Karen Eubanks Jackson: Increasing Awareness of Breast Cancer in the African-American Community

Age: 75Houston, Texas

Twenty-five years ago, my life changed when my doctor told me “you have breast cancer.” I researched to look for a national African-American organization that provided education and support for breast cancer survivors in my community. I wanted to feel a sisterhood, unity, and have support. When I discovered there was no such organization I founded Sisters Network Inc. Our primary goal has always been to increase local and national awareness of the devastating impact that breast cancer has in the African-American community. We have made an impact in elevating breast health awareness in the black community over the last 24 years, but we need to do more because breast cancer continues to be a serious life-threatening health issue for African-American women.

In 1993, I was living a great life in Los Angeles. I was recently married, had a great career, and exercised regularly. The idea that I might have cancer was not on my radar, especially not breast cancer. I had had annual mammograms since my late 30’s and not one of them revealed breast cancer.

I started having annual mammograms earlier than most women because my aunt died in her early 40’s from breast cancer. I wanted to be proactive about monitoring my health. Over the years I had three biopsies after mammograms showed something suspicious but each biopsy came back negative for cancer.

When I started having a strange feeling in my right breast, I was concerned and decided I needed to go to my doctor. It wasn’t pain, but the sensation was with me all the time. I knew my body and knew something was wrong. I asked my doctor what tests were available to find an explanation. Because my annual mammogram had shown no sign of cancer, he sent me for an ultrasound.

I am thankful that I asked my doctor to address my health concerns because the ultrasound showed a 3.5-centimeter tumor in my right breast. I was ultimately diagnosed with stage 2 breast cancer. If I hadn’t been proactive about my health and paid attention to my body, the cancer would not have been caught early and I don’t think I would be here today.

After consulting with my doctors, I chose breast-conserving surgery, which was relatively new at the time. The surgery was followed by six weeks of radiation and six months of chemotherapy. These treatments were hard but I got through it all. I’m living proof that you can survive breast cancer and its treatments and find a new normal.

Ever since my diagnosis, my husband Kyle and daughter Caleen have given me incredible support. They have been there for me in every way possible. I am grateful for their support, but from the very beginning, I felt something was missing. I needed to connect with other women like me; women from my community who were going through the same experience.

When I could not find what I was looking for, I stepped out on faith without any funding, just a borrowed desk and my home telephone, and formed the national sisterhood that I craved. My vision was to establish a national organization that would provide African-American women with resources and knowledge to navigate after being diagnosed with breast cancer. The organization also would educate the community by raising awareness of the devastating impact of breast cancer on African-American women. At the time, fear of all forms of cancer was rampant in the African-American community. No one wanted to talk about the “C word” and people felt that less information was better than more. I was passionate about changing this way of thinking, because I knew that knowledge is power.

Sisters Network has come a long way since then and has developed affiliate chapters across the country with dedicated survivors and community. By raising awareness about the disease – how it can be prevented, detected, and treated – and providing financial support to help women with their financial challenges we are making a difference in the community across the country.

However, the breast cancer death rate remains unacceptably high among African-American women, and much more needs to be done to educate the community, provide access to cutting-edge care, and increase participation in clinical trials. We all need to work together to achieve these goals if we are to save more lives today and in the future.