Cynthia Ryan’s Street Smarts Homeless With Cancer
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Homeless With Cancer

Over the last year, as a breast cancer survivor set out to learn about the needs of homeless cancer patients, she found an unexpected bond in their shared experiences.

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By Alanna Kennedy-Gorman

Cynthia Ryan’s Street Smarts

A new program helps homeless women learn about cancer

By Alanna Kennedy-Gorman


“Street Smarts,” a one-of-a-kind program for educating homeless women about breast cancer, launches today, June 17, thanks to CR contributing writer Cynthia Ryan.

Ryan, a 17-year breast cancer survivor, spent a year reporting on the health needs of homeless cancer patients for the award-winning CR story “Homeless With Cancer.” During her investigation, Ryan became friends with some of the patients who she was profiling. She began accompanying them to doctors’ appointments and reaching out to help in other small ways. By the time she had finished writing her story, she had no intention of leaving her new friends behind.

“I realized that even though what I was doing was just a drop in the bucket, if I abandoned them their lives would go back to the way they were,” says Ryan, “and they may not get the treatment they need.”

The first Street Smarts event, a “spa day,” takes place today at the Church of the Reconciler, a house of worship with strong ties to Birmingham’s homeless community. Program participants—homeless women from the community—will be treated to a healthy lunch and spa services, such as manicures, while they learn about breast cancer from oncology nurses who work at Jefferson County Cooper Green Hospital, a Birmingham hospital where homeless men and women obtain cancer treatment. To develop the program, Ryan worked closely with homeless breast cancer patients, including her friends Edwina Sanders and Lisa Brown, to evaluate the types of services and messages that would resonate with the audience.

The goal of the program is two-fold, explains Ryan. She hopes to educate homeless women about breast cancer and their cancer risk, but she also hopes others will follow her example. “Maybe I can … help people realize, ‘I can have relationships with these individuals and help them navigate the health care system,’ ” she says.

Ryan continues to find inspiration from the relationships she’s developed with women like Sanders and Brown. “The problems this community faces are so enormous and far-reaching that I have the drive to keep going,” she says. “There are so many people affected by homelessness who also have cancer.”