Yolanda Austin and Bonita Scott met at a St. Louis, Missouri church more than 30 years ago. Despite their differences in personality, Yolanda lively and outgoing and Bonita shy and reserved, the two immediately hit it off. And for 30 years, the duo remained best girlfriends, leaning on one another through the thick and thin, sharing laughs and tears. When Bonita was dealt a stage IV diagnosis at just 41 years old, Yolanda stepped up, never missing a beat. Nearly four years later, Yolanda’s overwhelming and inspirational dedication to spreading awareness fills a void left by her best girlfriend’s passing.
Friends Until The End
As a single mom to three kids, working two jobs and going to school, Yolanda Austin was a busy lady, which is why she so appreciated her best girlfriend, Bonita Scott. Bonita would watch her sons and help in any way she could, Yolanda recalls.
“She was right there with me,” Yolanda says. “That’s why when this came upon her, I wanted to make sure I was there for her in whatever way she needed me.”
The Test & Treatment
In 2009, Bonita started experiencing abdominal pain. But, on the brink of having her first grandchild, put off going in for that colonoscopy until after the baby was born. In fact, it wasn’t until the baby was a few months old that she finally made the appointment. That’s when Bonita was dealt a stage IV colon cancer diagnosis.
Bonita started treatment in St. Louis but soon realized she wasn’t satisfied. Determined to have the best care possible in this fight for her life, she and her mom would make the 5 hour trek to Chicago, IL every two to three weeks, where she worked with a team of doctors she trusted. All the while, she continued to lean on her best friend, finding endless love and support in Yolanda. Just a few months in, she was told her treatments weren’t helping – she ultimately decided to end treatment and return to St. Louis permanently.
“She was so determined and strong near the end; she was still working and would take two buses and a Metro to get to her job,” Yolanda recalls. “She would strive to keep going. Finally after that last trip to Chicago, she started to make preparations.”
The Light in the Darkness
As Bonita started to plan for her untimely death, Yolanda’s dedication and support continued to lighten her load. As her family struggled to accept that Bonita would be taken from them, Yolanda was there every step of the way, listening to her dear friend and making sure all her wishes were taken care of.
“She would try to tell her family that she needed them to do certain things [in preparation of her passing], but no one would listen,” Yolanda explains. “I was really the one who was there with her those last few months doing whatever she wanted and whatever she asked. That was a special point in my life, just being there for her.”
An Important Conversation
It was during these four short months that they sat down one afternoon. Bonita told Yolanda she wanted her to retire and focus her efforts on spreading the word across the country about people getting screened early.
“I wasn’t even thinking about retiring!” Yolanda says. “But when Bonita died, I fulfilled her request. Now wherever I go, I talk to people about colon cancer and screening. It’s an obsession!”
Honoring Through Activism
Since Yolanda’s early retirement from education, she’s no longer teaching in a school, but rather teaching people how to be proactive about their health and passing on potentially lifesaving information.
“After Bonita told me she wanted me to spread awareness throughout the country, I did some research and that’s when I found the Colon Cancer Alliance (CCA) and the chapter that functioned in our area.”
From volunteering at the Undy 5000 for four consecutive years, to attending the 2012 Colon Cancer Alliance National Conference, to distributing information at health fairs and garnering local and state-level support for National Dress in Blue Day, Yolanda is all over the board (and the country) with her involvement.
In fact, next week, armed with her brochures, bracelets, buttons and t-shirts, she’s hitting the road for Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, where she’ll set up a CCA awareness table at her family reunion.
“I went to the National Conference last year and I was really fired up because I knew colon cancer was reaching people under 50,” Yolanda says. “But to have people there addressing it and speaking about it, it really felt at home because it touched Bonita, who was only 41 when she was diagnosed.”
Over the years, Yolanda has gotten elected officials in her area to support colon cancer awareness by wearing blue for March, the police department wears the blue armbands, she puts posters and literature in all the schools and she’s gotten resolutions passed through the state, too.
And during the last St. Louis Undy 5000, she even got connected with a local gastroenterologist, who’s now committed to attending some upcoming health fairs with her.
“The Undy 5000 is so powerful because you’re watching all of these people networking, sharing stories, coming together for the cause. It was just a total positive response from everyone I spoke with; the energy was just right there.”
A New Passion
“I feel like spreading awareness is now my calling.” Yolanda shares. “Bonita spoke it before she died and I see it coming together. She was an example of one who procrastinated and waited too long. That’s what I tell people now: take the time to get the colonoscopy. I may have had her a little longer if she would have listened and gone in and gotten checked.”
And what does this activist hope will come out of all of her hard work?
“If I can help someone along the way then my living is not in vain. I just hope to help get people on board and that they’ll continue to spread the word, even when I’m gone.”