Tamyra Kelly grew up in a family that wouldn't say “cancer.” They called it “the C-word.”
So the Fort Wayne woman was terrified in January 2016 when she received her diagnosis.
“When I heard the word 'cancer,' I automatically thought death,” she said Thursday evening during a Facebook Live presentation. “My first reaction was: 'Oh, no. I'm going to die and leave my kids.'”
Denita Washington, Fort Wayne Housing Authority's program director, hosted “The Journey of Breast Cancer.” Kelly, founder and CEO of Live Free, and Marita Dwight, director of Francine's Friends mobile mammography unit, joined Washington for the one-hour streaming discussion.
The local housing authority owns and manages more than 800 units of affordable housing and helps provide homes to more than 3,500 families. Among the organization's goals are empowering residents and enhancing their quality of life, according to its website.
George Guy, Fort Wayne Housing Authority's executive director and CEO, said his organization has a responsibility to ensure residents are informed and have access to resources. The conversation was purposely scheduled during October, which has been designated Breast Cancer Awareness Month, and was intended as a safe space to gather information and ask questions.
“For families living in public housing, there is often a stigma and even an unwillingness to provide help and support,” Guy said in a statement. “FWHA is working to change this perception by empowering our families, and this conversation is just one example of our efforts to elevate the quality of life for those living in our communities and beyond.”
Kelly, a five-year cancer survivor, said her biggest concern after learning she'd have chemotherapy was that she'd lose her hair. It took three months before she looked at her reflection after her hair fell out. During that time, she didn't apply her makeup until after her husband had placed her wig on her head.
Staff at the Parkview Cancer Institute treated Kelly with dignity, a word she emphasized in case anyone watching was feeling nervous about seeking care.
“It's OK to feel what you feel,” she said. “You're going to have a team of people who will help you through the journey.”
Her team included friends and family.
“I needed people to listen, to hold my hand and let me cry,” Kelly said.
Washington said the housing authority has partnered with Parkview Health to bring mobile health care units into underserved communities, especially the southeast side of Fort Wayne.
“It doesn't matter what race you are. ... Cancer does not discriminate,” she said.
Dwight, who has worked in mammography 30 years, said early detection is key because some forms of cancer are more aggressive than others.
Now, Kelly considers it her life's mission to encourage women to get mammograms, beginning at age 40 – earlier if breast cancer runs in the family.
“Don't wait. Don't hesitate,” she said. “Do it every year.”