Genoa Barrow | OBSERVER Senior Staff Writer

Rev. Tammie Denyse has been a tireless advocate for Black women’s health through her organization Carrie’s TOUCH. OBSERVER file photo

She’s the embodiment of “turning pain into purpose” and 15 years after starting a breast cancer support group, Rev. Tammie Denyse is still touching lives.

Her organization, Carrie’s TOUCH, has reached a milestone anniversary and Rev. Denyse is marking the occasion with a number of events aimed at raising awareness of breast cancer’s impact on Black women, to celebrate the gains of the past decade and to also focus on the work that remains ahead. 

Rev. Denyse started the organization in 2006 with her friend and “sister,” the late Lynne Rankin-Cochran. The two, she says, envisioned the first 10 years, not really knowing it would “be a thing.”

“I had just been diagnosed with breast cancer and didn’t see the type of support that I needed and was looking for, specifically for women that look like me, for Black women, for women of color, and I envisioned having a support organization that would hear and see Black women and be a source of hope for Black women,” Rev. Denyse said.

She became that source of hope. She knew what it was like to be told she wouldn’t survive the disease. She knew what it was like to fight. Rev. Denyse admits there were times when running a business got tough, but she’s happy she didn’t have to close the doors to Carrie’s TOUCH.

She’s learned a lot about resilience in the last 15 years. That of the survivors she and her team serve, and her own. She gave a TEDx Talk in 2019 about toxic strength and often speaks about a “Strong Black Woman Syndrome.”

“I love the resiliency of Black women and I also acknowledge that it is a fine line between Black women surviving life and especially a deadly disease such as breast cancer,” Rev. Denyse said. “It’s rooted in our ancestry and it has to be rooted in our self care.” 

October is National Breast Cancer Awareness Month and it’s always a busy time for Rev. Denyse and Carrie’s TOUCH, but she’s especially excited about a virtual discussion, “Intimate Conversations: Black Women, Breast Cancer & Policy.” Slated for Thursday, September 30 from 10:00 a.m. to 1:00 p.m., the discussion will bring together survivors, advocates, researchers, and decision makers. They’ll be sharing key findings from Project SOAR (Speaking Our African American Realities), a groundbreaking study in partnership with UCLA. 

Project SOAR, Rev. Denyse said, came from noticing as she worked in the community, that the experiences of Black women were drastically different from that of White women.

“The resources that were available, the level of understanding that was available, the support that was available to White women, that wasn’t available to Black women and understanding the experiences of Black women journeying through breast cancer and acknowledging that there was something missing.”

At the time Rev. Denyse was diagnosed with breast cancer, her doctor told her the death rate for Black women was 41% higher than that of White women and he wasn’t sure she’d make the five-year survival anniversary. 

Not much has changed statistically over the years. There is hope, though.

“We are doing things that we never imagined we would do for Black women,” Rev. Denyse said of the intentionality behind Project SOAR.

“After talking to more Black women throughout the state and across the nation about their experiences and hearing the similarities around racism, systemic racism, around poverty, around lack of knowledge, around lack of awareness, around lack of resources, it was just too many lacks that we could not stand idly by and not do anything,” she said.

The Intimate Conversations discussion is “critical,” she says.

“We are inserting Black women’s experiences into the breast cancer narrative. Even today, if you see an ad by some of the major breast cancer organizations, you see White women running victoriously across the finish line. However, Black women are running and they have a sign on their chest that says, running in ‘memory of.’ You don’t see those images portrayed in the media, where Black women survive this thing. It sends the message that Black women can’t and don’t survive breast cancer and that is unacceptable,” Rev Denyse said. “Project SOAR has empowered us to fight at a different level and to fight for systemic change. So the black women will have greater resources and opportunities to survive from the beginning and not have to fight so hard.”

Throughout the month of October, Carrie’s TOUCH will also host a 30-day #MoveFor15 fitness challenge; an October 7 discussion with influencer Carmen Jones, creator of The Black Girl Social Club on breast cancer awareness, addressing disparities in care and how the community can support Black women surviving breast cancer; a Survivor’s Sunday celebration and a virtual wine tasting “fun-raiser” on October 30 in partnership with Trattore Winery. 

The organization is also launching its own app during its annual Celebration of Life event on October 16.

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