My grandmother buried her face in her hands and wept after the doctor delivered the news and walked solemnly out of her hospital room.
"Modessa, it's cancer," he had said, revealing the results of her biopsy, confirming the thing she feared most when he discovered that she had been treating the sore on her breast with a salve.
I stood next to the hospital bed, hugged her as tightly as I could and cried, too, terrified that my Big Mama was about to die. That's what breast cancer meant to a girl in junior high school in the mid-1970s who had heard that dreaded word--cancer--only whispered after a wake or funeral.
That was the only time I saw Big Mama cry about her fate. She had a mastectomy and lived more than a decade without the cancer ever returning.
But I can't help wondering how she coped with all that fear. She never talked to anyone about it. Not about the hour-long trip to New Orleans for chemotherapy that made her so sick she often had to stop on the side of the road on the way home to throw up. Not about losing her hair. Not about the puffy scar in the place where her breast used to be.
Back then, there was no breast cancer support group in our small paper-mill town. Or perhaps, there just wasn't one comfortable enough for Big Mama, an intensely private, hard-working African American mother of 10 and grandmother of a small tribe.
It was my Big Mama who came to mind recently when I joined the circle of Rise, Sister, Rise, a breast cancer support group of African American women in the Washington area, to discuss how they have helped one another heal. I wish my Big Mama could have known such an extraordinary group.
Geraldine Marshall, 70, of Fort Washington, joined the support group in 1993, 15 years after her diagnosis and surgery.
"I was offered little information for 15 years," Marshall said. "I kept it to myself . ..I found I really needed this group. I needed to learn how to talk about it. I also learned I gave hope to others."
Marshall certainly represented hope to Carolyn Brown-Davis, 52, of the District, whose illness was diagnosed in April 1993. The two women knew each other through church.
"She came to me and said, 'You're going to be okay. I'm a 15-year survivor. You can beat this,' " Brown-Davis recalled of her first conversation with Marshall. "It was absolutely the most wonderful thing."
Brown-Davis joined another support group and was confident that whatever mental therapy she needed was complete. When she heard about Rise, Sister, Rise in 1993, she became part of the group to help assure its success.
"I got there and realized that my soul had not been touched," said Brown-Davis, a co-facilitator.
Zora K. Brown, 50, of the District, never intended to start a support group. She was just 31 when she underwent a mastectomy. Four generations of women in her family, including her mother and three sisters, had suffered from breast cancer.
After one sister died in 1990, Brown founded the nonprofit Breast Cancer Resource Committee to push for research and outreach that focused on African American women. Research shows that African American women tend to get the disease at a younger age and, upon diagnosis, die at a greater rate than white women do.
Brown's story got out, and African American women from all over the country began calling her. They were smart women who functioned well in their integrated communities and workplaces. But they did not always feel comfortable sharing the most intimate parts of their experiences with others who might misunderstand their culture.
"We realized there was a need for a support group for African American women that was structured around our cultural sensitivities and addressed the needs unique to us," Brown said.
The group's name, Rise, Sister, Rise, comes from a song that many African American children sang on the playground. I remember it clearly: Little girls would clasp hands and form a circle. One would squat in the middle, pretending to cry. The circle would dance around her and sing, "Rise, Sally, rise, wipe your weeping eyes . . . "
That is what Brown wanted the group to be: sisters helping another to wipe her weeping eyes. Unlike some support groups that don't include religion, Rise, Sister, Rise, opens with a prayer.
"That really touched me," said Sherene Cameron, 52, of Lanham. "I felt my faith had gotten me to this point."
About 300 women have gone through Rise, Sister, Rise, in groups of 10 to 25 at a time. The members attend 16 sessions that, above all, celebrate life. The group also helps the women to become partners with their doctors in deciding their care, to wipe their weeping eyes and move on.
That may mean swapping information about hairstyles and medical treatment or bringing in a nutritionist to discuss how to prepare traditional soul food in a healthier way.
It is more than a little symbolic that the group meets in a parlor of New York Avenue Presbyterian Church in Northwest Washington, once Abraham Lincoln's place of worship. A large portrait of him and the original manuscript of his proposal to pay compensation to free the slaves hangs on the walls as the women talk about how Rise, Sister, Rise helped free them.
The circle includes women like Linda Nelson, 34, of Upper Marlboro, who prefaced her call to the support group by saying, "I don't need to make this call, but because my family thinks I do, I'm calling."
The women are also like Barbara Sermons, 61, of Seat Pleasant, who was more frightened than she had ever been when she first called. And they are like Valencia Littles, 35, of Hyattsville, so determined to be strong for her son that she hadn't even realized until that first meeting the relief of allowing someone to be strong for her.
Among the other Prince George's County members who have been part of the group are: Marilyn Davis, 63, of Landover; Theresa Alexander, 40, of Glenarden; Joyce Marshall, 51, of Lanham; Alicia Dees, 34, of Hyattsville; Carole James, 32, of Hyattsville; and Michelle Griffin of Fort Washington.
Duplicating Rise, Sister, Rise would be difficult without dynamic facilitators like Brown-Davis and Dorothea Walker. But Brown hopes to get financing, at least, to publish a model of the group and the curriculum.
It's too late for my Big Mama to benefit from such a group.
But there are still plenty of breast cancer survivors who need help wiping their weeping eyes.
To comment or suggest a story idea, contact me at 14402 Old Mill Rd., Suite 201, Upper Marlboro, Md. 20772; frazierL@washpost.com; or 301-952-2083.