Although breast cancer is less common in black women, they are 40 percent more likely to die from it than white women. Niasha Fray, a researcher at Sullivan Foundation partner school Duke University, understands that worrisome statistic better than most: After spending part of her career counseling women with breast cancer to stick with their treatment, she was diagnosed with the disease herself in 2017.

But Fray, now the program director for the Duke Center for Community & Population Health Improvement, didn’t let breast cancer get in the way of serving others. She was one of three recipients of the 2019 Algernon Sydney Sullivan Award at Duke, and her experience as a breast cancer survivor and her work in promoting health and behavior change for at-risk populations also earned coverage by NPR in 2018.

Each year Duke University recognizes a graduating senior and a member of the faculty, staff or graduate student body with the Sullivan Award. In addition to Fray, Duke presented the award to two students in 2019—Idalis French, a psychology major, and Moreen Njoroge, an evolutionary anthropology major.

Niasha Fray: Helping Women Survive Breast Cancer

Fray’s selflessness inspired her colleagues to nominate her for the award. “Every time I have known her to make a commitment to help others, I have seen her follow through in a way that surpasses the expectations of those she is serving,” wrote nominator Helene Milve, a medical instructor in the Duke Department of Population Health Sciences.

Related: Algernon Sydney Sullivan Award winner shares untold stories of African-Americans at Washington and Lee University

Fray works on health promotion, behavior change and counseling for at-risk populations affected by HIV/AIDS, substance abuse, post-traumatic stress and breast cancer. She also is a guest lecturer in the course, ”AIDS: Principles and Policy,” at the University of North Carolina Gillings School of Global Public Health. She is a member of Healthy Durham 20/20, an organization working to improve the health and quality of life for the Durham community.

this photo shows Algernon Sydney Sullivan Award winner Niasha Fray

Niasha Fray (right) accepts the 2019 Algernon Sydney Sullivan Award from Duke Provost Sally Kornbluth. (Photo by Les Todd)

As a counselor researching disparities in cancer outcomes at UNC-Chapel Hill, she used a type of therapy called motivational interviewing to help women overcome obstacles that deterred them from taking their medications, which often have unpleasant side effects. “They had just given up so much of their lives, so much of their bodies, so much of their family,” Fray told NPR in October 2018. “They wanted to get back to life as usual.”

As NPR reported, studies have found that black women are less likely to have health insurance or to get screened for breast cancer, which means their cancer is often advanced by the time they get into treatment. They’re also less likely to stick with the prolonged daily endocrine therapy treatment prescribed for certain common types of breast cancer, often because they can’t afford it and the medications are so unpleasant. One study noted that 14 percent of black women didn’t take their medications every day as prescribed, compared to about 5 percent of white women.

Fray told NPR the disparity might also have something to do with the fact that so many black women identify strongly as caregivers. As a counselor, she found that black women were often more accustomed to looking after others than themselves. “There was a lot of conversation about the stress of being a caregiver,” Fray told NPR. She said she had many discussions with patients about “the stress of being a black person in America and having doctors not listen to you, having employers that don’t care about you.”

Fray underwent surgery, chemotherapy and radiation treatment for breast cancer during the summer of 2018, and her prognosis is good, according to NPR. But the battle continues as she faces 10 long years of endocrine therapy. “You gotta get your mind right,” she said in the interview. “You can’t change the scenario or the situation. How do I change my mind?”

Related: Rollins College remembers Mister Rogers, a 2001 winner of the Algernon Sydney Sullivan Award

Fray continues to help other black women “put on the armor of self-care” while conducting her research at Duke, making her a strong choice for the Algernon Sydney Sullivan Award. “This award is for the people making sure our world, our community, our families and ourselves are healthy,” Fray said in accepting the award last April. “I’m so lucky to serve a community I care for so much.”

Idalis French: A Passion for Uplifting Others
Idalis French was selected for the Algernon Sydney Sullivan Award for her work mentoring young girls in the Durham, N.C. community.

Since her first year on campus, French devoted time and energy to The Girls’ Club, a mentorship organization at the Emily K Center for middle school girls attending Durham Public Schools. French served as a mentor, vice president of recruitment and president for the organization. She led weekly sessions about mental health, female empowerment and confidence.

this photo shows Algernon Sydney Sullivan Award winner Idalis French

Duke Provost Sally Kornbluth (left) presents the 2019 Algernon Sydney Sullivan Award to Idalis French. (Photo by Les Todd)

“She shows a natural inclination toward selflessness, empathy and understanding with mentees and mentors alike,” wrote nominator Madeline Farber, a Duke clinical psychology Ph.D. student. “To see a woman of her age with such fervent passion for uplifting others is quite remarkable.”

French also volunteered with the Durham Nursing & Rehabilitation Center, where she kept residents company in their rooms, played bingo with them and facilitated arts and crafts.

“There are not enough words to express my gratitude,” French said. “To know that I’m leaving Duke with the impact I intended to leave it with freshman year is so inspiring and such a great blessing.”

Moreen Njoroge: From Carolina to Kenya

Duke’s Sullivan Award committee chose senior Moreen Njoroge for her work across disciplines and continents.

Njoroge majored in evolutionary anthropology major with minors in chemistry and global health. She has studied in Spain, India and Kenya. In Kenya, Njoroge worked with village chiefs, community health workers and hospital administrators to analyze what causes women to not receive treatment for cervical cancer.

Related: Sullivan Award winner overcame poverty, racism to earn National Science Foundation Graduate Fellowship

this photo shows Algernon Sydney Sullivan Award winner Moreen Njoroge

Duke Provost Sally Kornbluth (left) presents the university’s Algernon Sydney Sullivan Award to Moreen Njoroge. (Photo by Les Todd)

“Moreen is experienced, focused, determined and self-directed. She sets high standards for her work and constantly meets them,” wrote nominator Colleen Scott, director of Duke’s Baldwin Scholars Program. “She is eager to have a better understanding of health needs in underserved regions and populations and will not be satisfied with simply possessing this knowledge.”

For two years Njoroge worked as an English and mathematics tutor for refugee students in the America Reads/America Counts program. She was also an Alice M. Baldwin Scholar, a program that supports undergraduate women at Duke to become engaged, confident and connected leaders to the community.

“This award may have my name on it, but it belongs to everybody who has been guiding me on this journey,” Njoroge said. “I’m so grateful for the education I’ve received and the confidence I have gained at Duke.”

This story was adapted from Jonathan Black’s article appearing on the Duke University website and from an October 9, 2019 NPR report.

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