Sharing, surviving, thriving: Community health leaders provide education, examples of hope in face of breast cancer – O’Neal Comprehensive Cancer Center

Nan Brown-Curtis: Minister of awareness and hope

Cancer, including breast cancer, has been a constant presence in the life of Nan Brown-Curtis.

Her sister and niece both died of breast cancer. Her mother and two aunts were diagnosed with breast cancer as well. Her first husband died of lymphoma. Her current husband is a kidney cancer survivor and is currently fighting multiple myeloma, a type of blood cancer. Brown-Curtis herself is also a survivor of colorectal cancer.

Nan Brown-Curtis speaks to the attendees at her 70th birthday celebration in 2018. (Photo submitted)

Brown-Curtis has built and crossed many bridges on her cancer journey, and she is now using her experiences to help others make their own successful passage.

“It’s important for people to see people who have had a cancer diagnosis who are still alive,” Brown-Curtis said.

Brown-Curtis uses her personal cancer experience to serve as a living example of survival and perseverance A resident of Selma, Alabama, she is a member of the O’Neal Cancer Center’s Community Advisory Board and a longtime affiliate of the Cancer Center’s Office of Community Outreach & Engagement.

Community service is also a family affair for Brown-Curtis as she, along with several of her sisters, share their family’s history of cancer. In their Dallas County community, the women advocate for early testing and awareness regarding family histories of cancer.

“We didn’t keep what we knew inside of us. We shared it,” Brown-Curtis said.  “We figured that it was our mission. We wanted people to know that cancer doesn’t care who you are, how old you are or how young you are.”

She and her sisters do their early-detection and cancer awareness advocacy work under the name of “Johnnie’s Girls,” in honor of their mother, Johnnie Mae Summers. Summers was a breast cancer survivor who later died of ovarian cancer in 1997.

Brown-Curtis is a strong activist for families learning and discussing their shared medical histories. Her family shares the BRCA gene. Mutations in BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes increase the risk of several cancers, in addition to breast and ovarian cancer.

“Families must find out their family history so they can start testing early,” Brown-Curtis said.

In January, Brown-Curtis, already a survivor of colorectal cancer, was presented with yet another challenge when she was diagnosed with lung cancer.

She confides that even she was nervous about beginning her latest round of targeted chemotherapy treatment.

“First of all, we have to get rid of fear and doubt because they are the enemy,” she explained. “I said, ‘God, I don’t know what’s in this medicine. I do not have a clue. But you do.’ I walk in wellness.”

Brown-Curtis was a nurse for 26 years before transitioning into a 20-year career in health care professions education at the high school and community college levels.

With her personal and professional background, Brown-Curtis remains an informal advisor to many in her community. The COVID-19 pandemic has kept her physically away from in-person groups in recent months, but her phone continues to ring. And she always answers.

“As long as the Lord allows me to help someone, I’m going to help,” she said.

Family, faith and obedience to medical advice are essential, she said. And as she encourages others, Brown-Curtis continues to find her own inspiration.

“The positive has been the example that other people see coming from us,” Brown-Curtis said. “A lot of people know we have had adversity. They’ve seen endurance. They’ve seen that you can make it. They’ve seen how important family is.”

Brown-Curtis is also an ordained minister. When asked about the source of her eternal optimism, she paused and then delivered her one-word answer: “God.”

“You have to be connected to someone greater than you and greater than anything that can happen in the Earth realm and around you,” she said. “That strong faith is important for the journey. I’m going to live as long as I’m supposed to live.”

Darlene Robinson: Fellowship, friendship, support in Greene County

A visitor listening to Darlene Robinson’s community support group in Greene County, Alabama, might be hard-pressed to ever hear the word “cancer” brought up in conversation.

While most of the regular members of the group are breast cancer survivors, talk about their shared disease is rare. There are too many other subjects and activities that keep everyone busy.

Darlene RobinsonDarlene Robinson

“If you were to come to one of our meetings, you would not know that it was a cancer survivors meeting,” said Robinson, a Community Health Advisor for the O’Neal Cancer Center’s Office of Community Outreach & Engagement and a coordinator for Greene and Hale counties. “We don’t drown them with breast cancer information. We talk about it, but that’s not the focus.”

Instead, the group supports each other by offering a short break from life’s pressures and a forum when members need an outlet.

“They’re the experts on cancer. I don’t need to tell them anything,” Robinson said. “This is a way for them to release tension and do something different. It’s relieving a lot of mental stress.”

For a decade, Robinson has convened with a group of patients and survivors for conversation, activity and sharing.

There’s just one rule.

“Bring in something inspirational,” Robinson said to the group of about 15 members. “It sets the tone for our meeting.”

Friends, relatives and caretakers who have been affected by cancer also participate in the meetings. Robinson said one woman’s presence after surviving both colon cancer and breast cancer serves a living symbol of hope.

“And she’s still with us,” Robinson said. “We just have an array of people.”

Robinson recalled another member who joined the group after losing her husband to cancer. Later, she was diagnosed with cervical cancer, but the support group provided an immediate network in her bereavement, as well as encouragement and information during her own illness. 

“She was very outspoken,” Robinson said. “She would ask questions in the meeting and some of the other ladies would just tell her.”

While the COVID-19 pandemic has postponed physical, in-person activities, Robinson is anxious for the day when she can once again meet with her support group. In the meantime, she remains connected to members via regular phone calls.

“I just want to make a difference in my community. I want a place where all of us fit in,” Robinson said. “Just because you’re a cancer survivor or just because you might not have what everybody else has, I want you to fit in.”

Learn more about breast cancer and screening.

This story originally ran in the October 2020 issue of Community Connections, the monthly newsletter of the Office of Community Outreach & Engagement at the O’Neal Comprehensive Cancer Center at UAB.

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