By Jennifer L. Warren

They are three simple words, but according to Wilhelmina Grant, they can change your life forever.

“Put yourself first,” urged the two-time breast cancer survivor to those in attendance at the recent Quarterly Partnership Meeting for Cancer Services Program of Orange County.

Grant’s message, although aimed at the higher risk breast cancer population, those over 50, included women of all ages. She speaks from first-hand experience. The 54 year old Harlem-based Grant was handed her diagnosis at just 37 years of age. Despite her healthy lifestyle, Grant was awakend to the cancer after taking a punch to the chest during a karate class. Initially receiving a diagnosis of an impacted cyst, Grant was further told she was too young to get a mammogram. The proactive Grant continued to attempt to unravel the cause of her pain. Finally, a needle biopsy provided the answer: cancer.

Considering herself blessed with insurance and a support system, Grant can’t help but worry about other women not so fortunate.

“I wonder about women over 40 and 50 without insurance and without role models out there,” said Grant. “So many of them just try to rationalize things away, convincing themselves to not get a mammogram, and taking care of everyone else-their husband and kids- while putting themselves last.

Grant, along with everyone occupying the room, was committed to changing that reality.

The coalition of medical providers and community partners are intent on providing information, screenings, diagnosis and treatment for breast, cervical and colorectal cancer to age eligible women and men who are uninsured or underinsured. All services are available free of charge.

“Early detection is the key to survival,” stressed Catherine Yeadon, Associate Director of the City of Newburgh’s YWCA. “Today’s purpose is to collaborate the importance of screening and recruitment for the over 50 population; this is big for us, not just about talking, but doing something.”

Grant herself has done much more than talk. Two years ago she created SISTAAH (Survivors Inspiring Sisters Through Art and Advocacy for Health), using it as a jumping stone to apply for grants for art programs aimed at educating women about breast cancer. With an eight for ten success rate of grant applications to her credit, Grant, a visual artist, has been able to construct an entourage of colorful, riveting found art pieces (mostly wood-based), spreading the awareness message. Most recently, her “Fan Project” has been the talk amongst breast cancer circles. Serving as a tangible piece that can be “passed along,” the fan sports both visual and written inspiration. On the front of the 12-inch-long fan appears a picture of Grant’s mixed media piece “Many Women,” accompanied by the Ethiopian proverb “She who conceals her disease cannot expect to be cured.” The back contains statistics on the death rates along with the Cancer Services Partnership number: (866) 442-2262. Intending the fans for solely Harlem distribution, Grant has been busy and very pleasantly pleased with their budding national appeal; to date, about 8000 have been handed out.

“People all over the country are still calling me asking for fans every day,” said Grant.
Diagnosed a second time with breast cancer in 2001, Grant is currently in remission from the disease that results in a 38% higher death rate amongst African-American women, who are more likely to be diagnosed in a later more deadly stage than white women according to the National Cancer Institute.

Grant, who wears a necklace of beads symbolizing the different stages of breast cancer, continually carries with her the memory of her experience as well as those of thousands of others. Adorning a wall of her Workspace Harlem studio is “Clock Strikes 13,” a memorial tribute to 13 noted African-American women who lost their lives to the disease.

“I was very, very lucky to detect my cancer in time, because I was always very proactive about my health,” said Grant. “I just want so much to promote self-care now; so many women put themselves last, and I want to help change that.”

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