At the Smith Center, Scarlett Small, Corinne Bombowsky, Arnette Ibitayo, Ma Diakite, Carole O’Toole, Thelma D. Jones, Seneca Jones, Fatima Djalo, Kiersten Gallagher, Anthia Peters

For the first time, the Smith Center for Healing and the Arts, located at 1632 U St., NW, hosted a meeting of the Thelma D. Jones Breast Cancer Fund (TDJBCF) support group. “It was a venue that I had previously considered many times, based on my long partnership with the center in serving people with cancer,” said Thelma D. Jones, Founder of TDJBCF. The July meeting was a success, and opened many eyes to the valuable services offered by the Smith Center.

The Smith Center was founded in 1996 by DC artist Barbara Smith-Coleman, after a life-transforming experience as a caregiver to her brother dealing with cancer. The organization is a nonprofit health, education and arts organization, with a mission to develop and promote healing practices that explore physical, emotional and mental wellness and lead to life-affirming changes for people with serious illness. The Smith Center offers programs for the community and specializes in serving people with cancer and utilizing the arts in healing. Its signature program is its 3-day residential retreat for people with cancer, and they will be offering one day retreats at the Center beginning in 2019.

Jennifer Bires, LICSW, OSW-C, Smith Center’s Executive Director, welcomed the group, and enthusiastically encouraged the guests to return to the Center for its many programs and community events. A brief introduction on Smith Center’s various programs and activities was given by Kirsten Gallagher, Cancer Support Program Director, including their ongoing yoga, creativity and nutrition classes, support groups for patients and caregivers, and their programs for young adult cancer survivors. The beautifully designed Center also includes the Joan Hisaoka Art Gallery, that hosts exhibits and community events. For more on Smith Center’s programs, visit

Carole O’Toole, Smith Center Director of Integrative Navigation and Cancer Retreats, and a longtime supporter of the TDJBCF, began the July meeting by sharing a poignant story of healing that left the audience almost speechless. O’Toole explained the importance of how telling your story can positively impact the physical and mental wellbeing of a chronically ill patient. Diagnosed in 1994 at age 38 with a rare and very aggressive inflammatory breast cancer, her motivation to live and thrive was her daughter, who was 2 years old at the time, and her devoted spouse.

O’Toole’s case was quite severe, and her doctors recommended she undergo very aggressive chemotherapy, a mastectomy and radiation. She also enrolled in a clinical trial that involved getting a bone marrow transplant. During her medical treatments, she decided to explore using complementary therapies to help support her through these difficult procedures. Using her scientific background, O’Toole began to research complementary therapies on her own, and decided to use such therapies as acupuncture, nutritional support, meditation, visualization and yoga alongside her medical care, engaging her doctors and healers in her research, and leading her doctors to encourage her to share her experience with other people facing cancer.

O’Toole’s doctors originally gave her 18 months to live. Now, a 25-year breast cancer survivor and author, her books include “Healing Outside the Margins: The Survivor’s Guide to Integrative Cancer Care” and “Cancer Community Healing Network,” a local guide to complementary practitioners in our city. O’Toole joined Smith Center in 2006, with the idea of expanding patient navigation to include supportive therapies.

Patient navigation was originally created to help remove physical barriers to receiving the best health care. O’Toole and Smith Center expanded that concept, developing integrative navigation as additional support for people facing cancer. “Integrative navigators meet with individuals to not only ensure they have access to medical treatment, but also to offer additional support through what are known as complementary therapies, such as nutritional support, stress management, emotional support and creative expression, all of which can truly change the cancer experience for individuals and their families,” said O’Toole. Integrative navigators are a free service Smith Center provides to anyone looking for additional support. Navigators provide information, education and connect people to many integrative cancer care resources, including their programs at Smith Center.

In 2007, Smith Center received a Komen Foundation grant to establish integrative patient navigators at Howard University Hospital and in the local community. The program reached over 12,000 people in the city and led to Smith Center developing a national training program for integrative patient navigators. The Center has trained 150 navigators across the country, serving diverse populations and working in a variety of locations, including the City of Hope in Los Angeles, rural Mississippi, Hawaii, Alaska, tribal reservations in the southwest and refugee clinics in Boston. Southwest DC’s own Thelma D. Jones is one of Smith Center’s award-winning community breast care navigators and is featured in a video on Smith Center’s retreats to be released shortly.

O’Toole was followed by the second speaker, Fatima Djalo. At the young age of 21, she was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma in her native Moldova in Eastern Europe and underwent thoracic surgery, chemotherapy and radiation there. After a successful recovery, she had the good fortune to win the green card diversity lottery and moved to the United States.

Not long after arriving here, Djalo had a relapse and needed a bone marrow transplant for which her younger brother was a 100% match. She seemed to make a good recovery, however she was later diagnosed while pursuing her master’s degree at Howard University with small cell neuroendocrine cervical cancer, a very rare form that affects only 2 percent of patients. This cancer usually appears in the lungs and Djalo’s case was so rare that there is no known protocol for treatment for this very aggressive form. Djalo, who was 27 at the time, was treated with a three-step procedure that included a hysterectomy, radiation and chemotherapy. Her doctors subsequently suggested she seek some help and support at Smith Center. Now a vivacious 29 year old, Djalo is Smith Center’s program coordinator for integrative health where she administers yoga stress relief classes, nutrition classes, lectures and talks.

Ending the evening, guests were given autographed copies of O’Toole’s books as well as a hand-crafted pink bowl designed by a local artist and displayed at Smith Center. The “Evening with Smith Center for Healing and the Arts” was so therapeutic that Jones and O’Toole agreed to make it an annual event.  “We are so happy to support the wonderful work the TDJBCF does in our community and look forward to welcoming the group to our space and our programs,” said O’Toole.

The Thelma D. Jones Breast Cancer Fund is a 501(c)(3) grassroots organization. Its mission is to advocate and improve the overall health and wellness for women and men through outreach, education, and prevention. It promotes early detection strategies for breast health and access to the best biomedical and evidence-based complementary therapies to reduce the incidences and mortality rates of breast cancer. Its vision is to save lives, embrace and achieve a world community free of breast cancer.

Support group meetings, the signature program of the TDJBCF, are held monthly on the third Wednesday at 6 p.m. at St. Augustine’s Episcopal Church located at 555 Water St., SW, unless otherwise specified. For questions, email

BY Elisabeth Ann Brown

Admiring Djalo’s story  (1-r) Ma Diakite, Carole O’Toole, Thelma D. Jones, Fatima Djalo, Kiersten Gallagher


Carole O’Toole sharing her story while Fatima Djalo looks on


Jennifer Bires and Thelma D. Jones


Kiersten Gallagher, Carole O’Toole, Thelma D. Jones enjoying a lighter moment after the meeting ends

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