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The global scar that is breast cancer

BY Kathy LaTour
PUBLISHED June 22, 2009
Since returning from Australia and my amazing adventures there at the Reach to Recovery International conference before riding from Brisbane to Sidney with 39 breast cancer survivors from around the world, I keep getting little reminders of the universality of our experience as survivors. Meeting Mary Onyango, the executive director of the Kenyan Breast Cancer Program, and hearing her talk about the challenges of trying to educate women in Kenya, where poverty is the biggest issue in their lives, was a huge part of my trip to Brisbane. She has been on my mind a lot since returning home. I interviewed some of the folks in the international office at Susan G. Komen for the Cure for a sidebar to go with the international story that will appear in the fall issue of the magazine (by the way, CURE is free for survivors so sign up at if you haven't yet at curetoday.com/subscribe), and I was gratified to learn that Komen has granted Mary funds to help with her education efforts. It made me proud to be a Dallasite and once again to see what Komen is doing here and around the world to help women with breast cancer. Most of you know that Dallasite Nancy Brinker started Komen in the mid-'80s to honor her sister Susan G. Komen and then Nancy discovered she had breast cancer too. There are few out there who haven't heard of the Race for the Cure and the incredible work this organization has done to help women raise money for their own communities and for nationwide research. I talked with Annetta Hewko, vice president of global strategy and programs for Komen. She told me that a woman dies of breast cancer somewhere in the world every 68 seconds. That's one woman every minute. Annetta is also a breast cancer survivor and I could hear the passion in her voice about her job of funding projects and research. We also chatted about the power of connecting women from all around the world in the sisterhood of breast cancer. Annetta talked about the challenges of adapting the Race for the Cure model abroad and how in many of those countries it's not the numbers of women who show up that inspire but the fact that the women who have had breast cancer are brave enough to identify themselves by wearing a pink T-shirt because of the stigma still attached to cancer in many countries. It's hard to believe there are cultures where cancer has such stigma that women would rather go without help than to tell anyone. But then I remember discussions with women in the United States and know that, while not as common, in some cases American women don't want anyone to know they have had cancer. I have trouble understanding why. It's not like some of the women in Africa who have to deal with their husbands getting a second wife if his wife with breast cancer can't have children. But I do know that there are cultures here where women have to overcome pressures at home not to tell anyone for fear neighbors would think less of them or that God was punishing them. I remember one interview I did a few years ago with a Navajo woman in New Mexico who wanted to educate young Navajo women about breast cancer. After her own breast cancer diagnosis she had begun working in the hospital and was appalled to see women being diagnosed at stage 4. Before she could start talking to young women about breast self-exam and early detection she had to first convince the tribal elders. She said in her culture it was really hard because of the taboos against a woman touching herself and the belief that to speak of negative things would bring them on. She said, even the word for "cancer" in Navajo translates as "wound that does not heal." She finally got permission. I played Devil's advocate and asked Annetta a question I am sure she gets a lot: how she responds when someone suggests we should keep all the money and efforts in the United States. She said that she reminds people that the U.S. is a melting pot and everything they learn about overcoming barriers in other countries can help us with those cultures here. She also said that we have to remember that the cure for cancer may come from anywhere in the world. I think what I have been feeling since returning is how strongly I feel the connectedness of breast cancer survivors. It's like we are all sisters connected by one scar. No matter what language we speak or where we live, we all know the pain of losing a breast and dealing with mortality. That alone makes me want to walk around telling anyone who will listen that I had breast cancer. And we need to fight for our global sisters just as we do for the women in our own country, who, even in cases where they get lesser services, have better access than most of the women in the world. At the Brisbane conference, Cherry told me about how hard it is to get any recognition for breast cancer at all in her home country of South Africa because of the all-encompassing emphasis on AIDS awareness. Mercy from Uganda was excited that they were able to score an old mobile mammography unit from a hospital in California because that increased the number of mammography units in the country of four million to two! There are many stories in cultures we don't understand, but the power of a determined woman is something most of us have seen and it can be amazing. I was thinking of the juxtaposition of the survivors who don't want to be identified with the survivors I rode with on Harley Davidson motorcycles from Brisbane to Sydney. We came from Australia, the U.S., New Zealand, Hong Kong, South Africa, and the U.K. but were bound by the power of our experience. Indeed, a number of the women learned to ride just to do this. I thought I was the oldest on the ride until Jill told me she turned 60 in January. I won't be 60 until next month, and I have to tell you there were a few moments when knowing Jill was still riding that kept me on the bike (we had torrential downpours for two days). This week some of the women from the ride have been sending videos and pics, and if you want to see the power of women determined to survive, take a look at the You Tube video that Harley did when we arrived in Sydney. When they flash to the shot of us riding in pouring rain, that's my back on the left -- I am in the white helmet. Well, it's white but has pink rhinestones on it. Like I said, I don't have any trouble telling people I am a survivor. So check it out www.youtube.com/watch?v=dr6RJyGWaH4
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