Speaking as a 21-year breast cancer survivor, Starr Durham often tells her story in large rooms filled with professionally dressed men and women. But she can also be found at an African American church or on the phone with a retired woman who is reluctant to share her diagnosis with anyone else. She even communicates to husbands. “Be a part of your wife’s self-breast exam,” she instructs.
Starr, who lives in Johnstown, is married to Edward and is the mother of three children and a grandchild. Retired from GTE/Verizon, she has worked the past eight years for Donna Christopher at State Farm.
She discovered the lump in her own breast July 10, 1998, while doing a regular self-breast exam. “I knew it was not there the month before,” she says.
That August, Starr was diagnosed with Stage 3 cancer.
During chemotherapy, her cousin, also diagnosed with breast cancer, warned her against the anti-cancer drug Taxol. But the doctor convinced her to try it to increase her chances of survival. Starr says taking the drug almost killed her.
Believing death was near, she made a promise to God; “Lord, if you will bring me through this, I will help other women on their cancer journey.”
In January 1999, Starr was cancer free.
But, she says, while her body may have recovered, her mind was still processing what had happened. Family members tried to reassure her. “But I still wrestled with how to continue to find normal, when there was no normal,” she says.
Starr’s questions led her to The Women’s Breast Cancer Support Group – later renamed The Women’s Cancer’s Support, to assist women with other forms of cancer.
Starr joined the group and, she says, “My true journey of life began.”
Through the group, she found a place for honest discussion on how cancer affects the physical, emotional, and spiritual self. She also met women who were comfortable discussing topics from sexual relationships during cancer therapy to tips on prosthetics and swim wear.
As an African American woman, Starr says one of the most difficult cancer side effects for her to deal with was the loss of her hair. Following chemotherapy, Starr developed alopecia. “Black women have strong hair pride,” she says. “I had a full head of beautiful hair. It was my crown of glory.”
While losing her hair was difficult, with time, she found the right wig and it became her new “crown” and, these days, she has several. “I have Sunday church hair, my go-to-meeting hair, and even an I-don’t-care hair,” she says.
Starr credits The Women’s Cancer’s Support group facilitator, Carol Harding, for launching her into public speaking. “Carol opened those doors of opportunity so I could share my story,” she says. “I choose to speak up and speak out. I am keeping my promise to God.”
Together, Carol and Starr created Sole Survivors, a team that blossomed from the support group.
In 1999, Sole Survivors was the only Relay for Life team made up of cancer survivors.
At that time, the event was a 24-hour walk. “Many of the Sole members could not walk that long, so family members walked in their place,” Starr recalls. “We would give the soles of our shoes for a cure. We literally wore out the soles of our shoes.”
Sole Survivors participates in the Johnstown Walk of Hope, a local cancer nonprofit fundraiser, where all proceeds stay in the area. Anyone is welcome to join the group, Starr says – men, women or children, with or without a cancer diagnosis.
Sole Survivors team members sport T-shirts embossed with a pair of feet on the back encircling a starfish on the front. The image is drawn from “The Starfish Story” by Loren Eisley.
It's a story of how one person can make a difference – something Starr's life exemplifies.
In the tale, a young boy is throwing starfish washed up onto the beach by a high tide back into the ocean. A man walks by and asks the youngster what he is doing. The boy explains that he is returning the starfish to the water before they die. The man tells the boy that he cannot possibly throw them all back as the beach stretches for miles. “You can't make a difference,” he tells the lad.
The boy bends down, picks up another starfish and throws it back into the ocean. He then looks at the man and says, “I made a difference for that one.”