Cancer, including breast cancer, has been a nearly constant presence in the life of Nan Brown-Curtis.
Her sister and niece both died of breast cancer. Her mother and two aunts were diagnosed with breast cancer, as well. Her first husband died of lymphoma. Her current husband is a kidney cancer survivor and is fighting multiple myeloma, a blood cancer. Brown-Curtis herself is a survivor of colorectal cancer.
Brown-Curtis has built and crossed many bridges on her cancer journey, and she is now using her experiences to help others make their own successful passage.
“It’s important for people to see people who have had a cancer diagnosis who are still alive,” Brown-Curtis said.
Brown-Curtis uses her personal cancer experience as a living example of survival and perseverance. A resident of Selma, she is a member of the O’Neal Comprehensive Cancer Center’s Community Advisory Board and a longtime affiliate of the Cancer Center’s Office of Community Outreach & Engagement.
Community service is a family affair for Brown-Curtis as she and several of her sisters share their family’s history of cancer. In their Dallas County community, the women advocate for early testing and awareness of family cancer histories.
“We didn’t keep what we knew inside of us. We shared it,” Brown-Curtis said. “We figured that it was our mission. We wanted people to know that cancer doesn’t care who you are, how old you are or how young you are.”
She and her sisters do their early-detection and cancer awareness advocacy work under the name of “Johnnie’s Girls,” in honor of their mother, Johnnie Mae Summers. Summers was a breast cancer survivor who later died of ovarian cancer in 1997.
Brown-Curtis is a strong activist for families learning and discussing their shared medical histories. Her family shares the BRCA gene. Mutations in BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes increase the risk of several cancers, including breast and ovarian cancer.
“Families must find out their family history so they can start testing early,” Brown-Curtis said.
In January, Brown-Curtis was presented with yet another challenge when she was diagnosed with lung cancer.
She was nervous about beginning her latest round of targeted chemotherapy.
“First of all, we have to get rid of fear and doubt because they are the enemy,” she explained. “I said, ‘God, I don’t know what’s in this medicine. I do not have a clue. But you do.’ I walk in wellness.”
Brown-Curtis was a nurse for 26 years before transitioning into a 20-year career in health-care professions education at the high school and community college levels.
With her personal and professional background, Brown-Curtis remains an informal adviser to many in her community. The COVID-19 pandemic has kept her away from in-person groups in recent months, but her phone continues to ring. And she always answers.
“As long as the Lord allows me to help someone, I’m going to help,” she said.
Family, faith and obedience to medical advice are essential, she said. And as she encourages others, Brown-Curtis continues to find her own inspiration.
“The positive has been the example that other people see coming from us,” Brown-Curtis said. “A lot of people know we have had adversity. They’ve seen endurance. They’ve seen that you can make it. They’ve seen how important family is.”
Brown-Curtis is an ordained minister. When asked about the source of her eternal optimism, she paused and then delivered her one-word answer: “God.”
“You have to be connected to someone greater than you and greater than anything that can happen in the Earth realm and around you,” she said. “That strong faith is important for the journey. I’m going to live as long as I’m supposed to live.”
A version of this story originally appeared on the website of UAB’s O’Neal Comprehensive Cancer Center.