Genoa Barrow | OBSERVER Senior Staff Writer

The Sacramento OBSERVER has covered Carrie’s TOUCH’s efforts since its inception 15 years ago. We recently spoke with its co-founder Rev. Tammy Denyse about the continued work on raising awareness on the impact of breast cancer on Black women and supporting survivors in their varied cancer journeys. 

Q: You’ve stated that Black women die at 41% higher rates than White women. Why do disparities still exist for Black women in the breast cancer space?

A:  I wish I had that answer. If we had that answer, maybe I wouldn’t be so angry by the fact that in 17 years, the needle hasn’t moved, that Black women are still dying at disproportionately higher rates than White women and it’s just not OK. We don’t have those answers yet, but trust me, we are knocking that, no, we are kicking down the door, trying to find them.

Q. You’ve traveled the globe with this work. What have you heard Black women say their needs still are and  how has that feedback shaped how you move in 2021?

A. Beginning in 2019, I think it was shortly after I had done my TED Talk about toxic strength and then immediately I went on a journey with some other followers of Christ to the Holy Land, and experiencing the Holy Land and seeing the response to Black women in the Holy Land, really, really made me view how oppressed Black women are here in the States. Black women are mistreated, literally around the world, but I think it’s because our humanity is not acknowledged. That’s why in 2020, Carrie’s TOUCH began its quest to humanize the Black woman and her experience with breast cancer. What we want people to see, hear, feel, taste, touch, and smell, is that we are human.

Q: This is the second October and Breast Cancer Awareness Month during the COVID-19 pandemic. How has the pandemic impacted your outreach to survivors?

A. Just like everything and everybody in the world, COVID-19 has had a great impact on us and it has been difficult because so many women had to make decisions about life saving treatments because of COVID-19. When you get a woman who calls and says, ‘I am not going to go to my cancer treatments because I am more afraid of dying from COVID-19  than I am of breast cancer,’ you know we are in a serious state of war. 

We helped more women with housing than we ever have before and with just basic needs; women were just trying to live every single day. COVID-19 ravished us like it did the rest of the world. We got women in treatment in hotels. We have women who have made 48 car payments, and because they were undergoing treatment for breast cancer and COVID-19 comes around, they don’t have access to resources. They pay 48 to 50 car payments and the inhumane person calls them and threatens to repossess their car. Who does that? You’ve got people who are losing their houses because they can’t afford to pay their mortgages and utilities and all of those things that became an issue in 2020. We weren’t sitting on a gold mine…at the end of the year, either we poured out and poured into, I’m going to say about $75,000, which is way up from what we ever have had resources to provide women, for just basic needs.

Carrie’s TOUCH moves in the spirit of Ubuntu. Ubuntu is a South African word that was first uttered by Bishop Desmond Tutu, and Ubuntu says, ‘I am because you are,’  which means ultimately, we are greater as a collective than we are as individuals; so if I rise, because you rise, and you rise because I rise, then we all rise together. In COVID, we kept the mindset that I am because you are and whatever we had, if our sister needed it–and sometimes our brother, diagnosed with breast cancer– if they needed it, and we had it, we gave it.

Q: How does a hands-on organization serve in the time of COVID and social distancing?

A. We’re Carrie’s TOUCH. We get in touch with people, teaching, outreaching and just standing, caring, healing (TOUCH) and hope, but also the physical touch, we are physical beings, God created us and intended for us to be in physical contact with one another, and COVID puts such a distance between us. We had to learn how to get in the room with the woman and be able to still touch her at her core, so that she could understand that she wasn’t journeying alone and that we were going to be right by her side, that we were going to help her navigate these murky waters. 

Q: How have you all been ‘touched’ by COVID?

A. The challenge for us became that just like everybody else, we are survivor leaders, they’re not trained therapists. There are survivors that have just gone through this journey. As they began to lose family members, just as the climate shifted into what it was in 2020, that intensity and that PTSD that Black people always find themselves in, this perpetual state of trauma. It started to impact our leadership team. They didn’t have the bandwidth to carry somebody else and their journey, so we had to practice Ubuntu, internally loving on each other, restoring each other, empowering each other and reminding the other person that you’re not in this alone.

Q. What conversations still need to happen in terms of Black women and breast cancer?

A. All of the conversations still need to be had because people don’t know what they don’t know. They can’t fix it if they don’t know about it, so we’re here to sound the alarm so that we will not live another 17 years and the needle not move and closing that gap on mortality between Black women and White women. 

Q:  What’s the next 15 years look like for Carrie’s TOUCH?

A. I can’t say the vision always was that this organization would outlive me when we began in 2006, but today, absolutely. The vision is that this organization will not only outlive me, but outlive my vision for it. I work with a lot of millennials and Gen Zers intentionally, because I believe that millennials, and Gen Zers, saved humanity in 2020. Millennials weren’t afraid when the country shut down. They might have been bored, but they weren’t afraid, because they’re not afraid of technology, because they grew up with technology… It is those brilliant minds that keep us fresh, and that keep us ‘now.’  

I don’t have an answer for what (the future) holds, but what I do know is that it holds a different looking experience of breast cancer for Black women than where we are today, because I will not rest, our team will not rest, Carrie’s TOUCH will not rest until we close that gap on disparities. I always contend that if you make breast cancer better for Black women, by default, you will make breast cancer better for all women. According to the late Malcolm X, who said Black women in America are the most disrespected, neglected and unprotected people in America and that is not OK. In 15 years, the needle will have moved, and Carrie’s TOUCH will be part of that movement.