Homeless woman survives breast cancer

October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month, focusing attention on a disease expected to claim almost 40,000 lives this year. As CBS News correspondent Mark Strassman reports, a homeless woman with Stage 4 cancer found a way to beat the odds -- with help from an unlikely friend.

Cynthia Ryan thought she knew all about breast cancer. The English professor at the University of Alabama-Birmingham has survived it twice: the first time when she was 29, and the second when she was 40. She wrote extensively about the disease, from its pain to prognosis.

"I've gone on and on about, 'We're not all the same. We have to look at people in context,'" she said. "Clueless. I was clueless! I didn't have any idea."

Edwina Sanders taught Ryan how much more she had to learn. Sanders was in trouble when she met Ryan -- homeless for sixteen years, with Stage 4 breast cancer.

"You had no place to go?" Strassman asked Sanders.

"I was scared to trust anybody," she said.

"Because it had been so long since you trusted anybody?"

"Yes, sir."

This is the church for the homeless in downtown Birmingham where Cynthia Ryan and Edwina Sanders met. It sits just eight blocks from the college professor's office. But the two worlds they came from are a million miles apart.

"Two years ago I would have stepped over Edwina on the street," said Ryan."I could have been that person without the resources. And it hit me in a way that I couldn't turn away from her."

Ryan convinced Sanders to get a mastectomy and guided her through a complex medical system.

"We talked, and she told me not to be scared," Sanders recalled. "'You'll be all right.' And after that, I was all right."

Sanders now lives in a donated apartment. Her cancer's in remission.

When you see somebody like Edwina," said Ryan, "that's what cancer really looks like. It's the raw cancer. It's the cancer without the morphine to cover up the pain. Edwina is as much of a triumphant breast cancer survivor as anybody else. We don't see that."

Ryan's new mission? Educate more homeless women about breast cancer. Get them tested, get them treated like Edwina Sanders, who now calls Cynthia Ryan her best friend.

  • Mark Strassmann

    Mark Strassmann was named CBS News Transportation correspondent in August 2011. He has been a CBS News correspondent since January 2001, and is based in the Atlanta bureau.