A survivor’s story

Published 12:00 am Sunday, January 16, 2005

Monday evening, January 10, the American Cancer Society presented Sherri Summers James with both the community and state awards given annually to an outstanding volunteer.

It is an honor richly deserved by James, a cancer survivor, who volunteers her free time on behalf of breast cancer patients.

Cancer runs a wide course through her family, beginning with her mother, Johnnie Mae Summers, who was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1982. “She found a lump under her arm and tests revealed that it was malignant,” James says.

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Radiation treatments were successful but in 1996 Mrs. Summers was diagnosed with ovarian cancer, which had caused the death of two of her sisters. She died in January 1997.

In August of the same year, through self-examination, James found a lump in her breast, which was treated with a mastectomy (surgical removal of the breast), and chemotherapy. The treatment was successful although she says, smiling, “Chemo is not a good experience. I lost my hair.”

For the next five years she had cancer examinations, every three months for the first year, then every six months and now once a year. Because her tumor was not estrogen sensitive, tamoxifen (medication used to prevent recurrence) was not prescribed for her.

“So I have been going on in the name of the Lord, and doing well,” she says.

But cancer did not relax its hold on her family. In 1998 her sister Nan Curtis was diagnosed with colon cancer. “Early enough that there was no metastasis of cancer cells so no follow-up treatment was necessary,” James says.

Next to face to cancer was her sister Veronica Brown, who received a diagnosis of breast cancer in 2004. After a lumpectomy, chemotherapy and radiation, she is now a cancer survivor.

The other three of James’ five sisters are Karol Purdie, Tanya Miles and Janet Swopes. “So far, they have escaped cancer,” she says, “but they are careful to have yearly mammograms, physical check-ups and to do breast self-examination.”

Most of the five Summers sisters are involved with health care and education. They are knowledgeable and aware of the importance of regular examinations, James says. “Sisters are God’s blessings to us. It hurt to lose my mother but the thought of losing a sister is unbearable.”

In addition to her work with the American Cancer Society, James is involved in her career with city government and with several volunteer committees. A native of Mobile, she attended high school there, earned her BS degree in business administration from Alabama A&M University and received a master’s in elementary education.

She taught at Craig’s CITY Program (Community Intensive Training for Youth),

where she is now a board member, and “loved it,” she says.

An active member of Great Saint Paul’s Missionary Baptist Church, she teaches Sunday school, is a Deaconess and president of the Matrons Organization in addition to serving on the scholarship committee.

Her husband, Ollie James, also from Mobile, is associated with Dallas County School System. And her only child, Andria Irving, is a student at University of Alabama Birmingham, where she is interested in the medical field.

This is James’ fifth year as administrative assistant to Selma Mayor James Perkins Jr. “I enjoy it because I get to meet a lot of people, talk with a lot of people. That’s a connection I have made here, the people. God puts you in places where you need to be and people need to know you care about them,” she says, relating a recent incident from such an experience.

James is already working to make the American Cancer Society annual Relay for Life a success on April 8. And working with her is her regular team, “Johnnie’s Girls,” the five daughters of Johnnie Mae Summers.

Of her recent awards from the Cancer Society, she says, “humble is the way it makes me feel. I am honored that someone thought enough of me to nominate me. It makes me want to work even harder to encourage those diagnosed with cancer to take a holistic approach to their cure.

“Faith and medicine: both are necessary.”