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Pink and Black program helps cancer survivors endure, after ribbons are gone

Posted by Roy Greene  November 2, 2011 02:17 PM

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(Photo courtesy of Marilyn Simmons )


Marilyn Simmons was declared cancer-free in January 2001 but says she thinks about it every day.

Even as the pink ribbons are tucked away at the end of October, Marilyn Simmons and 21 other women are quietly continuing the fight against breast cancer, through the Pink and Black program.

Mayor Thomas Menino and the Boston Health Public Commission launched the campaign in 2005 to spread awareness among women of color, who are more likely to die of breast cancer than women of other races. The program conducts educational workshops throughout the year, encouraging women of color to do self-exams and get regular mammograms and prompt treatment.

A survivor of an aggressive form of breast cancer, Simmons, a Hyde Park resident, joined the program as an ambassador in 2007. Asked about the pink flurry that appears in October, she said, "It is good because it makes people think about breast cancer."

But she added, "Most people actually don't think of breast cancer until the month of October."

Simmons, who was declared to be cancer-free in January 2001, thinks about it every day. By using her own story of survival, she tries to instill courage and determination in women, inspiring them to fight the odds. The workshops she leads help to trigger questions that women might otherwise keep to themselves, she said.

From speaking at a homeless shelter for young mothers, to communicating with the hearing impaired, Simmons has had different “fascinating” experiences as an ambassador, she said.

She got involved in the program after seeing a Pink and Black flyer at the Boston Public Health Commission, where she works as the data coordinator for the Healthy Baby/Healthy Child program.

“It’s my way of giving back. God makes you go through things so that later, while helping others, you can speak as a voice of reason,” she said.

Carmen Johnson, the team leader of the program, said Simmons "is always the first one to volunteer, and she is very dedicated." Simmons specializes in nutrition information.

Simmons' own journey started with a routine mammogram, followed by a second mammogram, an ultrasound and a needle biopsy -- and the feared finding, in February 2000.

“Cancer is luck of the draw -- you just don’t know,” she said.

She was determined not to let her diagnosis upset her own or her family’s daily routine. Her daughter, Celeste, then a senior at high school, wanted to quit school to stay with her, but Simmons talked her out of it.

“I said to her, ‘Whether I live or die, you have to live. I am not going anywhere,’ ” she recalled.

When the doctors found the cancer spreading aggressively, she had to undergo her first lumpectomy in March 2000 and a second one in April, along with a lymphectomy. Two regimens of chemotherapy and 33 radiation treatments followed.

Through it all, she continued to work, taking time off only during her chemotherapy and radiation sessions.

“Going to work during that time gave me a purpose to get up and keep going, rather than sitting at home and worrying,” she said.

She said she had been unaware that her cancer was in an advanced stage -- a lapse that helped her to persevere.

Looking back, Simmons said, one of the hardest parts to accept was losing her hair, which began falling out two weeks after the chemotherapy sessions began. But today, she knows that was a small price to pay for her health.

While Simmons works hard to instill optimism in others, tears rolled down her cheeks as she spoke about a co-worker who lost a battle with uterine cancer in 2007. The colleague had been diagnosed just six months before Simmons was.

“You really don't know what it feels like until you have been in the fight. She understood me and my fears firsthand,” she said wiping her tears.

Today, her advice to those battling breast cancer is simple:

“Don’t feel sorry for yourself. Breast cancer doesn’t mean a death sentence. It is a hard battle, but you need a strong determination and fighting spirit -- and you can fight it. Do things that you usually do, and do the things that you always wanted to do.”

This article was reported and written under the supervision of journalism instructor Lisa Chedekel (l.chedekel@neu.edu), as part of collaboration between the Globe and Northeastern University.


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