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Research is the Reason I Can Be a Voice for Others

By BCRF | February 6, 2024

Reverend Dr. Tammie Denyse shares how research helped her survive breast cancer—and why it needs to do better for Black women

Reverend Dr. Tammie Denyse was driving with her kids, then 18, 11, and 10 years old, when she got a call from her physician that she had breast cancer. She was only 39 at the time. For several months prior, she’d been working with doctors to figure out why she had been experiencing excessive vaginal bleeding. Tammie had recently gotten a mammogram as part of the investigation.

She remembered her doctor laughing and saying, “I bet you weren’t expecting to hear that on this call.” The news—and her doctor’s insensitivity—shocked her. She thought to herself: Is this real?

Before her diagnosis, Tammie didn’t have much familiarity with the disease. No one in her family had had breast cancer—or so she thought. While her genetic tests were negative, she would eventually discover a hidden history of breast cancer on both sides of her family tree. 

Black people are very prideful,” Tammie said. “Because of our trauma and our history of not being seen as humans, Black people have been conditioned to present in a manner to not show weakness. And so, in my home growing up, we were taught ‘What goes on in this house stays in this house,'” she said.

After her diagnosis was official, Tammie’s next step was to find a surgeon, but her doctor offered no guidance. Fortunately, she was able to find an exceptional surgeon on her own who put her at ease. 

Tammie learned she had multiple fast-growing tumors that were estrogen receptor–positive, and her treatment course would involve surgery, chemotherapy, radiation, and five years of hormone therapy to reduce her risk of recurrence. She made it a point to never go to her appointments alone, not only so she could have support but also to help understand what was occurring.

“I didn’t want to ask the question, ‘Am I going to die?’ We’re all going to die. I knew the answer to that question,” she said. “But I wanted to know what treatment plan my doctor had to help me live.”

There were moments during treatment that Tammie, now 58, didn’t think she’d be able to continue. But the support from her family and community kept her going.

“The hope in my children’s eyes told me that I had to survive. My children gave me the push I needed to keep fighting even when treatments felt absolutely overwhelming,” she said. She praises God, her family, her community, and her medical team for saving her life. “No one survives cancer alone.”

When her oncologist found a clinical trial that she qualified for that was testing the efficacy of a 14-day chemotherapy regimen versus a 21-day regimen, she asked how Black women were responding to the trial. “He said, ‘I don’t know.’ I told him that was unacceptable,” Tammie said.

She was offended to be offered a treatment and trial opportunity without any knowledge about how it was impacting women who looked like her. By then, Tammie had learned the devastating fact that Black women are 40 percent more likely to die from breast cancer than white women and other racial groups.

“I chose to participate in the clinical trial because of the lack of Black women enrolled in it. If they didn’t have enough representation for whatever reason, I was going to be part of the solution to diversify clinical trials,” she said. “What became prevalent for me was that not only did we need to understand how to save Black women, but also to make sure Black and brown people are represented in clinical trials.” 

Tammie’s advocacy for Black women diagnosed with breast cancer didn’t stop after her successful treatment. She went on to co-found the nonprofit Carrie’s TOUCH with her former caregiver and late sister, Lynne Rankin-Cochran, to support Black women with breast cancer and understand how the disease affects them.

“At that time, if you Googled ‘Black women and breast cancer’ nothing came up that talked about us surviving this disease, she said. “The needle hasn’t moved. We still haven’t closed that forty percent gap in mortality between Black and white women. Carrie’s TOUCH fights every day to end it.”

Tammie wanted to research why, despite gains in breast cancer survivorship overall, this disparity still existed. So following a research project Tammie conducted for her master’s thesis, she took the data gathered from her research and invited Dr. Annette Stanton to partner with her on this endeavor.

“Oftentimes you get a white researcher or a non-Black researcher who’s curious about Black people. And they come up with research for Black people to answer their hypothesis. But what’s missing is having a Black person who understands the culture,” she said. 

Together, they co-created Project SOAR (Speaking Our African American Realities), which was partly funded by BCRF. The project looks at the unique experiences of Black women diagnosed with breast cancer—as told by the women themselves in focus groups called “Gatherings” with Tammie and Dr. Stanton. Their ongoing work has the potential to help create and test coping skills and interventions to support Black breast cancer survivors. 

“Dr. Stanton has been a phenomenal co-principal investigator,” she said. “We understand the task at hand, and we work well together.”

“Diversifying clinical trials and dedicating significant resources to studying breast cancer in Black women will save lives,” Tammie added. “Research is what fuels innovation. Therefore, it is imperative that we focus our attention on the people who are suffering and being impacted the most by this disease.”

Tammie’s deepest desire is for every woman diagnosed with breast cancer to have the same hope, resources, and opportunities to not only survive this disease—but to thrive.

“Activist Angela Davis inspires me to ‘no longer [accept] the things I cannot change’ and instead ‘to [change] the things I cannot accept.’ Therefore, I will continue to use my voice to advocate for patients who cannot, will not, or do not know how to advocate for themselves,” Tammie said. “Carrie’s TOUCH and Project SOAR are the vehicles through which we will fight for equity in research and drive change.”

Read more stories from BCRF’s Research Is the Reason storytelling initiative here.