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The Sisterhood of Survival
For women coping with breast cancer and its aftermath, the support and strength of their fellow survivors can make all the difference.

On October 29, 2003. the Buffalo News published an article that featured four area breast Cancer survivors, Patty Gelman, Bertha Hill (a WomenStories star), Susan Wood and WomenStories own Miriam Dow. Below are some excerpts from the article.

“They call themselves survivors, not victims. And they tackle the illness head-on, shrugging off any stigma of cancer and reaching out to help each other. Their network operates in many ways:

Gelman wrote a book about it, from the e-mails she sent friends and loved ones during her yearlong journey through Cancer World.

Miriam C. Dow helped set up a video series for women diagnosed with breast cancer that has been distributed to medical centers in 48 states and six nations.

Bertha M. Hill organized a local chapter of the Sisters Network, mostly African-American breast cancer survivors.

And Susan G. Wood is a charter member of Hope Chest, a paddling team of breast cancer survivors.

They've battled to exert their will over the disease, rather than let the disease control them. This networking, this activism helps these women inoculate themselves against depression - the feeling you get when you feel trapped, overwhelmed and alone.”

“Miriam Dow of Buffalo already had been diagnosed twice with breast cancer. She felt alone, isolated, in her battle. So five years ago, she attended a meeting that changed her life. About a dozen local women, led by Dr. Lucie DiMaggio, talked about creating a video series, featuring breast cancer survivors who could help teach newly diagnosed women where to turn for help. Five years later, WomenStories has raised $507,000 and sent 9,000 copies of its six videos to libraries, medical centers and clinics in 48 states and six nations.

"It's a whole new way to give support for any illness," said Dow, executive director of WomenStories. "The survivors are the authorities. The people who have gone through the illness can give the best advice and support."

The six videos already created - on topics ranging from chemotherapy and surgical choices to intimacy and young women with breast cancer - feature local women of various ages and backgrounds giving pointed advice: Don't be afraid to say no to a doctor or seek a second opinion. Be as informed as possible, through research from the Internet and other sources. Talk to other women who've gone through similar treatment. "Every step of the way, you're given choices," Dow said. "We hope the videos will help women make good choices."

The videos, much like Gelman's book, have one overriding message: Women want to tell other women: "You're going to get through this, and most likely you'll be OK. But it's not pleasant,' " Dow said.

The Sisterhood

Six years after being diagnosed with breast cancer, Bertha Hill refuses to let breast cancer define her. "I don't wear a sign," she said. "I don't have any labels on my forehead, and I have a name. It's Bertha Hill, not Breast Cancer." But Hill saw a need in the African-American community, and she helped fill it by setting up a local chapter of the national organization, Sisters Network. "Our mission is to increase the local and national attention to the devastating impact that breast cancer has in the African-American community," she said.

The numbers are staggering. African-Americans' death rates from breast cancer are 28 percent higher than whites', according to Sisters Network figures. Research suggests the disease is more aggressive in black women; other factors may include a lack of health insurance, later diagnosis and less knowledge about the disease.

The local Sisters Network chapter - with 25 black women and one white woman - reaches out into the community, taking information about breast cancer into churches, adult education classes, drug rehab programs, jails and nursing homes. The network also has a monthly support group, promoting sisterhood among breast cancer survivors. "If we can beat breast cancer, we can overcome anything else," Hill said. "Cancer treatment is not easy. Once you go through cancer treatment, you can deal with the small stuff."