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'Fight, endure, survive': A universal message beyond breast cancer

My Sister’s Keeper, a support group for women of color, continues to meet virtually

Emily Lytle
Dover Post
Natasha Simms (left) and Lynette Shannon (right) are twin sisters from the Dover area who started a breast cancer support group for women of color, called “My Sister’s Keeper.” They have continued their group via Zoom.

When Natasha Simms left the doctor’s office with her twin sister and best friend, they looked up at the sky and saw a rainbow. She had just been diagnosed with breast cancer, and her sister told her, “You see that rainbow? That rainbow is a symbol that God made a promise that [everything is going to happen for you],” Simms recalled. 

From that moment, her sister Lynette Shannon walked beside her and mentored her as she went through treatment. Just three years before, Shannon faced her own breast cancer diagnosis at 27 years old.

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Shannon went through a series of surgeries and complications, including a double mastectomy, the removal of 16 lymph nodes, an allergic reaction to chemotherapy and reconstruction followed by an allergic reaction to her implant. “Everything that happened, happened to me,” she said with a little laugh.  

Simms said she believes it was because of her sister’s experiences and guidance that she was able to fight her own battles. “She gave me hope that I would survive it,” Simms said. “I really found solace in her.”

Shannon celebrated 11 years as a breast cancer survivor in September and Simms will be marking her 8th year shortly after. During the sisters’ separate journeys toward survivorship, they noticed an area of need where they could step up. 

While the Delaware Breast Cancer Coalition offered a variety of resources and groups, “there wasn’t a group for African American women,” Shannon said. 

About four years ago, they created a support group for women of color with the DBCC, called “My Sister’s Keeper.”

How the group started

When Shannon started losing her hair during treatment, she was offered a wig, and she immediately knew it was not going to work. 

“The wigs that were offered to me were like old women wigs,” she recalled. She said the wigs seemed to be designed for white women, comparing one to “a Betty White wig.”

That was one moment where Shannon realized that she needed to find a community of people who understood her experiences. Someone who understood how Black hair often grows back differently after chemotherapy. Someone who can connect with some of the healthcare disparities that African American women face. 

Simms thought about how her sister supported her during each step from diagnosis to her last day of chemo. She wanted to pass along that same sense of encouragement to other women, and so “My Sister’s Keeper” was born. 

“Everything happens for a reason, and I think we had to go through [what we did] so we could encourage other women to get through this, as well,” she said. 

The group started meeting at the Delaware Adolescent Program building in Camden, and they eventually moved to the DBCC office in Dover. While the group talks about heavy topics, the programming often includes fun activities, from yoga to paint nights to workshops about wigs, which aim to leave the women feeling hopeful. 

Scenes from a paint night the group hosted before the pandemic.

Virtual community

With limitations on in-person gatherings, My Sister’s Keeper quickly shifted all their meetings to a virtual setting. “Since the pandemic, we haven’t been able to meet in person, but Zoom has been our best friend,” Simms said. 

The group has painted together and even welcomed guests, such as a hair stylist who offered some tips and provided resources for people who needed a wig while going through cancer treatment.

The group has not missed a meeting, and Shannon said the sense of community is just as important as ever. “I think the quarantine has amplified people’s sense of feeling alone, and already when you’re going through breast cancer, or you’re a survivor, I think you’re in your thoughts,” she said. 

Both sisters said the Zoom meetings have increased accessibility, allowing more people to attend throughout the state. 

Simms said the philosophy of the group can apply to anyone facing the uncertainty that the pandemic brings. “The model for My Sister’s Keeper is ‘fight, endure, survive,’” she said. “You can use that model for anything in life.”