Surviving Cancer Together

Surviving Cancer TogetherChicago resident Martha Haley starts a women’s cancer support group at Weiss in October

At 36 years old, Martha Haley made a deal. She had been diagnosed with stage two, triple negative breast cancer—a particularly aggressive form of cancer, common among African American women. As the mother of young children, she was scared.

So she made a commitment to herself and to God: As long as she survived, she would educate and support others. Since that time, Martha has been featured in Chicago Magazine for her efforts, as well as in award-winning documentaries from Kartemquin Films and BET.

But survival was never a guarantee. After diagnosis, Martha says her doctor told her, “If the cancer comes back, you surely will die.”

Unfortunately, too many African American women have heard those words. Black women are far more likely to die of breast cancer than white women. Between 2002 and 2008, for example, the five-year survival rate was 78 percent among African American women and 90 percent among white women, according to the Sisters Network, a national survivorship organization. This is due in part to lack of screening and that the cancer is advanced stage once discovered.

Martha wanted to do something about that. Keeping her promise, she set out to educate and support the women in her community. She had her left breast removed, underwent chemotherapy, and tried to find a support group. When she couldn’t find one, she created one that began gathering on Chicago’s southside.

“Cancer is a fight that people don’t speak out about, especially certain female cancers. We need to break that,” Martha says.

Surviving Together
For Martha’s first support group, only one other woman showed up. In the 20 years since Martha started that first group, more than 100 participants joined in.  Now age 56, she has been making deals ever since that very first one. “If you let me see my youngest graduate high school,” she prayed. “If you let me make it to 50….If you let me see my first grandchild.”

Next month, Martha is partnering with Weiss to start a women’s cancer support group at the hospital. She hopes to continue to give women a voice to talk about their fears, questions, and thoughts on life with cancer.

In her first group, speakers shared information on treatment, side effects, and quality of life.

If a group member passed away, she sent letters to their family. She kept a book of their names. She wrote poems and read them at their services.

“There were things that we didn’t want to share with loved ones, but that we could share amongst ourselves. Survivors know what you’re going through,” Martha says. “It was important to me to not feel alone when I was afraid I wasn’t going to make it.”

Facing Reality

For two decades, Martha lived with uncertainty. Four years after her first diagnosis, doctors found a larger tumor in her left breast. Three years after that, images showed lesions in her right lung. The cancer also spread to her bones.

She kept records of every chemotherapy session and every doctors appointment. “I wanted to make sure that if they didn’t have [the information], I had it,” she says.

Through it all, she couldn’t let herself get discouraged. She had made a deal, and there was still work to be done. In addition to doing her own research and joining a clinical trial, Martha started making books—one for each of her children and her first grandbaby (the only one at the time).

“I wanted them to have things to remember me by. I wanted them to know what I did and how I felt about them,” she says.

She also continued facilitating the support group. “You can see lives starting to transform. You’re saving lives just by that education.”

Martha says she has health issues now from trying to save her life, but she doesn’t regret a thing. “I wasn’t promised this long. I have my moments when I feel bad, aching and sore.” But she’s here.

Not Finished Yet

So Martha continues. And now, having moved from the south side to Chicago’s Uptown neighborhood, she’s starting a support group for women with cancer at Weiss.

“I lost both breasts to cancer, had recurrence in my lung and in my bones, and I’m dealing with other things. But I want that when people see me, they don’t see death walking. You’ve got to celebrate your life. This is my mission. I have to finish it,” she says.

Martha will begin the monthly women’s cancer support group at Weiss on Thursday, October 20th. Please call (800) 503-1234 for up-to-date information on time and location.