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Breast Cancer Survivor: “Breast Cancer Mortality Rate Is HIGH Amongst African Women!”

Filed under : Africa, Exclusive Interview

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From Our Guest Contributor & our dearest friend, Joleen Eeson Ruffin:

Joleen after surgery & chemo

One sunny morning in April 2008 I received the call from my doctor that the lump I felt in my left breast was BREAST CANCER. I was 32 years old with 3 small children at home and my first thought was, “I’m going to die, who’s going to take care of my babies!”

Growing up in Zimbabwe, the disease you feared the most was not cancer, it was AIDS. Having successfully navigated a pretty wild youth, I moved to the United States, got married, and settled into middle class suburban life in California. With no family history of breast cancer, I was shocked at my diagnosis. But as I was to learn later, more than 85% of women diagnosed with breast cancer will be the first person in their family to get the disease.

Joleen (during treatment)

Thanks to an aggressive treatment plan of surgery, chemotherapy, radiation, faith and prayer; two years later I am cancer-free.

Not so, for the many young African women who will succumb to breast cancer this year. Cancer is not Africa’s biggest problem, but like AIDS it’s another disease that is taking lives unnecessarily and too early. Unlike AIDS, cancer takes a back seat in Africa’s public health priorities even though a recent World Health Organization report estimates that by 2020, Africa will have 1 million new cases of cancer every year.

To compound the situation, there is a wall of silence and stigma that surrounds a breast cancer diagnosis in many parts of Africa. Hala Moddelmog, former president and CEO of Susan G. Komen for the Cure once said, “A woman who gets breast cancer in Africa is afraid her husband will leave her and that she will be ostracized by society, and even lose her children if she admits she has breast cancer.”

I was shocked to learn some alarming facts about breast cancer in Africa:

  • Although African women do not have a higher rate of breast cancer incidence, they have an alarmingly higher mortality rate than their counterparts in the developed world.
  • African women’s tumors tend to be very aggressive with short periods of time between the onset of symptoms and diagnosis.
  • These tumors at diagnosis tend to be higher grade, often involving auxiliary lymph nodes and, therefore, higher stage disease with worse prognosis.
  • African women are diagnosed most often between 35 and 45 years, more than fifteen years earlier than women in Europe and North America.

As African women, we face a potential increase in breast cancer rates as we adopt Western behaviors that have been shown to increase the risk of breast cancer. The high breast cancer mortality rate in Africa is partly a reflection of the fact that women don’t get treated, if at all, until late in the course of the disease.

Living in America, I was able to get the diagnosis and treatment that I needed. In Africa, there is limited or no resources available for prevention, diagnosis and treatment of this disease. This poor healthcare infrastructure leads to the needless deaths of young African women.

The critical first step is to dispel the cultural myths about breast cancer. Survivors have to talk more openly about this disease instead of keeping it a secret. Secondly, African women need to be educated about doing their own breast self exams, insist on physical exams with a clinician and receive better access to mammograms at an earlier age. Early detection is the key to effective and affordable treatment of this disease. *BE AN ADVOCATE FOR YOURSELF* — don’t let a curable disease become incurable.

Joleen Eeson Ruffin was born and raised in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe. She currently resides in Tracy, California USA with her husband and children. She is one of the faces of the 2010 Under Armour Power in Pink “She’s A Fighter” Campaign, which is bringing awareness to and raising money for breast cancer.

You can watch her full story in the video below.

Sources: International Agency for Research on Cancer; “Breast Cancer in Sub-Saharan Africa: How Does It Relate to Breast Cancer in African-American Women?” CANCER; “Researchers Say Breast Cancer In Africa May Provide Clues To The Disease In African-Americans,” Science Daily; “Study shows women of African ancestry diagnosed with more virulent form of breast cancer,” The University of Chicago Chronicle; “Sisters In Need,” Newsweek; “Hereditary vs. Familial Breast Cancer,” Johns Hopkins Medicine.



Holla back & ladies, let us know if you regularly exam your breasts (very important!)….

Muah & ♥ ya for it

Gugu – who has written posts on Farai Today.

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