By Jessica Mark

One of Southwest’s only breast cancer support groups got its start because of a community need – and a rumor.

“Sometimes I would invite people to my house or out on the stoop to talk about breast cancer, and people started saying I had a support group – so I created the breast cancer support group,” said Thelma Jones, breast-cancer survivor, breast-cancer navigator for Smith Center for Healing and the Arts and 30-year community activist.

October marks Breast Cancer Awareness Month, a time to reflect on how far D.C. still has to go in raising awareness and action against breast cancer. The District ranks third in the country for breast cancer deaths, and cancer is
the second leading cause of death among women in D.C., according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. While white women are at a higher risk of developing the disease, black women are at greater risk of dying from it.
Jones was diagnosed with breast cancer in June 2007. She went to see her primary care doctor, and the doctor gave her a referral.

“I had so much on my mind, I only half-way heard her,” Jones said. “It wasn’t until a week later I was cleaning out my purse, and I saw the card that said ‘surgical oncologist,’ that I thought, ‘why would I need an oncologist?’”

After three expert opinions, several rounds of chemotherapy, surgery, radiation, hormonal therapy and countless treatment side effects, Jones took her experience to the streets to help the community. An educated woman who spent
33 years working for the World Bank, Jones knew how to navigate the healthcare system to get the best possible care, and the active part she took in her own care is a testament to how well she is doing today.

But Jones knows that not everyone is as lucky as she is. That’s why she decided to use her experience as a breast cancer survivor to give back to her community. While undergoing radiation treatment not long after being diagnosed, Jones began training with the American Cancer Society to become a certified breast-health educator and to work with newly diagnosed cancer patients. Now, as a trained breast cancer navigator, Jones has 18 to 20 clients who she helps find care, schedule mammograms, counsel and, importantly, become an advocate for their own care by asking critical questions like she did.

Jones says the women she works with mostly east of the river at Union Temple Baptist Church and in Southwest face incredible challenges like difficult choices between paying for electricity or for cancer medicine, and many mistrust
the healthcare system that previously failed or excluded them.

“The fear factor and the lack of trust of doctors, sometimes I think that’s even greater than society knows,” said Jones.

As a breast cancer navigator, Jones has the opportunity to offer a voice to the voiceless.

“I explain that their feelings are real, and that’s why it’s important to find a doctor you trust,” Jones said.

“Some people are very uncomfortable with asking their doctors questions. I tell them ‘you are the best advocate for your health.’ I really try to listen to help allay their fears.

“I’m really succeeding gradually. One woman called on Friday to tell me she had her mammogram because of me. And it came out fine.”

Jones is constantly reminding her clients and the rest of the Southwest community that screening saves lives. Her goal is to be able to walk down the street or through the Safeway and hear, “Ms. Jones, I got my mammogram!” everywhere she goes. Women age 40 and older should have mammograms every year according to the American Cancer Society, and those at high risk because of a family or personal history should talk with their doctors about starting earlier. Jones urges
women to celebrate Breast Cancer Awareness Month by getting checked and by joining her in the American Cancer Society Making Strides Against Breast Cancer walk on Sat., Oct. 29, at the Sylvan Theater on the National Mall.

Registration begins at 9 am. For questions or to join the Thelma Jones Faith Striders Team, email or call 202-488-3746. Jones aims to have 59 people on her team – one for each year of her life.

“[Breast cancer] eats away at you – but it also changes your whole life and focus,” Jones said. “You also get to appreciate life differently.”

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