Breast cancer is the most commonly diagnosed cancer and the leading cause of cancer death among women in Southern Africa, with 9,000 cases of which 4,500 resulted in death in 2008 alone (American Cancer Society, 2011). What is being done to change this reality?
Meet BreastSens, a patient rights centered breast cancer advocacy non-profit organization founded in October 2007, commited to challenging the current dialogue about breast cancer and promoting a patient sensitive and inclusive alternative.
The group, based in South Africa, is led by a breast cancer survivor Kwanele Asante-Shongwe who was inspired to triumph over tragedy when she learned of the lack of support given African women with breast cancer. Kwanele, wanted to create space for the missing black breast cancer voice to be heard within mainstream South African dialogue, and that she has! Through discussion with the medical team treating her she learned about the social stigmatization around breast cancer in South Africa and decided to challenge it. The overall goal of the organization is to improve breast cancer survival rates among Soweto women by identifying barriers to care, employing culturally sensitive and positive messages and by lobbying for equitable access to health care for patients.
BreastSens’ mission is to empower South Africa’s black indigent women and raise consciousness about breast cancer, women’s autonomy and their ability to collectively challenge their social system to provide affordable, equitable and evidence based healthcare services. Kwanele tells us that gender inequalities and harmful socio-cultutal beliefs leads to many women with breast cancer presenting late to hospitals and advanced breast disease can become their reality. By creating a culture where women are encouraged to have routine check ups, millions of black South African women can benefit from earlier diagnosis, treatment, care and an access to a community of other patients and cancer survivors. A shocking 52% of women who seek medical assistance in South Africa are already at stage 3 or 4 on their first visit. A myriad of complexities such as poverty, gender biases, domestic violence, ignorance, patriarchy, religious and traditional beliefs are perpetuating this issue and BreastSens is working eagerly to raise awareness and challenge this reality.
BreastSens is committed to giving medically uninsured African women patients a voice and is committed to helping them understand their diagnosis, disease management and survivorship monitoring. Itumeleng has found her eloquent voice and she is using it effectively to promote awareness among her people.
BreastSens reports that black women comprise the majority of the South African population and that it is this population of women who face the greatest burdens within the country---poverty, unemployment and inequality. The quality of women’s health is no exception. Kwanele tells us that, the in-country disparities in healthcare and education provision inherited from the apartheid era continue to plague South Africa 18 years post-democracy and poor Black women’s access to healthcare services continues to be undermined by the widening socio-economic disparities between black and white citizens.
BreastSens firmly believes that access to (breast) cancer treatment by South Africans who need it is a fundemantal human rights issue and that people affected and effected by cancer need to break their silence and deference and should hold Government accountable toACT NOW.
BreastSens’ is proud to promote what they call a different approach to breast cancer. They believe that through culturally appropriate educational messages they can effectively reduce the high incidence of late presentation and ultimately the associated high mortality rates. Part of their awareness is on the potentially different effects breast cancer presents for black African women. For this population breast cancer has been found to have earlier onset, present complicated tumors and has an extremely high prevelance in the 45-55 age group. HIV/Aids is also a confounding factor that lowers women’s survival rate as well.
Molebatsi Pooe-Shongwe, Founder of BreastSens, talks of a mission to empower South African women to access medical care to which they are entitled, through advocacy and education.
BreastSens launches the Soweto Breast Cancer Network (SBCN) project:
The main aim of the Soweto Breast Cancer Network is to ameliorate the breast cancer care divide caused by the lack of culturally appropriate evidence based equitable primary breast healthcare faced by poor women in South Africa. The SBCN will train 60 nurse practitioners from municipal and local clinics in the Chris Hani Baragwanath Breast Clinic (CHBBC)’s feeder areas and referral network. The nurses will be trained as primary health providers able to perform clinical breast examinations, fine needle aspirations (FNAs) and to recognize and refer suspicious and advanced tumors to the CHBCC for further investigation by specialist breast cancer consultants.
BreastSens is committed to making every woman count through building their holistic women’s health movement, driven by the self-indentified needs of predominantly black South African communities. The organization seeks to remedy the pervasive culture around breast cancer that exists and work with grassroots women and their communities to raise awareness and create a better future. They believe in creating a sustainable program that will alleviate the social barriers to women receiving the care they need. They also seek to challenge government to adopt integrative strategies within the healthcare system that are inclusive. BreastSens is a powerful African women led organization that is raising black South African women’s voices and informing policy development.
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