Lisa Bigelow says her father’s mindset was that he could avoid cancer simply by not getting tested for the disease. She believes early detection is the best protection – and she is helping to spread that word.
“Both my parents died of cancer. I wish they were still here. That’s why I’m involved,” Bigelow says. She is part of a team of resident health advocates that is raising awareness of breast cancer in their community.
Armed with tenants’ lists, sign up sheets, and flash cards with cancer facts, the team goes door to door at Syracuse’s Pioneer Homes, a public housing complex with 1,194 residents.
Their goal is to get women age 40 and older from Pioneer Homes and the neighboring community to have annual mammograms, and to deepen their understanding of breast cancer prevention, diagnosis, treatment and survival, which often depends on early detection.
So far, the resident health advocates — Bigelow, Martha Chavis-Bonner, Lawrence Diamond-Walls and Mary Harris — have enrolled more than 200 women in the “She Matters” breast cancer program, and 70 have had mammograms so far. (As a male, Diamond-Walls talks with men about male breast cancer and encourages them to get the women in their lives to get mammograms.)
What’s the process? The team works with Upstate staff to host educational sessions at the community room at Pioneer Homes, which are followed by mammogram “parties” at the Upstate Harrison Specialty Services Center. Reminder calls are made, and referral sheets are given to attendees so they can recommend friends and neighbors.
Statistics, personal experiences, and training and services from Upstate and the Onondaga County Health Department have prepared the team to do its health outreach work. The team completed a resident health advocate education program, designed and taught by Upstate staff and other local health experts. A $50,000 grant from the Susan G. Komen Foundation pays for the program.
The statistics are daunting. Nationally, African American women are more likely than all other ethnic groups to die of breast cancer. In Syracuse, more than 160 women are diagnosed with breast cancer each year, and the incidence of breast cancer is higher in Onondaga County than in the US as a whole. (In Onondaga County 132 women per 100,000 will develop breast cancer in a year. Nationally, the number is 124 per 100,000.)
Most of the women enrolled in She Matters have health insurance, reports project manager Linda Veit. Those who don’t are referred to the health department’s cancer service. Through that service, the uninsured women (five so far) receive a host of cancer screenings — colorectal, pap and clinical breast exams. Then, they return to Upstate for mammograms.
Harris says being a community health advocate means being there for the women in She Matters. “We’ll be your support system,” she promises. “We’re here if you feel nervous. We’re here if you need help.”
Plans include extending the She Matters program to other Syracuse Housing Authority residences. To find out more about the program, call She Matters at 315-464-6303 or 315-217-5825.