Sherrel Johnson always had long hair. Her husband, Warren Johnson, liked it that way, and she remembers her father saying “hair is a woman’s glory.”
But when she was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2009, she asked her husband to shave it off so she wouldn’t have to watch it fall out while undergoing chemotherapy.
As tough as that experience was, the 50-year-old Johnson said the fact that her husband, Warren, was by her side with his usual sense of humor eased the emotional pain she was going through.
“The way that you deal with a diagnosis in your marriage or family is going to be based on what kind of relationship you had prior to that,” Johnson said. “...(Warren) knows me through and through.”
Johnson spoke to about 20 attendees of a forum held Saturday by Sisters Supporting Sisters, a support group in Baton Rouge for African-American survivors of breast cancers
The goal of the event, held at Camphor Memorial United Methodist Church, was to help men learn to support wives and other women in their lives who may face a cancer diagnosis.
It is something that is not talked about enough, said Wanda Washington, president of Sisters Supporting Sisters.
“A lot of African-Americans and their families grew up — ‘my business is my business and it better stay in my house,’ ” she said. “Through the years, we had aunts and grandparents die, and we never knew what they died of.”
About 3.25 percent of African-American women die of breast cancer, compared to 2.73 percent of white women, according to the American Cancer Society.
But 12.73 percent of white women are diagnosed with breast cancer, versus 10.87 percent of African-American women.
“We’re not the most diagnosed, but we die the most,” Washington said.
It is never too early for a husband to talk to his wife about her wishes if she ever has cancer, Johnson said. Some patients want or need extra attention while others prefer continuing business as usual whenever possible.
Family and friends should be there to help even if a woman has not asked, said Gwen Brooks, 64. When she had breast cancer 34 years ago, she struggled to let people help with even small tasks because she had always been independent and able to take care of herself.
While Johnson had her husband cut all her hair off, Brooks kept hers in a plastic bag in a closet as it fell out. She remembered having an intense desire to “be the same person” despite her cancer.
“I could move furniture, I could paint walls, I could change oil in the car, change tires,” she said. “... I still wanted people to know I was strong but ... I look back, and I needed help and I didn’t know how to ask for it.”
Brooks said her battle with cancer, during which she and her husband divorced, ultimately made her stronger.
While that “survival mode” type of determination empowers some women, it can also make men feel inferior, Johnson said.
“If that woman seems to have shut you out ... it’s not that she doesn’t appreciate you,” she said.
Men should help maintain normal routines and not “smother” a cancer patient with attention.
“If everything is about the illness, that’s depressing,” Johnson said.
Warren Johnson said he found it was best to “be in a certain place” — to always be available to help but to stay out of the way when his wife needed to rest or be alone.
A change in his demeanor would have signaled “feeling sorry for me,” Sherrel Johnson said.
Sandra Porter, 62, a two-time survivor of breast cancer, said she tried to arrange doctor’s appointments so she wouldn’t have to miss work. Many people never knew she was sick, and avoiding sympathy and negativity helped.
“I don’t look like what I’ve been through,” she said.