MAKING A DIFFERENCE:
“Breast cancer is not a death sentence. You can survive.”
Those are the words of Isis Pickens, who for five years was a volunteer at Women of Color Breast Cancer Survivor’s Project, but today holds the title of executive director of the 30-year-old Inglewood-based organization.
Pickens became a volunteer because she understood the importance of supporting women of color who have battled or are currently battling breast cancer. She said she became the executive director for the same reason.
“The need was and is real,” said Pickens, a married mother of two who was born in Los Angeles, moved to Harlem, and then returned to Los Angeles. “I came when the organization said they needed and wanted a fresh voice. We’re doing good things. I will say we are experts in the experience of black women with cancer.”
Women of Color, established in December 1991 by (late) President and Founder P.J. Viviansayles and (late) Beverly Hines, vice president and co-founder, is an organization of committed, compassionate and resourceful women working with passion and integrity to help eradicate breast cancer and promote breast health.
The mission of Women of Color is to provide emotional support and crisis intervention for breast cancer survivors and their significant others; to educate on breast health knowledge and knowledge of early detection methods both locally and nationally; and to effect public policy and social change regarding breast cancer health awareness, including supporting culturally sensitive research.
When a woman walks through the doors of Women of Color, Pickens said they are met with a smile and a sisterhood that understands what they are going through.
“The organization was created to help survivors navigate the world of recovery and develop self-care plans to aid in their survivorship and provide relief from the burden of a breast cancer diagnosis,” said Pickens, who has never personally had breast cancer. “We want them to feel real support when they walk through the doors. We want them to know we care.”
All women who come to the agency are able to take advantage of the various services offered, which include monthly support groups and counseling services, free health and wellness workshops, free early detection/self-examination techniques training, emergency financial intervention, transportation support for survivors in treatment or health maintenance, survivorship care planning and peer navigation and the AMEN initiative, a faith-based approach to mental health, where the organization facilitates monthly panel discussions to dialog with the community, train faith leaders to support and connect women to services.
Pickens, who said it’s imperative to treat the “whole being,” is currently in the final stages of writing a grant for the initiative.
“We’re trying to get church leadership to de-stigmatize mental health,” she said. “This and the speaker’s series are the projects I brought to Women of Color. I wanted us to explore what happens to you emotionally with intimate relationships because survivorship goes into your quality of life — whether it’s financial, emotional, or physical health survivorship.”
Pickens said the organization is the longest-running support group for African-American women in Los Angeles, a distinction that makes her proud.
“We are here for the women going through it,” Pickens said. “Don’t be afraid to ask anything. If you have questions about breast cancer or survivorship we will help. We will point you in the right direction. What we’ve learned is that there is life before breast cancer and life after breast cancer. We have and will continue to be impactful with the people we touch.”
Pickens said every woman needs to have a survivorship plan.
“Twelve months after breast cancer she begins to do follow up care for five years,” Pickens said. “We find that some haven’t done this for whatever reason. Breast cancer is not one size fits all. Some are slow and some cancer is rapid. There has to be a plan in place.
“Black women represent the country’s most vulnerable — economically, physically and emotionally,” said Pickens, who has been touched by breast cancer through a first cousin who died, an aunt who was diagnosed and her mother and father who both died from a form of cancer.
“They still can’t tell us why black women and white women get breast cancer at the same rate, but black women are more likely to die from breast cancer at a higher rate than white women.”
When a woman has been diagnosed with breast cancer, Pickens said it can be devastating.
“They can become confused, depressed and scared,” said Pickens. “But with support, it doesn’t have to be that way. Here in Los Angeles, there is a place to go where the people understand what you’re going through and are there to help.
“People always talk about early detection,” Pickens said. “Early detection is not prevention. That’s just learning earlier who has cancer. We want it to stop in our community. They say it’s what we eat. They say we have diabetes. They tell us it’s our fault we have cancer. It’s not about blame, it’s about prevention.”
Leading Women of Color is a huge undertaking, but Pickens believes she is the right person for the job.
“I was trained to believe that I’m not working only for survivors, but for the woman who has yet to be diagnosed,” Pickens said. “We’re making provisions for her to prevent her from getting cancer. I’m working for myself, mothers, aunts, sisters, and daughters because I believe she is me.”
“Making a Difference” is a weekly feature profiling organizations that are serving their communities. To propose a “Making A Difference” profile, send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
By Darlene Donloe