Remembering Nancy Gardner Sewell

Published 12:55 pm Sunday, June 16, 2024

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By Rita Sims Franklin 

Three years ago today (June 10), Alabama lost a beacon in the community, and I lost a dear friend. Nancy Gardner Sewell epitomized leadership as the first Black woman elected to the Selma City Council.

We served together, and we remained close throughout the years. She championed childhood literacy and libraries, advocated for the city’s youth to participate in local government, and worked with women to help stem the rising tide of obesity, diabetes, and heart attacks. 

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Her late-stage pancreatic cancer diagnosis robbed the community of a person intent on improving lives and elevating underserved voices. But even after her battle with cancer ended in 2021, I’m proud to see that Nancy is still making a difference.

Hundreds of bipartisan lawmakers have rallied around a bill named for Nancy Gardner Sewell that will provide a better way to fight very deadly cancers, including pancreatic cancer. The nationwide cancer community has adopted the Nancy Gardner Sewell Multi-Cancer Early Detection Screening Coverage Act as a top priority to improve cancer patients’ outcomes and health equity.

I’m certain Nancy would be thrilled to know this cause will be added to her legacy – and that her daughter is playing such a pivotal role.

Rep. Terri Sewell is the leading sponsor of a bill that would provide a way for Medicare to cover multi-cancer early detection tests that can identify the presence and location of cancer with a blood draw – even before symptoms develop in later stages. 

Rep. Sewell’s colleagues surprised her by naming the bill for Nancy Gardner Sewell. It already has received support from 270 members of the House of Representatives, both Democrats and Republicans. A companion bill in the Senate has garnered more than 60 cosponsors, too.

There’s so much about this that would please Nancy. 

It would help those 65 and above, who are at the highest risk of cancer and are covered by Medicare, have access to the latest cancer screening tools. She would want her fellow Alabamians to have the benefit of these tests as soon as possible.

It would also address limitations in access to earlier cancer detection that seniors in Alabama’s rural and low-income areas face. A blood test can be available in primary doctors’ offices and community health centers. The tests won’t require an extensive trip to see a specialist, time off work, arrangements for family, or other financial burdens.

Most importantly, it would give people everywhere more hope for survival. We all understand that when cancer screenings are available – such as with mammograms and colonoscopies – people have a better shot at early detection and longer survival. Multi-cancer blood tests extend this hope to dozens of additional kinds of cancer. 

Nancy would want to provide this kind of hope to people and she would want an equitable way to ensure access.

Even as we mark the anniversary of her death, I’m heartened to know Nancy’s name continues to amplify advocacy for the greater good. Though I wish Nancy could still be with us, her daughter’s work and this legislation is keeping the true spirit of Nancy Gardner Sewell alive.

Rita Sims Franklin served on the Selma City Council with Nancy Gardner Sewell.