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More from Cape Town

Posted 3/21/2013

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This has been another wonderful and eye-opening day at the Breast Cancer Support conference in Cape Town. I gave the opening keynote which was well received and then a workshop at the end of the day. It was the hours in between which were especially interesting.

There are hundreds of women here from all over the world, many dressed in beautiful colorful traditional clothes that surely make my mostly black outfits look drab. I have been listening and collecting stories and filling up with respect and admiration for what women endure and accomplish. Cases in point:

A woman from Zimbabwe with metastatic breast cancer who collected cans for more than a year, selling them for scrap and saving that money--along with proceeds from selling her vegetables and doing some sewing--to pay for her trip here. She took the bus--for twenty hours.

  • A woman from Denmark (orginially from Scotland, so her English is perfect and who has a delightful accent that is somehow a blend of her two countries) who is here because her 30 year old daughter had breast cancer two years ago. Her daughter could not make the trip, so she came to try to learn whatever might be helpful for her.
  • A woman from Malaysia who, with a small group of committed friends, has developed a breast cancer education and outreach program in her country. This has been especially challenging because of the diverse ethnic groups there and the intermittent tension between them. She showed me some colorful materials that they have developed (mostly pictures as the literacy rate is low in some areas) to try to de-stigmatize cancer and convince women that it is possible to live through and past breast cancer.
  • A woman from Ghana, in an especially gorgeous red and orange traditional dress, who is working with the Ministry of Health in her country to establish some kind of plan or focus or even recognition of breast cancer.
  • A delightful woman from Kenya who had a mastectomy 18 years ago. A few days before her surgery, she told her then adolescent son about it. He thought for a second and then said: "Look at it this way, Mom. Now your right breast will get all the attention."

The take home lessons, again, have been the incredible power of our community. You know, we know, how it feels to sit together and share our lives. Think how that feels multiplied by hundreds and emphasized by our shared experiences in spite of our incredible diversity. Without going on in a too simplistic and sappy fashion, it does make me think about how alike we all are, how people all over the world want the same things, and why can't we figure out how to live together in peace and more equality?

Even in Cape Town, where the medical care is first world, more than 60% of women who come to the doctor with a breast concern already have advanced/Stage IV disease. In other parts of Africa and the developing world, the figure is closer to 80%. There is no single answer to this. Women can't come sooner because of fear or traditional/cultural beliefs or distance from medical care (in some places the nearest clinic is 50 miles away, and the doctor is there once a week) or finances (both that they can't pay for it and because they can't take time away from however they do earn an income) or can't leave their families because no one would care for the children etc etc etc. Where do we even begin?

Fortunately, there is a growing interest in global health and many people are devoting themselves to these problems. Do you remember that old prayer:

"Let there be peace on earth and let it begin with me"? I think the same sentiment applies here. It begins one person at a time, each of us reaching back our hands for the woman behind us. May we all continue to do so.

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