Candace Henley, 36, was rushed to the emergency room with severe bowel blockage, but physicians thought she was too young to have colon cancer and didn’t screen her for it. The single mother of five young girls didn’t know enough about the disease to ask for a screening.
It wasn’t until her third ER visit, six months after her first, that a physician finally gave her a fecal occult blood test. They later found a cancerous tumor the size of a grapefruit, and removed 95 percent of her colon.
“[I said], ‘Lord, if you just allow me to live until [my youngest daughter of 4] turns 18, I won’t ask you for anything else. But in return, I will tell everybody about colon cancer … I will do anything and everything I can to save somebody else’s life from this disease,’ ” Henley said.
On Sept. 22, Henley will fulfill that promise as she delivers the keynote speech at a community forum led by the Chicago Cancer Health Equity Collaborative (ChicagoCHEC), a National Cancer Institute-funded initiative to reduce cancer inequities in Chicago's low-income neighborhoods. Henley also is the founder and CEO of the Blue Hat Foundation, which aims to raise awareness and education for colorectal cancer in minority and medically underserved communities.
The event, which is free and open to the public from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. at Arturo Velasquez Westside Technical Institute, 2800 S. Western Ave., Chicago, Ill., is ChicagoCHEC’s second annual community report and community forum. Those interested in attending are encouraged to RSVP because space is limited.
The forum will provide a detailed look at the ongoing work of the ChicagoCHEC partnership, led by researchers, educators and clinicians from Northeastern Illinois University, the Robert H. Lurie Comprehensive Cancer Center of Northwestern University and the University of Illinois at Chicago.
“We have established an innovative, comprehensive partnership to foster meaningful cancer research, education, training and outreach across the Metropolitan Chicagoland area,” said Melissa A. Simon, the George H. Gardner Professor of Clinical Gynecology in Obstetrics and Gynecology at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine, and co-director of the Lurie Cancer Center’s Cancer Control and Survivorship Research Program. “Our goal is to transform how community engagement and research are conducted, thus changing the architecture of how we collectively improve health equity.”
“Our community outreach successes would not be possible without the guidance, engagement, and continued commitment from our community partners in our efforts to reduce barriers around access to cancer preventive services and treatment,” said Moira Stuart, associate professor of Health Sciences and Physical Education at Northeastern.
According to data from the Illinois Department of Public Health, low-income Chicago communities that are predominantly African-American or Latino face cancer death rates up to double the national average.
“The cancer disparities we see in Chicago stand as a clear call to action,” said Marian Fitzgibbon, one of the principal investigators on the ChicagoCHEC grant and associate director of health equity and community engagement at the University of Illinois Cancer Center. “Only by working together and through authentic engagement can we create meaningful change and reduce the unequal share of the cancer burden felt by vulnerable communities.”
The Sept. 22 community forum will feature a diverse panel of cancer survivors who will discuss their journeys and share their experiences accessing clinical services, getting support from community organizations and serving as role models to other cancer patients. In addition, the forum will provide participants with networking opportunities in the areas of cancer survivorship, health care access and delivery, community capacity building, cancer health education, research and clinical trials.
“ChicagoCHEC is making great strides in reducing cancer health inequities by creating opportunities for research, collaboration and education among constituents from across the city of Chicago,” said Christina Ciecierski, associate professor of Economics at Northeastern. “In addition to our community outreach efforts, we are building a multi-disciplinary collaborative research and capacity-building infrastructure within Northeastern."
“As an experienced professional and community advocate, it’s refreshing to be an intentional partner, actively participating in real change that counts in our community to promote healthy lifestyles with better outcomes and resources that are available and proven, because all lives matter,” said Joanne Glenn, co-chair of the ChicagoCHEC community steering committee.
Henley likened cancer to a hurricane that hit her life, and said she’s been rebuilding it ever since. She explained that she attempted suicide because of the financial and emotional stress she encountered while she was recovering. Her community of friends and family offered her a place to live when her house went into foreclosure, made sure she was taking her medicine and helped her pay her bills when she couldn’t work.
“They were there for psychosocial support because after I had that breakdown, they were like, ‘No, we’re not going to let you do this again,’ ” Henley said. “Community is extremely important.”
The Community Forum will kick off a series of community-driven events taking place in Chicago through 2017 and 2018.