Facing cancer, mother of 5 finds help, hope

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Shannon Matthews remembers the moment her life changed. The 39-year old south Fulton County mother of 5 was lying in bed with her husband when she felt a lump in her breast.

"I immediately thought it was cancer, because 12 years ago, my mother was also diagnosed with breast cancer, and in my mind, I just knew what it was," Matthews says.  "I went into planning mode. Who can I see, what can I do?"

But, Matthews, who works for an Atlanta bail-bond company, says she had had bare-bones health insurance that she was pretty sure wouldn't cover the cost of breast exam, or mammogram, much less cancer treatment.

"You can imagine my panic," she says.  "So, I immediately started Googling online, looking for places I can go where I can go and get seen quickly."

She found the non-profit Center for Black Women's Wellness in Atlanta's Mechanicsville neighborhood. Most of the clients are African-American women, but the center doesn't limit its services based on gender or race. The Center got Matthews in for a breast exam in just 2 days.

"They just welcomed me with open arms: this is is what you're going to do, this is next," she remembers. "They checked the lump I had found. But, in doing the breast exam, they felt a lump under my arm, that I didn't know was there."

The Center sent her to its partner Emory's St. Joseph's Hospital for a free diagnostic mammogram.
Center CEO Jemea Dorsey says their goal is to make sure uninsured and lower income women facing a health crisis like cancer aren't falling through the cracks.

"Because the reality is, not only is there the treatment aspect, but women have to deal with, 'What happens if I take off work? What happens to my children?  What does this do to me?" Dorsey says.

Nurse practitioner Alexis Ohonen says she's seen patients facing an upsetting diagnosis go into denial.

"Because they don't know how they're going to pay for it," Ohonen says.  "They're afraid of going forward and seeking treatment because they're afraid of huge medical bills."

After her mammogram came back abnormal, Matthews was told she would need a breast ultrasound, and a biopsy that very day. So, the Center paid for those tests, too.

"We found out I had stage 3 breast cancer that had spread to the lymph nodes," Matthews says.  "So now we're dealing with a very aggressive cancer."

But, Matthews kept her focus.

"From day one, I was like, 'Okay, this is cancer.  Let's do what we have to do to beat it,'" she says.

Referred to Emory's Winship Cancer Institute to begin chemotherapy,  Matthews now needed coverage to pay for her treatment. So, an Emory St. Joe's cancer navigator worked with the Center for Black Women's Wellness to pull together paperwork she needed to qualify for a state Medicaid program for women that would cover not just the chemotherapy, but breast surgery and radiation.

"I never had to wonder about the treatment, my medicines, everything went so smoothly," Matthews says.  "I didn't have any hiccups."

Today, Shannon Matthews is a year out of treatment, back for a checkup. Grateful, she says, to the non-profit that helped her get here.

"I'm from Atlanta, and I never knew that center was there," she says.  "I've never seen it, never passed, it, I never knew about it."

Now, she is telling all her friends about it. Matthews wants to make sure women know there is help out there.

For more information, you can contact the Center for Black Women's Wellness by going to its website at cbww.org.