Reducing Breast Health Disparities for Women of Color
In 1933, a group of volunteers, nurses and doctors in Locust Valley, Long Island came together to found Planned Parenthood of Nassau County (PPNC). Seventy-nine years later, the organization’s commitment to helping women access essential reproductive health care, including birth control, sexually transmitted disease testing and routine screenings for breast and cervical cancer, has not wavered.
“Women’s health has been in the spotlight quite a bit this past year,” said JoAnn D. Smith, PPNC’s President & CEO. “Planned Parenthood of Nassau County and Komen Greater NYC have been effective partners for seven years in our joint efforts to provide thousands of at-risk women of color on Long Island with the life-saving breast health information and screenings they both need and deserve. I was thrilled with Susan G. Komen for the Cure’s decision to eliminate its new grant-making criteria, and I’m enormously grateful that, once again, PPNC and Komen Greater NYC are able to move forward with our shared mission of advancing women’s health.”
An important part of that commitment is addressing women’s health disparities, which is why PPNC launched Sisters United in Health/Hermanas Unidas en la Salud in 2002. “Our former Director of Education was a woman of color who wanted to make an impact on the disproportionately high breast cancer mortality rates among black and Latina women on Long Island,” said Smith. “We knew that the key to achieving this goal was collaboration, so we reached out and created a coalition of like-minded groups concerned with women’s health –especially breast health.”
What started off as a handful of partners providing a small number of workshops has grown and flourished into Long Island’s leading breast health education coalition, thanks to Komen Greater NYC’s support over the past eight years.
“We work hand-in-hand with the other members of the coalition to provide life-saving information and services to low-income, medically underserved women of color throughout Nassau and Suffolk Counties,” explained Smith. “We do everything we can to make sure that every woman we see gets the complete continuum of care she needs and deserves – from education to referrals, screening and follow-up.”
The program has two full-time health educators, both women of color themselves, who go out into the community to educate people through workshops and outreach at health fairs, churches, recreations centers, libraries, nonprofits, even nail and hair salons. Sisters United staff talk with women about when they should begin receiving breast cancer screening based on age and risk factors and hand out bi-lingual brochures and educational materials – many of which come from Komen – to help them be more proactive about their breast health. Equally important, the educators provide clients with referrals to nearby hospitals, clinics and community health centers for free or low-cost screening services.
“Sisters United in Healt has touched the lives of tens of thousands of women over the past decade and currently reaches 5,000 women a year,” said Smith. “Our educators go above and beyond handing out brochures and making presentations. They also personally counsel 3,000 women annually during 15-minute one-on-one sessions.”
From an initial discussion at a workshop or event, through the scheduling and receiving of a free mammogram, the Sisters United team treat each woman individually, helping her navigate language barriers, transportation costs, lack of child care, cultural myths and any other issues that may stand in the way of her receiving a mammogram or clinical breast exam.
On Friday, October 19, 2012, Sisters United in Health will be holding a breast cancer awareness day in the PPNC parking lot in Hempstead. The Nassau University Medical Center mammography van will be on hand to provide screenings not only for low-income women, but also for others who have not had a mammogram. PPNC is inviting local lawmakers to attend and will be doing outreach and publicity about the event.
Two stories illustrate how Sisters United in Health is making a difference and saving women’s lives.
One woman’s story
A 46-year-old Spanish-speaking woman attended a Sisters United educational workshop in her community. Afterwards, she approached the program coordinator to talk more. Specifically, she wanted to know what a “normal breast” felt like, how to gauge breast changes, and whether getting a mammogram was important. After a one-on-one consultation, she called the Sisters United office to set up a screening with the Nassau County Cancer Services Program (CSP).
At the appointment, she received a clinical breast exam and mammogram and was told she needed a biopsy and a breast surgeon consultation. But when the Sisters United educator called to see how the appointment had gone, the woman responded that she was not comfortable with the physician that the CSP had referred her to. After talking more about her needs, the woman decided to change physicians, choosing a bilingual surgeon who had spoken at several of the program’s Spanish-language forums. She is now awaiting a lumpectomy.
Mariana – a woman who had attended several educational workshops and had numerous one-on-one consultations with program counselors – was concerned about a lump in her breast. She hadn’t gone to a doctor, because she was uninsured.
Sisters United referred her to the CSP, where she received a clinical breast exam and mammogram and was told she needed to follow up with a surgeon. Fortunately, the results were benign. The Sisters United team worked with Mariana throughout, making sure that she had all the information and support she needed to go through the process with peace of mind.
“Komen Greater NYC has been supportive of PPNC for many years,” stated Smith, “and this year has been no exception.”