Carin’ and Sharin’

Gwendolyn Brown creates connection and community for underserved women with cancer

by Susan Martins Miller

I can sell snake oil when it comes to this group,” Gwendolyn Brown says of Carin’ and Sharin’, a Memphis ministry to women with breast cancer.

When Jamie first received a cancer diagnosis, she did not want to do the recommended treatment. So she went to another oncologist, and another, and another. They all said the same thing. In the middle of this process, Jamie found her way to Carin’ and Sharin’. Listening to the stories of other women in a small group, Jamie dared to tell hers.

The truth scared her. It was easier to deny it than face it. But in the safety of other women who knew her fear, Jamie found the courage to undergo the recommended therapy. And that is the heart of the Carin’ and Sharin’ ministry.

Twenty-five years ago Gwendolyn Brown was the social worker with an oncology group in Memphis. She kept track of all the cancer patients and the range of services social workers provide—emotional support, financial plans, arranging rides, family connections.

Gwen introduced several women to each other, and gradually they began making sure they had their appointments on the same schedule. One day when Gwen was talking with them about the similarities in their cancers, one of them said, “We need a support group.”

“Why?” Gwen asked. “You’re already friends. You see each other all the time.”

“We need a support group,” they repeated.

So Gwen organized a group that targeted women in the greater Memphis region who were socio-economically disadvantaged. At the time, the only other group in Memphis serving the underserved—many of whom were African American—met in the evenings after dark in a part of the city where the women who needed the group did not feel safe attending. Gwen determined that her group would meet in the daytime and in another area so safety concerns would not be an obstacle to attending.

The medical practice Gwen worked for gave her the use of a conference room once a month. Thinking that food would help women feel more comfortable attending the group, she approached the managers of local grocery stories. Rather than asking for money, she asked for snacks. Then she asked nurses and doctors in the practice to make educational presentations. A key feature of the meetings was that women could vent their fears and concerns.

“I thought I was in high cotton,” Gwen says of those first meetings when about eight women attended.

The group did well over the years, growing from eight members to 25 and eventually to more than 60 in regular attendance, including younger women and older women, and those recently diagnosed to those surviving 20 years or more.

Early on, Gwen realized she needed funding beyond begging snacks and recycling cans. One friend wrote her a check for a couple of hundred dollars but also advised her to apply for 501(c)(3) status so that contributions to the ministry would be tax deductible. A pastor sat down with Gwen one day and guided her through the process of applying. Not only did the new status mean contributions were tax deductible, but also it was easier to get the attention of organizations that give grants.

One man who was polite enough to listen agreed that Gwen could send him information, but he also warned her that his organization only gave grants in a couple of states—and Tennessee was not one of them. “I sat up day and night and wrote a grant application,” Gwen says, “and sent it by FedEx.”

She was delighted when a few weeks later she received a check for $1,000. The organization also donated a range of promotional items that could benefit the women in Gwen’s group. Her understanding of how to find funds expanded, and eventually Carin’ and Sharin’ received a grant from the Susan B. Komen Foundation for $20,000—a significant amount that allowed Gwen to expand the kind of services she offered.

Knowing that many women were making difficult choices between undergoing treatment or working to support their households, Gwen launched a program to provide financial assistance. She also zeroed in on education about the disease and creating safe community for women diagnosed.

Many who come have never told even their closest family members that they have the disease. Fear of losing close relationships is common.

Edie came to Gwen’s office and said, “I’m scared I’m going to be in this all by myself. My boyfriend will leave me. My mother won’t support me. I’m going to die alone.” Although Gwen worked hard to ensure Edie would not sacrifice these relationships by entering treatment, ultimately Edie’s mother advised her to discontinue needed medications and her cancer returned. Her boyfriend left. Edie did die alone.

Other women say they will pray for healing, take herbs or go to a faith healer. Gwen has attended many funerals of women who likely would have fared well if they had understood the disease.

“Screenings are not the number one priority,” Gwen said. “Education comes first. We have to allay fears first. Then the percentage of women who will have screenings and receive treatment will go up.”

A team of social workers now works together to run Carin’ and Sharin’. After twenty-five years, Gwen still looks to the future. One day a presenter at a Carin’ and Sharin’ lunch asked, “Do you have anybody who helps people who are depressed?” She inquired because a woman across the room was talking about killing herself. Of course they rushed to be sure the woman got immediate care. Depression is a common result of the disease. In the future Gwen hopes Carin’ and Sharin’ can offer subgroups led by mental health professionals.

Another group in Carin’ and Sharin’s future would specifically serve women with a “triple negative” diagnosis, a form of cancer that does not respond to the most common treatments and requires another approach.

“Younger women see older women who have survived 20 or 30 years, and that’s hope for them,” Gwen says. “Whether the journey takes you to hospice or being disease-free, we will support you all the way.”

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