Highland Park woman's website offers support to breast cancer patients

| Saturday, Dec. 1, 2012, 7:58 p.m.

Sylvia Lowery-Lewis knew what she faced.

Diagnosed with breast cancer, she understood the triple-negative strain attacking her body could be especially aggressive and deadly. The cancer shocked and frightened her, she said, but she drew strength from her tight-knit family as she underwent a partial mastectomy in January and two rounds of chemotherapy.

Many cancer patients turn inward, but Lowery-Lewis of Highland Park made public her plight in order to bring awareness to triple-negative breast cancer and the importance of cancer screening.

Married and a mother of six, Lowery-Lewis told her story in “Journey for Recovery,” a Tribune-Review special report published Sept. 30 that spotlighted breast cancer among black women.

She died on Oct. 22 at age 60, about 17 months after her diagnosis.

“For me, (cancer) made me stronger because it has made me a fighter to get information out,” she said about two months before her death. “If I can turn the light on three people about this, I have done my job.”

Lowry-Lewis's daughter, Jamine Lewis, said her mother worried that women coping with breast cancer might be hesitant to talk about it. Her mother wanted to put them at ease with asking questions.

“She wanted to make sure that people were more inclined to speak up, rather than keep it a secret, especially in the African-American community,” said Lewis, 35, of Highland Park.

National studies show death rates from breast cancer are 41 percent higher for black women than white women, even though fewer black women develop the disease.

Lowery-Lewis built a website, triplenegativebreastcancerawareness.com, and aimed to work through churches to foster conversation about the disease.

“I know that she wanted to dialogue and put all of this on her website,” Lewis said. “She always felt a need to hurry up and get that information on there.”

As many as 30 percent of breast cancers in black women are triple-negative, while the percentage in all patients is 14 percent to 20 percent, according to Susan G. Komen for the Cure.

The death risk from triple-negative cancer can be three times higher than those of more common cancer types, the journal Cancer reported. This cancer lacks three hormone receptors that are a key conduit for treatment.

“Cancer in many ways is disarming and disempowering — that diagnosis alone,” said Dr. Dwight Heron, Lowery-Lewis' oncologist and the director of radiation oncology services at UPMC Cancer Centers. Lowery-Lewis “was the kind of person, just with her own personality, who faced it head-on, looked it in the eye and said: ‘I want to beat you. I'm going to beat you.' ”

She pledged to “arm other people to carry on the mission because we've got to beat this thing,” Heron said.

The Rev. Barbara Gunn said no one expected Lowery-Lewis to die so soon. Her memorial service was conducted Oct. 30 at Unity Baptist Church in Braddock.

“She never hinted in any way that she was not going to make it through this,” said Gunn, a friend and the pastor at Mt. Carmel Baptist Church in North Versailles. Yet, “I think she always knew there was more of a possibility that she wouldn't (make it) than if she would. That's why she was in such a hurry to get something done” for public awareness.

The women met at a Staples store in the North Hills where Lowery-Lewis worked as a supervisor, Gunn said.

Lowery-Lewis reconnected there with Sharon Herring-Turner, 61, a childhood friend from Braddock who was diagnosed with breast cancer. Herring-Turner's cancer is in remission.

“I've never seen Sylvia in a bad mood — never — not even with the cancer,” said Herring-Turner, of Perry Hilltop in the North Side. “If she could do anything for you, she would go out of her way to do it.”

But, she said, “Her passing makes me think: Is (my cancer) coming back?”

In an August interview, Lowery-Lewis spoke glowingly about her husband, Johnnie Lewis, 70, who survives at home. She was very much “still in love,” she said.

“I don't know what tomorrow's going to bring,” she said, “but I try to live my days to the fullest that I can.”

Adam Smeltz is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-380-5676 or asmeltz@tribweb.com.

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