Pink Ribbons In Once-Red Europe
10/29/08
Staff Writer
In Russia, a three-day gathering of physicians and breast cancer survivors. In Hungary, a nationwide breast cancer screening program. In Bosnia-Herzegovina, a breast cancer hot line.   Four years after the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee joined the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation in a series of pilot advocacy and educational programs in three former Iron Curtain countries, tens of thousands of women are learning to take their health, literally, into their own hands, leaders of the initiative say. Throughout Russia, Hungary and Bosnia-Herzegovina, societies where advanced diagnostic equipment is still rare and public discussions of sensitive topics like breast cancer are still discouraged, public awareness campaigns are encouraging women to conduct self-examinations and to see a doctor when the first sign of the disease appears. “It’s not [exclusively] for Jews,” says Nela Hasic, program director of the JDC-sponsored Women’s Health Empowerment Project in Bosnia-Herzegovina. A Sarajevo native who fled her homeland during the civil war in the early 1990s and returned in 2002, she travels around the country to lead workshops and address groups of students. She goes to schools, churches and factories. “I’m all over Bosnia. We are pioneers in this work,” she says. “Early detection is saving lives.” As part of its outreach, the WHEP-Bosnia sponsored its first Race for the Cure in that country last week during October’s Breast Cancer Awareness Month. This medical outreach in lands where Jews constitute a small percentage of the population is part of the Joint’s wider nonsectarian work, says Itai Eithan Shamir, senior program manager of the JDC International Development Program. “It’s a part of tikkun olam [repairing the world.]” The empowerment program, modeled on the U.S.-based SHARE self-help organization, was established by the Joint in 1995 to offer a variety of services to women with breast and ovarian cancers. The program had earlier operated in Israel, Ukraine and the Czech Republic. The Joint, which is considering an expansion of the breast cancer programs to other countries in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union in the next few years, began its partnership with the Komen Foundation, aided by local nongovernmental organizations, recognizing that the incidence of breast cancer remains high — significantly higher than in the West — in formerly communist countries nearly two decades after communism fell. Because of technological contraints (high-tech equipment is expensive and waiting lists for examinations are long), the socially conservative nature of countries in that part of the world (both women and physicians are uncomfortable talking about breast cancer), many women begin treatment of their conditions when the symptoms are advanced, reducing the odds of survival. “Statistics show that every year 50,000 Russian women are newly diagnosed with breast cancer,” says Mandie Winston, the JDC deputy director for Moscow and Central Russia. “The breast cancer rate has increased at 64 percent for the last 20 years. It is the most common cause of death among women 45-55 years of age. “The peer support group model where women survivors meet regularly in a safe environment led by other survivors is unique in Russia,” Winston says. “Many of these women have told us that they had previously discussed their illness with absolutely no one — not their partner, their children, their sisters nor friends.” In Hungary, the JDC’s breast cancer awareness program concentrates on the country’s minority Gypsy — properly identified as Roma — population. “The rate of cancer mortality is three times higher among the impoverished and the Roma population than in general,” says Marianna Jo, program manager of the Joint’s breast cancer initiative in Hungary. “We are like America 20 years ago,” Hasic says, mirroring the feelings of JDC representatives in Russia and Hungary. “It was taboo to speak about this kind of cancer, so women were forced to waste their energy covering up their pain and sickness rather than on helping themselves get better.”  “It’s very difficult to work under these conditions,” she says, adding that the Joint, a Jewish organization not affiliated with her country’s majority Muslim or Christian faiths, has an advantage because it is seen as nonpartisan. “It’s opened many doors for me.” The Joint’s breast cancer program has sponsored several gatherings where women who have survived a bout with the disease learn to help other women. Hasic tells of one woman, a 60-something grandmother from a rural town, who came to one of the training sessions two years ago. The woman was shy, reluctant to assert herself at first. But she continued to attend training sessions, Hasic says. Today the woman serves as a volunteer on the SOS Hotline under the aegis of the JDC project. The woman gives information and moral support to younger women diagnosed with breast cancer, Hasic says, “She’s helping others. Now she’s the best volunteer. She was empowered by the project.”

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12/10/2009 - 11:25

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