Merlene Davis: Church fans share message about breast cancer that minority populations need to hear

Eileen Smyth, left, Jessica Jackson and Linda A. Alexander are on the executive committee of Colors of Promise.
Eileen Smyth, left, Jessica Jackson and Linda A. Alexander are on the executive committee of Colors of Promise.

Pink is just not one of my favorite colors. But because last Sunday was "Pink the Pews" day at my church and some 30 other houses of worship, I found a top in my closet that would publicly declare my solidarity with the fight to end breast cancer.

The event's purpose was to educate black women to become more aware of steps that can be taken to detect breast cancer early, and then fight it.

Susan G. Komen Lexington, an advocacy and fundraising organization working to fight breast cancer, and a small group of researchers, community agencies and practitioners formed a collaboration that is called Colors of Promise.

For more than 18 months, Colors of Promise has been working to address the health disparities with socially and economically disadvantaged populations. Research has shown that there is a higher incidence of breast cancer in the white population, but a higher rate of mortality in black and Latino populations, said Eileen Smyth, director of missions for the local Komen organization.

A Spanish-speaking group has also been formed in the Lexington area called Ties That Bind (Lazos Que Perduran). Somehow, the need for monthly self-exams and for mammograms was not getting through to those communities.

Then, the Centers for Disease Control funded an initiative through The American Psychological Association that encouraged community groups to help get the word out.

At a workshop, Linda A. Alexander, University of Kentucky associate professor in the College of Public Health, and Smyth were sitting at a table when the workshop organizers urged participants to work with someone they had just met.

"It was unusual because many conferences are educational in nature and are preaching to the choir," Alexander said.

The women joined forces with Vivian Lasley-Bibbs, Kentucky Department of Public Health's Office of Health Equity; Jessica R. Jackson, Community Health Equity and Education Team Leader at the Lexington-Fayette County Health Department; Nancy E. Garth, Health Education Coordinator at the UK Polk Dalton Clinic; and Mark Johnson, HIV/AIDS Prevention Coordinator for Kentucky Department of Public Health to serve as the executive committee for Colors of Promise.

With seed money from Komen and a grant from APA, the group now serves as an outreach program for Komen into the black community. It is the first such effort for Komen.

"Our overall goal is outreach and education," Alexander said. "We asked ourselves, as a collaboration group, is there something that doesn't resonate with our population?"

They began listening to survivors' stories to learn what resources they had or needed. The organizations involved tried traditional faith-based angles as well as nontraditional ways of getting their message out.

"That was the idea behind the church fans," Jackson said of the hand-held fans that feature photos of women who have battled the disease or who are working as advocates to fight it.

Those fans were handed out at churches Sunday and at various health events throughout the city.

As a result, Alexander said one woman who had been worried she might have breast cancer sought help at the Polk Dalton Clinic. A mass was discovered.

"Someone can hear a message that they have heard over and over again, but in a place that is safe and comfortable, it resonates," Alexander said. "That's our impact. Those are the stories we hear in meetings."

Jackson and about 30 volunteers have gone door-to-door in the East End community and in the Oakwood subdivision off Georgetown Street, distributing door hangers with information about breast and colon cancer and including a phone number where more information can be obtained.

"This is my fourth year with Komen," Smyth said. "I've been trying all those previous years. But since we went into the community and listened, it has exploded. The educational information is getting where it needs to be."

With more funding, more can be done. Smyth said 75 percent of donations to Komen are used within the 58 Kentucky counties it serves, funding 15 hospitals, clinics and patient navigation services, and research. Anyone interested in joining the group should contact Smyth at (859) 368-7133 or by email at