The power of sisterhood was evident on a recent Saturday morning at the Helen F. Graham Cancer Center, where members of four historically African-American sororities gathered to learn about breast health and cancer prevention.
Sorority Sisters Helping Sisters, a breast health education and screening event, was the first event in which the sororities collaborated for health promotion, says Shealese Russell-Reams, Alpha Kappa Alpha’s program chairman and first vice president.
“When you talk about breast health, it’s about the women,” Russell-Reams said. “And the women are the backbone of our community.’’
What the women learned at the event will ripple across Delaware, she says. “We can take this information to our chapters, we’ll take it to friends, family and coworkers and then it begins to connect, and you have women who are healthier and stronger to take care of their families.”
Fifty-nine members of Alpha Kappa Alpha, Delta Sigma Theta, Zeta Phi Beta and Sigma Gamma Rho, along with representatives of the National Pan-Hellenic Council and friends listened as speakers provided information about nutrition, genetics, breast health and the importance of spiritual wellness. Eight women completed mammograms.
The event was funded in part by the Avon Foundation for Women Breast Health Outreach Program.
Community health outreach nurse Renitia Pulliam, RN, BSN, OCN, who planned the event in partnership with the sororities, says knowledge about breast health is especially important for women of color. “African-American women are dying more of breast cancer but being diagnosed less. And we don’t know why,’’ she said. “We’ve got to get the word out; we’ve got to get mammograms.’’ She also urged women with cancer diagnoses to talk to their doctors about participation in clinical trials, which often include too few people of color.
“Don’t be afraid because of the history and the mistrust of research studies of the past,’’ she says. “Clinical trials are key to the future of cancer care. The process is in place to protect all those who participate. It is because of the strong clinical trials program that we have advanced treatment and care for not only cancer but other diseases.”
AKA member Vonye Hackett says she appreciated the practical information the speakers presented. “The more we know, the more we can prevent breast cancer and help educate the community,’’ she said. She cited Christiana Care dietitian Becky Boyd’s presentation on diet modification as an example. “Everybody is on this healthy trend, but it’s to lose weight, not to prevent cancer.”
Boyd said cancer prevention is linked to diet, activity and weight. “Obesity increases the risk of breast cancer because it’s linked to estrogen, and there’s a lot of estrogen in fatty tissue,’’ she said. “What you eat and don’t eat both have powerful affects on your health. Without knowing it, you may be eating many foods that fuel cancer. By modifying diet, you might minimize your risk and even stop cancer in its tracks. ‘’
Encouraging listeners to eat more vegetables, grains, nuts and beans, and less sugar, meat and saturated fats, she peppered her talk with tips on how to make healthy substitutions, such as eating an apple instead of apple juice, brown rice instead of white rice, popcorn instead of potato chips. She noted that better nutrition doesn’t have to break the bank. Frozen vegetables and canned tuna provide the same nutrition as fresh vegetables and pricey salmon.
The event was a good way to “provide time for individuals to learn together and get mammograms if needed,’ said Nora Katurakes, RN, MSN, OCN, manager of Community Health Outreach and Education. The topics were chosen to answer important questions that go beyond basics. “Our programs are more than Breast Health 101,” she said. “We are trying to influence and change behavior to improve consistency with screening, find high-risk or at-risk families who need to begin screening at an earlier interval and show the connection between obesity and chronic diseases.’’
Obesity and other environmental factors such as smoking, inactivity and alcohol abuse account for 75 to 80 percent of cancers, but genetics may also play a significant role in who will get cancer or other illnesses, said licensed certified genetic counselor Marcie Parker, MS LCGC. “All family history is key,’’ she said. “Knowing who in your family has heart disease, cancer, eye disease — knowing your family history tells you what your risk is likely to be.’’
The holidays, when families come together, offer a good opportunity to fill in missing information on family history, she said. She advises asking specific questions: Who in the family has had cancer? How old were they when it was diagnosed, and did anyone have cancer more than once? Red flags for hereditary cancer include having two or more in the family with any cancer, a family member with cancer at a young age, someone with cancer in both breasts or with more than one type of cancer, rare cancer in the family, such as pancreatic or kidney cancer, or breast cancer in a male family member.
Christiana Care’s five genetic counselors see patients all over the state, offering genetic testing, screening and monitoring to high-risk families. “Family history is complex, and it changes over time, so add it to the list of things to discuss with your doctor,’’ Parker said.
And while doing all the necessary things to care for the body, “Don’t forget how important it is for you to take care of your soul, your spirit,’’ said Christiana Care Chaplain Patricia Malcolm. “You are a wonderful expression of the universe — and you need to take care of yourself.’’
Malcolm, the final speaker, wrapped up the event with words of wisdom: “Our lessons come from the journey and not the destination. Today, I’m asking you to have the courage to take your journey,’’ she said. “Be yourself. Be your authentic self. Be true to yourself. This is your wakeup call, ladies.’’
Photo gallery: Sorority Sisters Helping Sisters
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