Peer program helps black women during, and after, breast cancer

February 24, 2014 | by

After adjusting to the rigors of a cancer patient’s schedule – a barrage of appointments with surgeons, oncologists, radiologists, chemotherapy treatments, surgeries, tests – cancer survivors have large adjustments to make.

Kommah McDowell, a breast cancer survivor, serves as a mentor for black women who recently completed breast cancer treatment and are transitioning into the follow-up stage of their care.

Kommah McDowell, a breast cancer survivor, serves as a mentor for black women who recently completed breast cancer treatment and are transitioning into the follow-up stage of their care.

“You get into this system where you’re seeing multiple doctors a week – you’re in a groove, and you’re comfortable with it,” said Kommah McDowell, a 37-year-old breast cancer survivor. “Then, it’s over. There’s this gap. In one word: Life.”

Through its African-American Breast Cancer Coalition, City of Hope is seeking ways to make sure black women don’t fall into a gap, but back into the groove of their lives while getting all the support they need along the way. McDowell serves as a peer navigator, helping women who have completed their treatment transition to the follow-up stage for a research study that aims to improve quality of life, survivorship care and the well-being of African-American women who have survived cancer.

“We’re finding out that African-American women need a little more support in terms of educating them in the follow-up phase of treatment,” said Kimlin Tam Ashing, Ph.D., director of the Center of Community Alliance for Research & Education, in a recent CBS Los Angeles interview. Ashing heads studies examining the effectiveness of peer navigators in improving outcomes for minority women both in active treatment as well as in the follow-up stages of care.

Black women have a five-year survival rate of 78 percent after a breast cancer diagnosis, compared to a 90 percent survival rate for white women. The coalition believes that early detection, appropriate treatment and follow-up care can save lives and close that gap.

“A lot of ladies go through the treatment process and they don’t really know what was done, or what follow-up care needs to be done,” said McDowell, who founded the Kommah Seray Inflammatory Breast Cancer Foundation. “After your treatment process, you often don’t know where to go next or what to ask. This is a chance for people to gain knowledge on how to live beyond treatment.”

In the City of Hope program, in addition to being paired with a peer navigator, black patients receive a specially tailored survivorship care plan. This plan focuses on answering three key questions:

  • What treatments are most effective and what are the possible side effects?
  • What follow-up care is needed from the oncology and primary care team?
  • What actions and behaviors will improve health and well-being?

In the next few years, all patients will receive personalized survivorship care plans. Ashing and her team are evaluating what special considerations and issues are unique to various minority groups during treatment and follow-up. For example, black women are more likely to be managing other chronic conditions in addition to their cancer.

Teaming up black women to confront cancer together is powerful, McDowell says, because it comes down to issues of identity.

“You need to see someone who looks like you, who you can identify with and connect with,” she said.