STAARS focuses the fight against breast cancer on African Americans

Once a month, warriors descend on the Hickory Hill Community Center. 

They're members of STAARS, a breast cancer group for African Americans. STAARS stands for Surviving, Thriving, African-Americans Rallying Support Witness Program.

“Our meetings are very informative, educational and lively," said co-founder Barbara Davis. "We sometimes go longer than 12:30, and lots of times I have to cut the lights out on people to get them out of there.”


STAARS members call their organization a witness program instead of a support group. Its founders and founding members are all breast cancer survivors who see their lives as testimonies that are meant to be shared.

African American women have a slightly lower rate of breast cancer than white women, but they're 20 to 40% more likely to die from the disease. African American women have the highest breast cancer mortality rate of any racial group. 

STAARS member Georgia Watson described the group as a sisterhood. 

“We've all been to the same place and we understand each other. We empower each other and support each other,” said Watson. 

Barbara Davis is a native Memphian and Hickory Hill resident. She co-founded STAARS in 1998, two years after she was diagnosed with breast cancer. (STAARS) In addition to monthly meetings, STAARS members participate in outreach activities and events to spread awareness of breast cancer among African Americans.

But STAARS is much more than a monthly meeting and tabling at events. STAARS also provides connections to screenings, treatments, wigs, counselors, legal services and more for survivors and current patients. They offer financial assistance for those with hardship, including those who are uninsured or under-insured.

“We offer financial support for women who need it or transportation to medical facilities," said David, a Memphis native and a long-time Hickory Hill resident.

"We do medical co-pays and rent assistance for certain situations," she continued. "If we can't provide that assistance, we can direct them to those kinds of resources."

STAARS also offers free mammograms for uninsured and under-insured Memphians and 24-hour phone support for anyone with questions or a need for a compassionate ear.

The group's work is funded by a grant from the local affiliate of Susan G. Komen For The Cure.

"To start educating African American women, to encourage them and also to empower them. Those are our three missions goals," said Davis.

STAARS meets the first Saturday of every month from 11 a.m. to 12:30 p.m.
 

The Day You Can't Forget

Davis will never forget the day she was diagnosed with breast cancer. It was 1996.

“I kind of already knew it was cancer," she said. "At the time I found the lump in my breast, I also found a lump under my arm. I hadn't felt that before. It felt different. It didn't feel normal for me to have those lumps in those two areas.”

Davis went for a biopsy that confirmed her fears.

“Everything was happening so fast,” she recalled. “I didn't have time for it to totally sink in because I was being moved through the progression [for treatment] so fast.”

Davis was initially quiet about the diagnosis and continued her normal routine.

“I kept working, I kept taking care of family business and everything else. I just worked [treatments and doctor visits] into my schedule," she said.

Stigma, she said, kept her from sharing her struggle.

"Back in 1996 and even today, people were still very cautious and quiet about cancer. Back then it was just the 'C word,'" she said. "People didn't talk about it. I was a product of the silence. I told only selective friends and family. I only told the people who would genuinely and sincerely pray for me.”

Davis also prayed for God to handle the disease so she could focus on her daily routine.

“I prayed for peace, and God gave me peace," she said. "I had lots of support from my family and lots of selective friends.”

STAARS provide support and education at many Mid-South events to raise awareness of breast cancer, especially among African Americans. (STAARS)

The STAARS Align

Davis said STAARS was the first breast cancer support group in Memphis founded wholly by survivors. Davis and Toni Clark started the group in July 1998.

Clark had also been recently diagnosed with breast cancer. When they began comparing their experiences, they realize there were no support groups specific to African Americans. STAARS was born to fill that gap. 

The group was designed to be informative, but she soon realized she was learning more in the group than she did during her doctors visits.

“The doctor is concentrating on trying to give you treatment to save your life. They weren't dealing with a lot of the other issues," said Davis, like how to minimize side effects or the toil of treatment on mental health and family life. 

Davis said STAARS was also founded to fight the stigma of cancer. 

“Our motto was to be visible and vocal about breast cancer," she said. "There are people in our community, our neighborhood, our churches and our families that have been affected by breast cancer. [They] didn't have anyone else to talk to or share experiences or discuss side effects or have a support system. That was our focus."

Though the focus on African American women, Davis encourages all people living with breast cancer to seek support.

“You don't have to go through this experience by yourself," she said. There's plenty of resources and assistance out there. Get educated. Be proactive.”

Read more articles by A. J. Dugger III.

A.J. Dugger III is an award-winning journalist and native Memphian who joined High Ground as lead writer for its signature series, On the Ground, in August 2019. Previously, he wrote for numerous publications in West Tennessee and authored two books, “Southern Terror” and “The Dealers: Then and Now.” He has also appeared as a guest expert on the true-crime series, “For My Man.” For more information, visit ajdugger.net. (Photo by April Stilwell)
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