Survivor team spreading the word

Posted: October 18, 2012

There is humor in every story, even breast cancer.

Anita Conner is an accountant, and so is her daughter, Kerri Conner Matchett.

Anita was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1998 on April 16 - the day after tax season, the first chance she had to get her mammogram results.

Kerri was also diagnosed with breast cancer - 10 years later, in 2008 - on April 16, the first chance she had to get her results.

Mother and daughter laugh about it now.

Whatever the date, both of these women are so grateful that they did get tested, or, each believes, she wouldn't be alive today.

And they also believe that God kept them both alive for a reason: to spread the word in the African American community about breast cancer.

"The day that I actually got my diagnosis, she was really trying to figure out what God was using us for," said Kerri. "I really believe it's to go out and speak to other women and encourage and inspire them to never give up. This is something that is truly treatable, and really early detection is the key."

Mother and daughter, who live in Elkins Park and Jenkintown, respectively, started PraiseistheCure.org, a group that now reaches into 100 African American churches in Philadelphia and Montgomery County, and also runs a health fair and provides mammograms.

When Anita was diagnosed, she didn't know any other women with breast cancer. It was all new to her. She notes that African American women as a group get diagnosed with breast cancer less often than white women or most other ethnic groups. But African Americans have the poorest survival rate: 77 percent of African American women survive five years, compared with 89 percent of Caucasians, Anita said.

Anita's cancer was grave. She survived only because of a clinical trial using stem cells. The trial overall was so unsuccessful, and that form of treatment was discontinued. But it worked for her. She said doctors called it a miracle. Fourteen years later, she's well and going strong, having just turned 56.

Anita and Kerri were already working hard on PraiseistheCure before Kerri's diagnosis. Anita's first reaction was that she must have passed this disease along to her daughter genetically. But testing showed that wasn't true. There was no apparent genetic connection.

And although Kerri's cancer was advanced, stage three, and she needed a double mastectomy and intensive treatments, the upside was that her mother had been through it all before. She could guide her, fight for her, calm her, and be there for her.

At first, Kerri was intimidated. She had seen her mother fight through her own cancer, seen her mother's strength and faith and endurance and determination, and Kerri didn't think she could match those qualities.

But with her mother's help, and her faith, she rose to meet the challenge, and made it through treatment, and, like her mother, now has no evidence of disease.

"I was very blessed," said Kerri. "A lot of women who have breast cancer, they have no idea what to expect. My mom was truly an advocate for me, knowing what questions to ask, together there with me every step. If she didn't like what my doctors said, she could refer back to her doctors and ask them."

Kerri also had a 2-year-old daughter at the time of her diagnosis. She was only 33. She couldn't find any good resource to explain to her daughter what was happening, although her daughter knew something drastic was happening because her mother's hair was falling out, and they couldn't hug.

So when she was feeling better, Kerri wrote a book, titled My Mommy Has Breast Cancer, But She Is OK.

"Our vision is to create a community with less victims and more breast cancer survivors," said Anita, "and we do that by motivating, educating and encouraging African Americans to get their screenings and treatments."


Contact Michael Vitez at mvitez@phillynews.com or 215-854-5639.

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