Cancer Advocacy for Minorities and the Medically Under-Served
When Candace Henley was diagnosed with colorectal cancer at 36, her journey to survival took her to brutal places. She fought crushing financial and psychological pressures to make it through, a story she shares openly. She faced bankruptcy, homelessness, and psychological collapse. “I made a promise to God,” she remembers, “that if I survived I would reach back and help others, and He would let me see my youngest (then only 4) reach the age of 18.” Her mission was to spare others the grueling hardships she endured. “I got my fight back,” she recounts, “and I was motivated by pure anger.”
Candace wanted to help minorities and the medically disadvantaged, a niche that the big organizations seemed to ignore. It began simply. She and her family wore blue hats to her Chicago church. (Blue is the color of colorectal cancer.) Each year, more people joined her in solidarity on “Blue Hat Day” – the third Sunday in March. Soon, other churches joined hers; soon, other organizations took up the call; soon, Facebook carried the message around the world. In 2015, Candace began The Blue Hat Foundation, an organization devoted to promote earlier and better access to screening among those on the margins of medicine. Recently, her foundation was awarded the Survivor Champion and Best Organization Award by the National Colorectal Cancer Roundtable.
It is well understood that people of African descent are at higher risk for colorectal cancer. The recommended age for screening among blacks is 45, not 50; and blacks have poorer survival outcomes relative to whites. Candace sees many factors that militate against appropriate prevention and cancer care in the African-American community: economic hardship can prevent attendance at screenings, poorer insurance and access to quality care restricts intervention, and limited education frustrates true understanding of cancer symptoms. Candace also describes a cultural modesty that prevents open discussion of health issues. “Family secrets kill families,” she says with authority. She learned only recently that three of her relations were posthumously diagnosed with CRC on autopsy. She promotes open discussion and frank engagement of colorectal cancer, and she pursues education within the community honesty, empathy, and tenacity.
What is her greatest challenge? “Getting people to talk about colorectal cancer.” What is her greatest recompense? “Hearing about a cancer prevented by screening.” (I myself understand this reward, as I sometimes hear it from readers of The Cancer Olympics.) Saving lives and saving families are at the heart of Candace’s luminous work.
What is her advice to survivors seeking to become advocates? “Go for it,” she advises. “Your ideas are valid. Join an organization. I remember a sermon, ‘what you see is wrong is what you are called to fix.’ You can fix it. Speak up.” For those wanting to support her cause, visit www.thebluehatfoundation.org or contact her directly via Twitter (@colon_survivor).
Candace’s prayer was answered. Her youngest is now 18. But Candace Henley is not going anywhere – her lifetime mission is advocacy. Now, she jokes, she must extend her deal with God until her youngest is 28, 38, 48… Let’s hope her youngest lives to 90!
Dr. Robin McGee (The Cancer Olympics, Twitter @TCOrobin), is a Registered Clinical Psychologist, mother, wife, educator and friend. Living in Nova Scotia, she has worked in health and education settings for over 30 years. She has been very active in advocacy, mentorship, and fundraising on behalf of cancer patients. In particular, she has been involved in provincial, national, and international initiatives aimed at improving standards of cancer care. She has been awarded the Canadian Cancer Society’s highest honour, the National Medal of Courage. Robin was also decorated by the Governor General of Canada with the Sovereign’s Medal for Volunteers . Her book The Cancer Olympics has won seven literary awards, and was listed among the best 55 self-published books of 2015. Proceeds of sales go to cancer support programs. The Cancer Olympics is available from Amazon and Indigo. She is currently in treatment for a recurrence of her colorectal cancer.