Fannie Lou Hamer Cancer Foundation Fighting to Reduce Alarming Cancer Rates in Parts of Delta
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l. to r., Barbara Young, Freddie White-Johnson and Donna Brown
Desare Frazier

Incidence of cancer in parts of the Delta are at an alarming rate. An organization named after Mississippi Civil Rights Activist Fannie Lou Hamer, is working to increase access to quality healthcare and promote cancer prevention. 

Donna Brown is outgoing and energetic. Looking at her, one wouldn't know she's been diagnosed with stage four breast cancer. The 40-year old teacher is undergoing immuno and chemotherapy treatments.

"Just a few weeks ago, my fingers were swollen so badly and my nails were so sore, I could barely move. I couldn't even  dress myself. And so, that's what people want to hear, the struggle. But that's not what they'll see with me," said Brown.

Brown spent the past three years in China teaching. Last year, when she came home for a break, Brown underwent some screenings. Coincidentally, her oncologist here in the states is Chinese.

"My oncologist after having a Pet Scan told me I'm going to die. I told him absolutely not. I told him Jesus loves me and I love him and he's well able," said Brown.

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In the Delta, according to the Mississippi Cancer Registry, between 2008 and 2012, 30 percent of black woman who contracted breast cancer died, compared to 19 percent of white woman. 

"I'm glad to meet you. I'm so glad to meet you as well, I am, said Young and Brown.

Brown is at the Mississippi Department of Health in Greenville, to meet Barbara Young, a board member with the Fannie Lou Hamer Cancer foundation. Young wants to be a support system for the school teacher. She encourages Brown with her story of fighting breast cancer twice, along with stomach and cervical cancer over a span of 20 years. Young is cancer free now. 

"And I'm going to be honest with you. That's when my mama came into my mind, the hymns and stuff she used to sing, (Young sings)  'Remember me.' And this is a battle. I'm back up now. But I had to fight my way back up," said Young.

Brown talks about the support she receives from the Fannie Lou Hamer Foundation. She doesn't have health insurance and says the money that's provided for transportation, bills and even a wig means so much.    

"The Fannie Lou Hamer Cancer Foundation has been absolutely everything to me. When I met Freddie, I told her, and I get, I get emotional every time I think about it. Because she was, sorry. She was my angel," said Brown.

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Freddie White-Johnson is the founder of the organization. She's from Ruleville and says it was civil rights activist Fannie Lou Hamer who left a legacy for her to follow.

"I do it from my heart and all I want to do is just be able to go out there and make a difference to the point that I leave a legacy. I don't just want to be a Freddie White-Johnson when I die and only my family know who I am," said Johnson.

Johnson remembers when she was a child, Hamer a Ruleville native, brought food to her family when they were in need. Supporters say she's fighting to promote cancer prevention with the same passion Hamer fought for civil rights. Hamer died from untreated breast cancer in 1977, at the age of 59.  In an interview she talked about being beaten in a Winona jail in 1962, after attending a voter registration workshop. A Mississippi highway patrol officer ordered two black men to beat her until they were exhausted. Hamer was left with kidney damage. 

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"And he gave a Negro prisoner a blackjack and he ordered me to lay down on a bunk bed. And the Negro prisoner said 'do you want me to beat her with this sir?' And he said, 'You're damn right because if you don't, you know what I'll do for you.' " said Hamer.

About 175 certified volunteers at the Hamer foundation set-up meetings and go door to door to talk to people about cancer prevention. Many are survivors like Mary McGee of West. She and her sister underwent colon screenings after they heard about it at a meeting. McGee was diagnosed with stage one colon cancer and is fine. But her sister was diagnosed with stage 4 colon cancer and died last year.

"We didn't have the knowledge and understanding of the importance of colonoscopy," said McGee.

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In the Delta, there's less of a disparity among colon cancer rates between blacks and whites. The Mississippi Cancer Registry found between 2008 and 2012, 45 percent of blacks who developed colon cancer died compared to 41 percent of whites. Peter Crigler is a member of a group of male volunteers with the foundation called "Men in Black and Blue." They talk to men about prostate screenings. Crigler realized he was having the same symptoms he was warning other men about. 

"Rapid sweat at night, couldn't sleep good, frequent trips to the bathroom, frequent headaches," said Crigler.

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Crigler is back at work after having surgery. The state's cancer registry found between 2008 and 2012, 26 percent of black men who developed prostate cancer died from the disease, while 14 percent of white men died.  
Freddie White-Johnson continues to crisscross the Delta spreading the word about cancer prevention.

"I think about this type of work 24/7, wondering what can I do," said Johnson.

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What she's doing now is preparing to break ground on a 2.5 million dollar cancer resource center on Highway 8 in Ruleville. Johnson says they'll be able to help even more people.