A letter to my Ethiopian sisters

By Mesrak Gessesse

October is “Breast Cancer Awareness Month” in the United States. I am writing this “letter” in hopes of raising greater awareness about the disease among Ethiopian women and encouraging them to fight the disease effectively with early detection and treatment. With the types of treatments available today, breast cancer is a disease that can be treated effectively if caught early.

The word “cancer” is enough to scare anybody, but it is a woman’s worst nightmare to be told that she has breast cancer. I went through an emotional roller coaster — shock, denial, anger, and “why me” self-pity — when my doctor told me I had breast cancer. Thank God the cancer was caught in its earliest phase known as “stage 0”. If I had skipped my annual checkup and mammogram, the result could have been much different.

One of the things I have observed over the years is that many of us Ethiopian women in the U.S. tend to be lax about doing our annual checkups or having our regular mammograms. For some of us, it is a simple problem of not being able to afford any health care. Without insurance, getting health care in the U.S. could be very difficult. But I have also found out that many Ethiopian women who have the means to get regular checkups and mammograms often do not get it.

I have heard many reasons for this potentially dangerous situation not just from strangers but also friends and family members. I believe one of the major reasons for this situation has to do with not being well-informed about breast cancer. Many of us are so scared of the disease that we don’t want to think about it, let alone actively learn information that could save our lives. I have heard so many Ethiopian women say they will not go to see the doctor unless they are “very sick”. With breast cancer, waiting until one is “very sick” means one is just too late to get help to save one’s life.

This attitude is understandable, even though very risky, given the fact that many immigrant Ethiopian women are overburdened with family and work responsibilities and find it almost impossible to pay attention to their basic health care needs. Being in the health care field, I have talked to some Ethiopian women who have told me of their belief that if they go to see the doctor, they may find out they have a “bad disease such as cancer”. Strange as it may seem to them, that is exactly what they need to find out with breast cancer, and as early as possible.

Breast cancer is one disease that no woman can hide from or afford to ignore. Ignoring breast cancer is like ignoring a small brushfire in the forest. Left alone, the brush fire will eventually destroy the forest. Breast cancer, if not detected early or ignored after one catches its tell-tale signs, could spread to various organs in the body and kill its victim. It is not uncommon for some women to feel lumps in their breasts, ignore it and not have it checked out because it “does not hurt.” That is a big mistake. Any kind of lump or hard tissue in the breast should be taken very seriously and checked out by a doctor.

There are also myths that many Ethiopian women believe about breast cancer tests and treatments. For example, some women avoid getting their annual mammograms because they believe they can get cancer from it. Mammogram does not cause breast cancer. It is a simple and painless procedure just like taking X-rays. There is very little risk of getting cancer from doing a mammogram.

Some Ethiopian women believe cancer is something to be ashamed of. They don’t want their friends and relatives to know they have it and keep it a secret to themselves until it is too late or they are in the hospital. There is nothing shameful about breast cancer. It is a terrible disease that does not discriminate between women who are poor or rich, black or white or in whatever part of the world a woman may live in.

What I want to stress here more than anything else is the fact that Ethiopian women need to do regular medical checkups and get mammograms to catch any symptoms or signs of breast cancer. Breast cancer is not like the flu, it does not go away with a few days of bed rest. If left untreated, it gets worse by the day until it reaches a point where nothing can be done medically. Early detection of breast cancer is the key to survival.

The really sad part of breast cancer is the needless deaths that are caused because Ethiopian women simply avoid doing the basic things that could help catch the disease at its early stage. Perhaps like many who may read this “letter”, over the years I have lost friends, acquaintances, co-workers and family members to this terrible disease. I have to say many lost their lives because they did not have timely breast cancer screening and diagnosis, or ignored their symptoms until after it was too late.

I know for many Ethiopian women in the U.S. there are cultural, language and financial issues that make it difficult to get regular checkups and screenings for breast cancer. I believe Ethiopian women helping each other could help greatly in dealing with these issues. That is why I ask all of my Ethiopian sisters to openly talk about breast cancer with each other at home, in places of worship and social events and gatherings and share information about early breast cancer detection and treatment. As we freely talk about our high blood pressure or diabetes, we should do the same with breast cancer so that we can get help in a timely fashion.

I believe Ethiopian health professionals can play a key role in educating and getting early diagnosis and treatment for women at risk for breast cancer. Ethiopian women doctors especially, and men too, could play an important role in educating women about the disease, doing screenings and suggesting possibilities for those who may not be able to afford health care. There are many local clinics and hospitals in the U.S. that offer free breast cancer screenings for women who cannot afford it.

It would be great if Ethiopian women could start breast cancer patient support groups in their local communities throughout the U.S. that can provide information and one-to-one support for those diagnosed with breast cancer or going through treatment. Those in the religious community can play an important role by inviting knowledgeable health professionals in breast cancer to their community halls to educate Ethiopian women on how to access free or low cost health care to get checkups and mammograms. In many major cities, there are radio stations serving the Ethiopian community. They could help save many lives if they devoted some air time to breast cancer awareness and treatment. The same can be said of the various Ethiopian websites. I am hopeful that by next year this time, we will be able to have our first annual “Ethiopian Women Breast Cancer Awareness Month” to coincide with the national program.

I discovered my breast cancer during a routine annual mammogram screening test. The test showed traces of “micro calcification”, which are cells that could turn fully cancerous if left untreated. My doctor did a biopsy by taking a tiny amount of tissue from the breast area where the cancer cells were seen. I had surgery which removed just the affected tissue area. I did radiation therapy to make sure no cancer cells remained and got medication to prevent any possibility of recurrence. I was back to my regular schedule within a few short weeks.

Today I am cancer free, healthy and able to share my story with everyone, thanks to God. Regular checkups and mammogram tests saved my life. Let us all work together to create breast cancer awareness in our communities and help each other find ways of early detection and treatment.

(The writer works in health care administration in Southern California and is actively involved in efforts to promote early cancer detection and treatment and education. She may be reached at [email protected])