In small villages and large cities around Africa and in Asia, in Latin America, Europe and the United States, women learn every day that they have a lump, and that the lump is breast cancer. Around the world, there are 1.78 million new cases of breast cancer, and 464,000 deaths. Breast cancer is the leading cause of women’s cancer deaths around the world.
It is not a U.S. or a developed country problem; it is a global problem.
Many, if not most, breast cancer cases are treatable, even in Africa. Medicine has come a long way in the last 50 years, and we now have the tools to predict, detect and treat breast cancers.
But in Africa, surviving a breast cancer diagnosis is rare. Very few women have access to mammograms, or even a simple clinical breast exam. As a result, most women do not come forward for care until their tumors are visible, large and metastasized.
Women’s cancers in Africa are also highly stigmatized. Many people believe women get breast or cervical cancer because they have been unfaithful, or tainted by witchcraft. Even health workers helping women with cancer are stigmatized by their peers: They are seen as mutilators who operate on cancer victims, but lose them anyway.
We can change this, and we have the tools. We can encourage women to come forward for screening and make sure services are available. We can identify women with breast cancer early, so they can get access to treatment. We can teach health workers to perform clinical breast exams, and refer patients who have a suspected cancer for diagnosis and pathology.
Most importantly, when women are identified, we can get them into treatment quickly. There are low-cost, generic medicines available that save lives. There is increasing access to chemotherapy and radiation throughout Africa.
Pink Ribbon Red Ribbon is a public-private partnership working in Africa and South America to address women’s cancers. Founded by the Bush Institute, the U.S. government through the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, UNAIDS (the Joint United Nations Program on HIV/AIDS) and Susan G. Komen, Pink Ribbon Red Ribbon works with governments and nonprofits to scale up access to detection and treatment for breast and cervical cancer.
The approach is working, but more is needed.
In addition to surgery, chemotherapy and radiation, we find that small things can make a big difference. Paying the bus fare for a woman to travel to the hospital for care ensures she can receive treatment. In many countries, women receiving advanced cancer care sleep on the side of the road for lack of housing, so we are building hostels. Patient navigators, often cancer survivors, explain the disease to patients and help them get to appointments on time.
Unfortunately, many women present too late, and they die in excruciating pain. We need more access to basic pain management to prevent this fate.
We are heartened, though, to see the leadership rising up across Africa to address breast cancer. Ethiopia’s first lady, Roman Tesfaye, and others are standing up and speaking out. They are building breast cancer centers of excellence, equipping hospitals and training doctors. And encouraging women to come forward for screening.
Breast cancer is a sisterhood. Breast cancer affects our mothers, sisters and friends. We have a duty to help women around the world and ensure they don’t die from this treatable disease.
Now is the time to act.
Schocken is CEO of Pink Ribbon Red Ribbon. Brinker, founder of Susan G. Komen, the world’s largest breast cancer charity, was previously a Goodwill Ambassador for Cancer Control to the U.N.’s World Health Organization; U.S. chief of protocol; and U.S. ambassador to Hungary. She is now continuing her work in media and consulting.
This post originally appeared on The Hill.