by Christina Frazier
According to the John Hopkins University, triple-negative breast cancer is a diagnostic categorization for cancers whose cells test negative for estrogen (ER), progesterone (PR), and human epidermal growth factor (HER). While rare, this aggressive form of the disease requires a specific treatment regimen different than for other breast cancers. Although doctors should know to check for these factors, women should ask specifically for screening if there is any doubt. When the bus finally pulled up, Consuelo Ross led her team of volunteers, ushering women through the door, greeting strangers with a warmth and competence other people reserve for their family members. If every mammogram screening was like this, trust me, women would look forward to them.
Ross is CEO of Surviving the Odds, a foundation that helps women of color navigate the complex world of breast cancer. The organization signs up groups to host “Mammogram Parties,” outreach gatherings where up to 32 women can take the party bus to Johnson County Imaging Center for cancer screening. This time the local host was Centennial United Methodist Church, whose First Lady Kimiko Black Gilmore directs Team Inspired’s annual 5K walk/ run, an event held in memory of Darrell Sublett, a church member who died of triplenegative breast cancer.
You don’t have to belong to the host group or even ride the bus to receive services. Denise Dillard gets her mammogram on a regular basis, but decided to show support for her Wyandotte County neighbors by joining the party and getting her test done at Johnson County Imaging Center rather than at her doctor’s office. Dillard is a tall beauty with a platinum close-cropped natural. She doesn’t have a strong family history of cancer, but neither do 80 percent of women who get the disease. A horrific 2012 motorcycle accident left her with metal pins and plates in her lower body and a new perspective on life that emphasized “paying it forward.” Told she would never walk or ride again, she beat the odds. She was along for the ride this Saturday to help show other women that they can too.
The bus concept traces its origins to an alliance between Sharon Butler Payne and Consuelo Ross. Payne is the founder and chairperson of Art Bra KC, which raises funds for local breast cancer nonprofits by auctioning off themed bras created by local artists. In 2014, the Susan G. Komen Foundation contacted Payne directly to alert her to a report on Wyandotte County’s alarmingly high rates of late stage breast cancer. She immediately refocused Art Bra KC on efforts to help out. Ross had already been working in the county for several years with Surviving the Odds. The two organizations joined forces to found the Wyandotte County Task Force.
Juxtaposed against Wyandotte County’s perpetually low health rankings, its wealthy and healthier neighbor Johnson County is a reminder that living on the wrong side of I-35 has ramifications for health and longevity. Beyond issues of poverty, race, income disparity, and high rates of the uninsured, there are simply fewer hospitals and clinics in Wyandotte County and the people most in need, even if they can get off work or arrange child care, often have no dependable way to travel to care sites. Ross and Payne decided to focus their efforts on this proximity to services problem. Ross decided they should “take the women out of the place with the least access to health care and bring them to the place with the greatest access to health care.” Johnson County Imaging Center volunteered to donate their services. Payne proposed that Art Bra KC fund a party bus as the means of transportation, and an annual event was born.
Ross found her calling to create Surviving the Odds after her mother died at 42 from breast cancer. Even with all she learned caring for her mother during her illness, she said she “didn’t get tested for breast cancer for a long time after my mother died.” She can’t say why she didn’t make early detection a priority. One day she found a lump on her breast in the shower. After being diagnosed with triple-negative breast cancer, Ross suspected her mother may have had it too, because she died so young.
Drawing on her own experience, Ross decided that a social event might be just the kind of thing to help inspire women to overcome their fear and ambivalence about early testing. She believed that being a “queen for a day” could be more than just superficial fun; it could teach at-risk women who faced serious challenges that their lives were important and worth saving.
The majority of women at the party were African-American, but several were white and at least one was Filipina. Every half hour, DJ’s raffled prizes while women in the audience testified about their experience or provided information on services such as the Sarah Cannon Cancer Center Nurse Navigator program at Research Hospital. Volunteers added the women who attended to a list so they could be reminded to get their mammogram again next year.
The staff at Johnson County Imaging Center donates one Saturday a month for these parties. The center uses a stateof- the-art three-dimensional imaging technique for mammograms that starts at the top of the breast and curves along the surface, which some consider a better diagnostic tool. The center can also provide the more traditional two-dimensional scans.
The event reminded me of the love and respect that people can feel for each other; women helping women beat the odds against a common foe; the staff, the participants, the volunteers all making an impact in the community; the dividing lines of Wyandotte and Johnson Counties, of labels, status, and politics set aside to take on breast cancer. It showed me that one Saturday each month, people all over Kansas City are working together to prove that black women’s lives in Wyandotte County matter to us all, one mammogram at a time.