Death resulting from breast cancer is a painfully familiar occurrence for Gayle Chaneyfield Jenkins. Her sister died at 34 in 1987. Her paternal grandmother passed that same year. Prior to that, she lost her aunt. Her mother was diagnosed in 1990 and died two years later at the age of 56.
Concerned about her family history as she prepared for marriage, Jenkins, councilwoman-at-large for Newark, New Jersey, decided to see a specialist in 1996. At the time, she had a clean health record, with no signs of cancer. But despite her good health, the doctor’s recommendation startled her. “He looked at me and suggested I have both breasts removed,” Jenkins recalls. “I was in the process of getting married; I wanted children. He told me none of those were his concerns. Either I do what he suggested or find another doctor.” She did neither. Jenkins knew in extreme cases, particularly with a medical history like hers, double mastectomies are considered by some to be a preventative measure against breast cancer. Jenkins was prepared to consider it but said the doctor’s harsh manner not only offended her, but paralyzed her as well. She stopped giving herself breast exams and no longer scheduled mammograms. “I thought this was a death sentence. It frightened me. I just stopped and thought, ‘I might as well just wait.’”
Encouraged by a friend, Jenkins decided to use her political influence to motivate black women to become proactive about breast cancer prevention. According to the American Cancer Society, black women develop breast cancer at a lower rate than white women but their death rate is 22% higher.
Jenkins began speaking at forums and in churches. And in May of 1999, what she had long feared materialized. She found a lump. During a rally at a local church soon after, Jenkins was delivering a speech about the importance of being proactive. She stopped speaking midstream. “I was being a hypocrite,” she says. The possibility of developing breast cancer had frightened her so much that she resisted the advice she so passionately imparted.
“I decided that before I got up in front of another group of women, I would stop living in fear. I was going to have to go and have a mammogram.” She, and a group of women, scheduled exams in June of 1999.
Jenkins felt an instant connection with her new specialist, Elissa Santoro of New Jersey’s Saint Barnabas Medical Center. “This woman was working with me in faith,” says Jenkins about her new doctor/patient relationship. Santoro performed a bilateral biopsy. There was no sign of cancer.
The benign diagnosis only fueled Jenkins’ crusade. In 2002, inspired by the book Crowns: Portraits of Black Women in Church Hats, Jenkins founded Hats On for the Cure, a local nonprofit that honors survivors and educates men and women about breast cancer.
Hats On encourages being proactive in several areas:
Schedule a mammogram. Jenkins suggests scheduling these exams with other women as a support system. “If possible you should take a half-day or the day off.