April 8, 2021

'You're not alone:' How one educator is bringing acceptance, visibility to others with pancreatic cancer

Madison, Wis. — Getting a cancer diagnosis isn’t easy at any age.

Getting a cancer diagnosis is never easy, but for Andreal Davis, coming to terms with it was the hard part.  

“It took me a long time to really come to place where I accepted that I had pancreatic cancer,” she said.

Just days after her 73-year-old mother was declared breast cancer-free in late 2019, Davis received the news of her own cancer diagnosis. She immediately began treatment at the UW Carbone Cancer Center, but spent months trying to comprehend why pancreatic cancer, of all things, was the thing she got stuck with.

But one morning, several months after her diagnosis, she sat on the sofa and asked herself: what’s really going to help you accept the situation you are in?

“So I just started looking on my computer for other African-American people who have been impacted by pancreatic cancer,” she said. “And I started learning about all of these different people who had it.”

Once you start digging, you quickly learn that the list of notable African-Americans who have faced pancreatic cancer is lengthy, and includes more than a few household names.

The Queen of Soul herself Aretha Franklin. Jazz greats Dizzy Gillespie and Count Basie. Playwright and UW-Madison alumni Lorraine Hansberry. Civil rights icon and Congressman John Lewis. And that’s just to name a few.

“When I started seeing all of these famous people who look like me, and knowing that they battled pancreatic cancer or are currently battling it, it helped me,” Davis said. “It brought me to a level of acceptance, and it also made me feel like I’m not in this alone.”

An educator by training, Davis knew she wanted to use this information not just to help herself, but help others who might be in a similar situation. So while still on the sofa that morning, she began crafting a PowerPoint presentation with what she had learned about prominent African-Americans who had pancreatic cancer. It then grew to include more general information about the disease, as well as the story of how purple became the color of pancreatic cancer awareness.

After putting together the presentation, the next question became: what do I do with it?

Fortunately, she had a place where she could turn.

Davis is the founder of the Black History Education Conference. The annual conference brings together stakeholders from around Wisconsin and the nation to share policies and strategies aimed at closing achievement gaps and promoting Black student success and achievement. Over time though, the conference has grown to incorporate discussion about other issues, including health disparities.

It was the perfect place to share what she had learned about pancreatic cancer.

So in February, Davis debuted her presentation to a virtual crowd of over 400 people who had gathered to take part in the event. She followed her presentation up with some specific breakout sessions about cancer later in the conference. Presenters from partner organizations – the UW Carbone Cancer Center and the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network – shared information not only about pancreatic cancer, but about prostate, breast and colon cancer, all of which still disproportionally affect African-Americans. 

“For the cancers that you can be screened for, I wanted people to know that it’s available,” she said. “But I also wanted people to know that, if in fact you are diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, I might be able to help you get through some steps I went through, in terms of accepting things and moving into ways to take care of yourself.”

Davis says people were surprised to learn how pancreatic cancer had affected so many prominent African-Americans, and some have already reached out to her with reactions and requests for more information.

“People were calling me, telling me different things that they learned,” she said. “From seeing a vision on the sofa that day, to actually being able to share information with people about education and awareness, it’s incredible.”

Now, Davis says she’s inspired to keep the work going. Her presentation has evolved into a broader cancer education and awareness platform she calls the “Afr I CAN cer Project.” The goals of the project, she says, include reducing inequities, creating awareness, implementing education activities, conducting outreach, and developing programs for underserved populations.

Through it all, she’s still undergoing treatment for her cancer. On last examination, her tumor appeared to be shrinking, but she’s preparing herself for the possibility another intense round of chemotherapy in the future. If and when that time comes, she won't have to go it alone. Like before, she has the support of her husband, children, mother and other family and friends.

But this time, she’ll know she stands firmly on the shoulders of those who have gone before her on this same journey. 

And sometimes knowing that can make all the difference in the world.