Native American women are the most likely to put off getting a mammogram, according to research by Dr. Eleni Tolma, associate professor at the college of public health at the OU Health Sciences Center.
“When I came to Oklahoma back in 2002, I wanted to find out what I could do in terms of breast cancer, I was always interested in women's health issues,” Tolma, who is also the lead researcher for the Native Women Health Project, said.
One of the leaders of the group was a member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation, Aggie Busby, and she referred Dr. Tolma to their health clinic.
“They thought it was a great project for them to promote screening mammography among their patients, among the women and that's how I started working with them,” Tolma said.
Cara Thomas, a member of the Cherokee Nation, is the project coordinator for OU’s Health Sciences Center and is currently housed at the Citizen Potawatomi Nation Health Clinic. Thomas came on board to put together a day of celebration called the Launching Spectacle for the Intergenerational Native Women’s Breast Cancer Research Project.
“We called it a ‘spectacle’ because we are having a big entertainment event to kick-off the launching of our project,” Thomas said.
Statistically, Tolma said that there is not a higher incidence of breast cancer in native women, but in the last 10 years, the mortality rate for native women has not declined ( in fact it has slightly increased) compared to the other ethnic groups where the mortality rate has declined.
"The trend that we have seen through the years is that when Native women are diagnosed with breast cancer the cancer is usually found at a late stage which means the 5-year survival rate is low. That is why it's so important to get regular screening mammograms and that is what this project is promoting,” Tolma said.
“We have still have a lot of work to be done,” Tolma said.
The “work” Dr. Tolma speaks of is promoting the need for early detection. The March 15 event is part of that, a fun and informative day on the survivability of breast cancer.
Tolma said too often Native American women feel that breast cancer is a death sentence and get a “fatalistic” attitude and since breast cancer has been found to run in families, the fears of one generation can pass to another.
To combat the negative, the organizers came up with the positive theme of “Shared Love From Generation To Generation.”
“We highly recommend you bring influential women that are in your life, whether it be your sister, your cousin, your grandmother, your aunt, your niece. That's what makes this project different from anything that's been done before with Native Americans,” Thomas said.
“It’s that generational component and the ability to take this information and personalize that within their own families, with their own community and in their own lives,” Thomas said.
The Breast Cancer Project has had a life of its own from the beginning, needing and getting many different grants, most notably from the Susan G. Komen Fund. From the early years of determining why or why not Native women are getting mammograms, to collecting and collating data, and to finally building a program that utilizes the results, has taken nearly a decade.
The partnership includes volunteer patients from the Citizen Potawatomi Nation Health Clinic.
“By promoting routine breast cancer screening, education and cultural sensitivity, workers with the project hope to save Native American women’s lives,” Thomas said.
The one day event is open to the public and free of charge but registration is strongly recommended by emailing Cara-Thomas@ouhsc.edu or calling Cara at 405-273-5236, ext. 269.
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