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After Breast Cancer

Diane Artis laughs, leafing through a scrapbook of her daughter's athletic achievements. Laini Fluellen's passion for hoops -- and life -- radiates from newspaper clips dating from the late-1980s.

Here's Fluellen blocking a shot. Here's Fluellen grabbing a loose ball. Here's Fluellen scowling at a referee's whistle.

"She didn't like that one bit," chuckled Artis, of East Chicago.

Fluellen, the 5-foot-10-inch pride of the Lady Thunderbirds at Thornwood High School, was a team player off court as well. The star forward doubled as cheerleader and coach, urging classmates to stay in school. Other parents "would call to say, 'Your daughter is such a good influence on my daughter,'" Artis said.

Fluellen, 38, died last year of triple-negative breast cancer, a rare, aggressive cancer that claims twice as many black and Latina women as white. Scientists suspect genetics may play a part. But there is no history of TNBC in Laini's family.

Diagnosed with Stage IV cancer at 35, the scrappy, one-time Calumet City resident defied the odds, surviving two years longer than expected. She lost the fight of her life Sept. 18, 2009.

Parents Diane and Will, kid brother Nathan and Fluellen's extended family -- relatives, classmates and friends from church and work -- were devastated.

But they rebounded, as Fluellen would have ordered.

A year after her death, Laini Fluellen Charities is off and running with its namesake's energy. The Highland-based nonprofit launched and oversees a website (www.lainifluellencharities.org) that discusses TNBC, refers patients to counselors and urges self-exams and mammograms for early detection. Another goal is raising money for cancer research.

A mentoring program is in the works, too, for East Chicago eighth- to 12th-graders (via www.lainifluellenmentorship.org). Fluellen, a college graduate and recruiting manager at Ryerson Inc. in Chicago, had six protegees and nine godchildren at the time of her death.

When it comes to TNBC, which makes up 15 percent of all breast cancers, there are three points to remember: "Early detection, early detection, early detection," warned Chinita Lindsay, Fluellen's aunt.

According to Fluellen's family, she found a dime-sized lump under her arm in early 2006. Between jobs, and reluctant to run up medical bills, she sought holistic remedies.

Within three months, the lump was the size of a baseball. A biopsy confirmed her fears. Two years of chemotherapy followed, to no avail.

"Triple-negative" refers to the lack of three proteins -- the estrogen receptor, progesterone receptor and human epidermal growth factor receptor 2 -- within tumors.

Doctors traditionally treat cancer by targeting these proteins. When they're absent, conventional therapies are ineffective. TNBC patients respond well to chemotherapy in their early stages, so early detection and diagnosis are critical. A lumpectomy or mastectomy and radiation may follow to prevent a recurrence.

Risk factors like age, weight and genetics are a matter of debate. What is certain is that younger black women are diagnosed more frequently than white, with a greater risk of recurrence and worse prognosis.

Local civic leader Edward Williams, president of OptiFormance Consulting Services in Chicago, never had heard of TNBC. After fielding a call from John Artis -- Fluellen's uncle, and head of redevelopment for the city of East Chicago -- Williams sat down with his two teen granddaughters at a computer. They reviewed the statistics together.

The well-connected businessman grabbed the ball and ran with it, making calls on behalf of Laini Fluellen Charities.

"It would have been selfish of me to know about such a devastating issue and not talk about it," Williams said.

St. Catherine Hospital, Ameristar Casino and Hotel, the Majestic Star Casino and Hotel, NIPSCO and The Community Hospital have expressed interest in the charity, one of the few in the nation devoted to TNBC awareness. Representatives attended a luncheon earlier this month, where whey were invited to serve as honorary chairs at a May gala.