comfortable and keeping her informed. There was also The Rocky Mountain Cancer Center staff: who nurtured her until she could go no farther. Finally, to those I don't know who played a part: you don't know how many people you touch and bring hope. Seldom do you hear a “Thank You.”Lord, my God, I thank You most of all! With You, all things are possible. Thank you Father for bringing together and guiding the hands, minds, and spirits of everyone who touched her. I say again, where prayers go up, blessings come down! I'm reminded, faith is possibilities. Yet, even with faith, there is no promise life will, necessarily, be made easy!So now, with head bowed, and on bended knee, my prayers are not only for our dear sister ANGEL, but for all of you. They are for the families that give you the ability to do what you do for others.Thank you Lord! Thank all of you! God Bless! And Sista Girl… I truly miss our talks. You encouraged me!
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