SAVANNAH, Ga. (WSAV) — “Think: Who are you going to tell about what you’ve learned today?,” women’s health advocate Tamika Felder asked a small crowd of women and men at Bethlehem Missionary Baptist Church.
Felder was speaking about awareness of cervical health — more specifically, cervical cancer, a disease that she conquered 18 years ago, and the reason she’d traveled from Maryland to Georgia over the weekend.
Saturday’s 1st Annual Teolita S. Rickenbacker Cervical Cancer Awareness Fundraiser Luncheon was held in honor of Rickenbacker.
[Teolita] really became a great ambassador for us and stepped up in making her survivorship count.”-Tamika Felder, women’s health advocate and founder of Cervivor
The Savannah resident had been diagnosed with stage 4 cervical cancer in 2015 and had worked hard to spread awareness about the disease even as she fought its impacts on her body.
“A couple of years ago, Teolita had all her family members and friends together, and we marched in the M.L. King Day Parade,” Rickenbacker’s aunt Alfreda Hollingsworth, told News 3.
“This was very passionate for her, and we’re going to do our best to keep her legacy alive by recognizing and making others aware that they need to get their annual checkups and take care of themselves,” Hollingsworth said.
Rickenbacker lost her battle with cervical cancer in August 2019, but her mission and her message are living on through her loved ones.
“I promise you, wherever I go, wherever I tell my story, her story will always be told in some shape or fashion,” Felder told the luncheon’s attendees.
Rickenbacker’s mother, Dr. Nina Rickenbacker Edwards, hosted Saturday’s fundraising event to continue her late daughter’s goal of informing women about the importance of taking care of their cervical health.
“I just like helping others,” she added. “If I can prevent someone from going through the same thing [my daughter] went through, I would do it.”
The luncheon’s theme was “stomp out cervical cancer.”
Cervical cancer survivors stood up to share their own difficult journeys, from noticing that something was not quite right with their bodies, to the difficult diagnosis, struggling to tell family and friends, dealing with treatment and, eventually, beating the disease.
“I had never even heard of cervical cancer,” said one survivor, who was diagnosed at age 37 and lost her ability to have children because of the illness.
“When you’re told you have three months — that was a lie,” said another survivor, who has beat stage 4 of both cervical and ovarian cancer.
“I have so much faith,” she added.
They all stressed to the crowd that cervical cancer is preventable with regular checkups and the HPV vaccine, as HPV can lead to cervical cancer.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) states that black and Hispanic women are more prone to HPV-associated cervical cancer.
“The issue with black women is that we get diagnosed at later stages,” Felder said. “Teolita was stage 4, we and heard from another survivor here who was also stage 4.”
Felder herself was diagnosed at stage 2B.
She said the issue could be that women of color tend to delay follow-up doctor’s visits.
“I was kind of paralyzed from fear from having this cancer, but that cancer was still growing in my body while I waited,” Felder said.
Upon receiving the devastating diagnosis, something else that women may struggle with is telling their loved ones about it, as some of the survivors pointed out while sharing their stories.
“When a woman is going through a cervical cancer-related diagnosis, or if anyone is going through any HPV-related diagnosis, I would really want their family members to be there to support them,” Felder said.
“There’s already this cloud of shame, stigma, that hangs over an HPV-related cancer diagnosis, and it’s just deplorable to me that someone would have to hide something hard that they’re going through, when they actually need the most support ever,” she added.
Felder tells News 3 that she understands how it feels to be impacted by the shame and stigma, and that part of the work they hoped to achieve at the luncheon is to make discussing the ordeal of cervical cancer a little easier.
“By making sure that we talk about it, that we say it out loud, that we speak on it, we can just get rid of shame and stigma centered around cervical cancer,” Felder said.
All proceeds from the event went toward a scholarship established in Rickenbacker’s name, sponsored by Cervivor.
Cervivor is a nonprofit cervical cancer awareness and support organization founded by Felder following her own cervical cancer journey.
It was through Cervivor School, an advocacy training event, that Felder first met Rickenbacker.
“She attended our survivor school in June of 2017 in Florida, and I was really happy to have her there because, you know, African-American women have the highest mortality rate of cervical cancer, and she came in really willing to share her story,” Felder told News 3.
As a member of Cervivor, Rickenbacker went on to tell her cancer story on Capitol Hill and in New York.
“She really became a great ambassador for us and stepped up in making her survivorship count, so I was devastated at her loss,” Felder said.
“To say that she did all that advocacy work while dealing with Stage 4 cervical cancer was incredible,” she added.
Rickenbacker’s mother says in honor of her daughter, she’ll continue to raise awareness for women’s health not just during January’s Cervical Health Awareness Month, but all year round.
“In September, it’s Ovarian Cancer Month,” Rickenbacker-Edwards said. “Anything that’s dealing with our body, I want to be able to help and spread the word.”