Learning To Live
Seaside conference to address African-Americans conquering cancer.

When Seaside resident Renita Cowan speaks of her three-year journey through cancer, it sounds more like a challenging adventure than a tale of woe. Maybe it’s because Cowan—a registered nurse, a widow and a 55-year-old grandmother—seems surprisingly devoid of self-pity. Maybe it’s because she draws upon her faith so deeply that the message of hope comes through more strongly than that of despair.

On April 16, from 10am-2pm at the Embassy Suites in Seaside, Cowan will share her story and host a conference on African-Americans and cancer.

Organizers like Judy Garrison hope that Cowan will put a face on a disease that affects African-Americans differently than other populations. Garrison is the project director of Monterey County’s cancer detection program “Every Woman Counts,” and says that African-Americans tend to discover cancer in its later stages and have lower survival rates than other groups.

“In Monterey County, and other counties, despite the fact that our program offers free services and screenings, African-American women are not taking advantage of the services,” she says. “With the lack of regular screening, cancer is discovered later, and it’s harder to treat. And there are genetic differences as well—African-American women don’t respond as well to the treatment.”

Although Garrison’s program focuses on screening African-American women, she works closely with the American Cancer Society to increase screenings for men and women.

African-American males have a higher incidence of all types of cancer than white males, she says, with prostate and lung cancer being the most common. White women, on the other hand, have a higher incidence of cancers overall, including the most common one, breast cancer, than African-American women.

“The disparity is in the survival rate,” Garrison says.

Eighty-six percent of white women with breast cancer survive five years after the diagnosis; only 71 percent of African-American women do the same. Overall, white women have a 28 percent higher survival rate of cancers than African-American women. For African-American males, death rates for all types of cancer are higher than any other ethnic group. Death rates for African-American males with colon cancer are 30 percent higher than for white males.

Early detection and genetic differences aside, Garrison says probable reasons for the different mortality rates include lifestyle factors: smoking, food choices, exercise and obesity.

Three years ago, Cowan, who has a family history of cancer and other risk factors, didn’t consider that she might have cancer herself.

Cowan was coming off a year of feeling “kind of peaked,” when she woke up one Sunday morning before church and felt completely winded by the effort of taking a shower.

“I figured it was just life,” she says. “I was diabetic and overweight.”

After almost passing out in the shower, Cowan, who did a radio broadcast live from Seaside’s Victory Temple church each weekend, called the assistant pastor’s wife to say she was heading to church but wasn’t going to be able to do the broadcast.

“She asked me, ‘Why are you short of breath?’” Cowan recalls. “I said, ‘I have no idea.’ She said, ‘I’m taking you to the hospital.’ I argued with her. My husband convinced me to go.”

At Community Hospital of the Monterey Peninsula, Cowan discovered she had an abnormal chest X-ray and a very low hemoglobin count.

“I said, ‘You can’t be serious,’” Cowan says. “I was stunned, not alarmed. I didn’t expect them to find anything. The doctor said, ‘A bunch of other labs are awry and I’m admitting you, and quite frankly, this looks like lymphoma.’”

Lymphoma, a blood cancer, is treated with chemotherapy and radiation, not with surgical removal of the cancer. But in order to discover the source of Cowan’s cancer, doctors recommended a thoracotamy: a “huge surgery,” she calls it, cutting through ribs just to look for lesions on Cowan’s lungs.

Cowan soon discovered that her career as a nurse didn’t prepare her for the agony of post-surgical recovery.

“Even if you’re in the field, you don’t really know until you’re on the other side of it,” she says calmly. “Every time I laid down in bed I’d almost scream from the pain. My left lung was completely full of pus and it took another thoracotomy just to clean out the stuff. My lung collapsed while they were doing it and I woke up on a ventilator. I remember thinking, ‘I don’t believe this.’”

She also realized that some of the words she had used to comfort patients in the past probably didn’t do the job.

“Things like, ‘Relax, let the machine breathe for you,’” she says. “You can’t relax with a tube down your throat.”

After 22 days in the hospital, with the lymphoma now identified and chemotherapy started, Cowan was so weak and malnourished that she had lost 60 pounds. One of Cowan’s daughters took a leave of absence to care for her mother.

“This story is part and parcel of my faith,” Cowan says. “Before that time, I constantly thought of dying, because I was so tired I wanted to go on to a better place. But not one time during this did death cross my mind. I prayed with my pastor before surgery and then after. It was a complete mind transformation with prayer.”

Cowan’s faith was tested after her surgical wound reopened to the size of an “8 1/2 by 11 notebook,” a rib got infected, she went into acute renal failure, and, last October, her husband passed away.

Cowan credits her faith and her family with getting her through.

“I thought about getting through this a moment at a time; I prayed, I slept,” she says. “My grandson was a large part of it. He was two at the time and he’d climb up in my hospital bed and lie with me. It was the sweetest thing.”

Several weeks ago, Cowan was preparing to go in for gastric bypass surgery. “I had to lose 30 pounds before the surgery to show I was willing to make a lifestyle change,” she says.

“I’m really feeling like I need to go on with my life and be in the best possible condition I can be. I’m grateful to be alive.”

Editor’s note: Renita Cowan’s surgery was postponed due to the death of her father, who had been suffering from prostate cancer. Cowan’s mother is being treated for colon cancer.

Articles reprinted courtesy of Monterey County Weekly
© 2005 Milestone Communications Inc. All rights reserved.

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