Women’s Cancer Resource Center marks 25 years of service.
By March 2008, after two years of dieting and exercise, Shyanne Reese had shed a whopping 101 pounds from her 5-foot-10 frame and was feeling better than ever.
Nine months later, those feelings had changed to fear, embarrassment and isolation.
She had breast cancer.
And the timing couldn’t have been worse. She had recently lost her job in long-term care insurance sales and was having trouble paying for the continuing coverage health insurance. She said she didn’t really know where to turn for help.
“In my initial diagnoses, I was embarrassed because I felt I had done something (with having the extra weight) and also I’d never been laid off for anything. I felt like, ‘Oh my god, what am I going to do?’ ” said Reese, now 58, of Berkeley.
What came next literally changed her life. Reese, who is African-American, was referred by a young, black hospital social worker to the Women’s Cancer Resource Center in Oakland, an organization that has helped more than 80,000 people since it was founded 25 years ago. The organization aims to help low-income women of color.
“Had it not been for the African-American social worker (at the hospital) I don’t know if I would have related to someone culturally,” Reese said. “Culturally, it’s taboo to discuss (cancer).”
Her own mother, she said, had told her it wasn’t appropriate for women to examine their breasts so Reese had an additional stigma about breast cancer.
“I went outside of my family to gain education. I was feeling responsible and this (was) embarrassing, but because this young woman was black, I related to her and as a result, I could say ‘I don’t know what I’m going to do in terms of my health insurance or financially.’ ”
WCRC Executive Director Peggy McGuire agreed with Reese, saying there is “a tremendous taboo about talking about cancer in the African-American community and the Latino community. Because the women are the matriarchs, there is a reluctance to admit they are ill.”
On Monday, the WCRC is holding a gala at Yoshi’s in Oakland to celebrate 25 years of service, which includes helping nearly 5,000 people annually. Programs are free and include psychotherapy, financial support up to $600 and programs for Spanish-speaking women, African-American women, newly diagnosed women and those dealing with a loved one with cancer.
McGuire said the organization has grown immensely since late WCRC founder Jackie Winnow set up an answering machine in her living room more than 25 years ago to field calls from women dealing with cancer.
“(She) worked at the Human Rights Commission in San Francisco advocating for people with AIDS. When she was diagnosed with breast cancer, she was appalled at the lack of services that were available to women,” said McGuire. “Back then, there were no help lines, no support groups, no educational programs. So she took the lessons she learned from HIV activists and applied them to the WCRC.”
Over time, the organization has grown to have an annual budget of $1.1 million with about 70 percent coming from individual donors and the remaining money coming from foundation grants. The WCRC also holds the annual Swim A Mile for Women With Cancer, which last year raised $382,000. But Monday’s event is the center’s largest in a decade.
“We decided to be bold. There was some concern that with the economy — that this wasn’t the time to take on such a (big) event — but we’ve brought in about $33,000 with 200 attendees so far, and the tickets are selling really fast,” McGuire said.
All of Monday’s proceeds will go to programs and services. That’s important because McGuire said there has been at least a 25 percent increase in the need for services since the economy tanked.
“Not only have we had an increase, but we are seeing women who are sicker and many, many problems that result from poverty, lack of food, lack of shelter and lack of money for transportation,” she said.
They also have seen a boost in the number of women they are helping because of the Community Health Advocate program, where women do outreach for low-income and minority women in the community.
Reese, who had surgeries on both breasts and has been cancer-free for more than two years now, is one of those health advocates.
And more good news: She’s kept most of the 101 pounds off, works out at the gym several days a week and is back to feeling better than ever.