By David Smallwood & Jan Emanuel-Costley
Like pioneering Black motorcyclist Bessie Stringfield traveled cross-country delivering classified documents for the Army during World War II, Jan Emanuel-Costley today rides the nation’s roads on her Harley to raise money for breast cancer research.
For three years, Jan, who goes by her road name “Sunny The Diva,” has spearheaded annual motorcycle fundraising treks with fellow lady biking enthusiasts for her non-profit organization, Divas For A Cure “DFAC” (www.divasforacure.org).
The three rides have covered over 25,000 miles and raised $123,200 for M.D. Anderson Cancer Research Center in Houston, Texas. Harley-Davidson, the leading name in the motorcycle world, was the primary sponsor of the rides.
Stringfield, the first Black woman to ride across America on a motorcycle, was 16 when she learned to ride, as was Emanuel, in Oakland, where she grew up.
At 16, Emanuel was also diagnosed with a small cancerous cyst on her head that was removed, but returned later when she was 18, along with ear and jaw pain, and was removed again.
At 22, Sunny found the lump between her armpit and breast, but the doctor at the hospital she called said not to worry, she was too young to have cancer and wait to have it checked out at her next gynecology appointment.
After three months of pain, the lymph node area got inflamed and tender to the touch and when she called again, she says they said, oh, that’s definitely not cancer because cancer doesn’t hurt, and by the time cancer hurts, you’re almost dead.
“I was at work, but decided to just go to the emergency room anyway,” says Emanuel. “The doctor said I needed to schedule a mammogram immediately. The look on his face was tragic.
“After the mammogram he walked in and said you have breast cancer and we need to schedule you for a mastectomy. His bedside manner left a lot to be desired. I told him I was only 22, I came in the world with two breasts and I’m going to leave the world with two breasts, and you better figure out how to do it.”
Emanuel joined a study using newly developed laser techniques in conjunction with her hospital. The treatment worked, her breast was saved, and she hasn’t had a problem with it since.
But Sunny, now 51 and married with four adult children, says her positive outcome was a result of early detection and her persistence that something was wrong.
“According to statistics, White women are more likely to be diagnosed with breast cancer, while minority women are more likely to die,” Sunny says. “Black women normally take too long to do follow-up, to get tested, don’t have adequate medical insurance, and we’re not educated. We’re definitely not pro-active and it’s still a hush-hush kind of disease.”
When Emanuel turned 28, she went into cardiac arrest and had a stroke. An aunt, Mary Clemons, who was also her godmother and with whom she lived for part of her adolescent life, was her caregiver during this period.
Sunny says, “My aunt came over and took care of me, changed my bandages, helped me use the bathroom, nursed me back to health, cooked, helped me with the kids, made sure I went for my checkups –– the whole nine yards –– but never once did she say she was sick herself. When she finally told us something was wrong, she was diagnosed with terminal breast cancer.
“The doctors said the cancer she had was 95 percent curable had she caught it early, but it had advanced from her breast to her arm into her neck and into her brain.”
Jan was in the room with her aunt when she died.
“It was such a life-altering experience,” she recalls. “At around the same time, someone dared me to ride my motorcycle across country. I said, not only will I ride across the country, I’ll get some other women to ride with me to raise money and we’ll donate it to a cancer foundation for research in my aunt’s name.”
Emanuel says she picked the M.D. Anderson Cancer Research Center in Houston, Texas to receive donations because they are leaders in cancer research (currently ranked number one in the nation) and in treating minorities, especially African American women. M.D. Anderson graciously agreed to name an exam room in its breast cancer center in honor of Divas For A Cure.
Emanuel in 1999 started her website, www.RealDivasRide.com, as an online motorcycle forum for women interested in the activity. That site spawned www.DivasForACure.org, which provides information on the annual rides.
Because she rides a Harley, Sunny approached the company to ask for their support, and they obliged. (On her website there’s a section titled “Why A Harley?” followed by a one-sentence answer, “If I have to explain it, you wouldn’t understand.”)
“We’re very excited about supporting their ride for the third year and supporting their initiatives to increase awareness and prevention of breast cancer; it’s a tremendous cause for us,” says Harley-Davidson spokesperson Karina Jaramillo. “We facilitate our relationship between the divas and many of our local dealers so they can come out to different dealerships during the course of their ride and do fundraising activities.”
A small group of women are selected to ride in the event each year. The inaugural ride in 2006 was 8,600 miles from San Francisco to New York and back in 22 days. Eight divas started, and Sunny was the only one who finished, but $25,000 was raised.
“I quickly found out you should limit cross-country riding to just a few divas,” Sunny says. “Anybody who calls themselves a Diva is going to probably have a personality, so with eight divas, there were some conflicts. Mix hot weather, motorcycles and long distances, and it becomes volatile, especially over 22 days.”
She repeated the event in 2007 to prove that the initial success was not a fluke. This ride, with five divas, went 7,300 miles from Oakland to Maryland and back, and raised $50,000.
The 2008 ride was 6,000 miles from New Jersey, down to Atlanta, up to Canada and back, and raised $35,000. There were only four divas riding this time – Costley, the organization’s vice president AJ Coffee, Cynthia Marcy, and Elaine Thomas.
“It’s a very hard ride,” Sunny explains. “Most people when they sign up think of a nice little leisurely cross-country tour – make stops, take pictures, shop. It’s not like that. After riding all day, all you’re looking for is a shower and pillow at Motel 6, Motel 4, even Motel 2 – you don’t care at that point!” she says.
The divas ride almost 500 miles a day, between 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. to avoid nighttime riding hazards, and have to keep to a strict timetable to honor their Harley-Davidson dealership appearances.
They are accompanied by members of the Buffalo Soldiers motorcycle club –– Sunny is married to the former national president of the organization, Thomas Costley –– and they are followed by a support van that carries their clothes, supplies, and food.
“People sign up to ride with us for a leg or two and they pay a registration fee, but after a (short) while, they’re like, ‘this is crazy, this ain’t no fun! All we’re doing is riding and sleeping!’ But I say, ‘And raising money!’ That’s the important thing,” Emanuel says.
It is very taxing on the body and finances to maintain an annual cross-country motorcycle trek, so in 2010 Emanuel and Divas For A Cure took some time off from the annual breast cancer run to recoup and reorganize.
Barb’s Harley-Davidson is a woman-owned dealership in Mt. Ephraim, NJ. Barb and her staff actively support the community on all fronts. They were diligent in their efforts to help support Divas For A Cure and in 2010 took up the helm to support them on a local level.
In 2010, Barb kicked-off the First Annual Barb’s Harley-Davidson Divas For A Cure Breast Cancer Ride to help continue the efforts.
It is with the united efforts of Barb, her staff and the motorcycle community that DFAC can continue to make a difference.
In 2011, Sunny found another lump, so without hesitation she sought medial advice from a Breast Surgeon. The surgeon determined that a lumpectomy would be necessary. Her advice was simple. Let’s not fool around with this. The surgery was slightly delayed due to a pre-existing heart condition. The surgeon removed four growths and surrounding tissue. The pathology report came back – “all margins clear.”
The surgery was a success and Emanuel was back on her iron horse in no time.
And yes, it’s 2012 and she is still rolling. Emanuel averages about 7 – 10,000 miles a year on her iron horse.
So, if a woman on a bright red Harley-Davidson Ultra Classic with pink bling on her helmet passed you on the highway – it was probably “The Diva.”