BUFFALO, N.Y. — Twice a week you'll find Annette Colden of Buffalo working in the gift shop at Roswell Park Comprehensive Cancer Center chatting with cancer patients and their families.
"Oh, that brings me so much joy," she said.
"When you have cancer, you tend to want to talk about it. Those that come in, I get a certain feeling from them and I will bring it up. Just to let them know, 'You can do this. Just have faith. We don't believe in pity parties. You can't feel sorry for yourself because you're fighting for your life.'"
Annette knows that from experience. She battled breast cancer herself and now likes to call herself a cancer counselor.
The Buffalo mother of one and grandmother of three says cancer was prevalent in her family. Her sister and father died from the disease. Three of her brothers also battled cancer.
"I went and got my mammogram because I promised my sister as she was transitioning on that I would get my mammogram because she was misdiagnosed," Annette explained.
She says she too was misdiagnosed. Annette said her initial doctor found a spot after her first mammogram but was not concerned because he said she simply had lumpy breast tissue.
A year later, when Annette got her next mammogram, the doctor found the same spot and said he wanted to check it. Annette said she pointed out to him that that was the same spot he previously found.
She said was fortunate it didn't grow in size over the course of that year, but the initial misdiagnosis spurred Annette to switch doctors and seek treatment at Roswell. Annette underwent two lumpectomies and a mastectomy in 2008 and has been healthy ever since.
"I am a person that believes heavily in God. So with me going through a whole year- and African American women, our cancers much more aggressive than our counterparts - and believe it or not, He kept my cancer at stage zero. So that told me right there that God had a mission for me," said Annette.
"For Him to spare my life, I knew that He had something that He wanted me to do. I didn't know what it was but I told God, 'I'm putting my trust in you. When you're ready to show me, I'm ready.' And He has shown me."
Now she helps others navigate the uncertain road.
"I had a tremendous support system and that's what I try to be for people," she said.
She started volunteering in The Witness Project support group and then she started her own cancer support group called We R As 1. Annette begins by advocating for mammograms and early detection, especially for women of color.
"For every excuse you give me as in why you don't want to have a mammogram, I can give you a reason why you should. Some of them test me and say it hurts. Well, cancer hurts a lot worse," she said.
And if and when they get that difficult news, Annette offers to be by their side.
"When you're diagnosed and someone says, 'Yes, you have cancer,' after that you don't hear anything else that's being said. So what I like to do is go with them, take my notes, and I ask questions that that they don't know to ask."
Those who work at Roswell and have watched Annette interact with patients and their families say her selflessness is truly making a difference.
"Women of color, particularly African American women are seeing some of the highest rates of breast cancer mortality. So we're dying from breast cancer more. So for her to champion this effort, to help women that are fearful, she just says, 'let me take your hand we're going to get through this together.' And we know through her effort, she's changing the mindset and she's really changing lives," said Nikia Clark, Senior Community Outreach and Engagement Manager.
Annette has found her purpose, and for that reason, she tells the people she meets, that having cancer was actually a blessing.
"I had a tough road. I will admit that. but I wouldn't change it for anything in the world," she said.
Annette can be found working in the Roswell Park gift shop Wednesdays and Thursdays. To learn more about her We R As 1 support group, call (716) 903-7030.
To nominate someone to be featured in the Selfless Among Us series, email details to Melissa.Holmes@wgrz.com .
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