This breast cancer awareness month, Pink Ribbon Red Ribbon celebrates the strides that our partners have taken in awareness-raising, screening, and treatment that saves the lives of thousands of women a year all around the globe. However, we also recognize the amount of work to be done, especially in developing countries. 60% of breast cancer deaths occur in low-resource settings; due to lack of awareness and limited resources, breast cancer is often a fatal disease. Education and early detection saves lives, reduces suffering, and decreases loss of productivity. Consistent access to health care will save hundreds of thousands of women’s lives from cancer around the world.
Pink Ribbon Red Ribbon was created five years ago by the George W. Bush Institute, PEPFAR, Susan G. Komen®, and UNAIDS as a global partnership to increase access to screening and treatment for cervical and breast cancer. Although we cannot prevent breast cancer, early detection saves lives. Twenty years ago, many people did not get tested for HIV because it was considered to be a death sentence– why get tested, if treatment was unavailable? Now that ARVs are more widely available, people come forward for testing and treatment. We believe that women’s cancers are similar – women will come forward for screening and detection if treatment is available.
That’s why we are so proud of our progress on breast cancer care in Pink Ribbon Red Ribbon-supported countries and grateful to all of our partners for their valuable support. In partnership with Susan G. Komen, PRRR is supporting the Government of Tanzania to support its first service-delivery guidelines for early detection of breast cancer. PRRR and Susan G. Komen are also working to develop harmonized national treatment protocols for invasive female cancers in collaboration with the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center. Susan G. Komen has also supported the development of culturally appropriate information, education, and communication toolkits on breast cancer. As barriers to accessing care go beyond screening and appropriate treatments, PRRR is developing an innovative “Hostels for Hope” program to address other barriers such as lodging and transportation. The hostels will provide lodging for women who have to travel long distances to seek advanced cancer care. In partnership with the George W. Bush Institute, the American Cancer Society, HKS, Inc., and Southern Methodist University, we launched an international competition to solicit designs for hostels in which women can stay in safety and comfort.
In Zambia, Susan G. Komen has produced an assessment of breast cancer care in Zambia and trained health professionals in clinical breast examinations and fine needle aspirations. Our partner the National Breast Cancer Foundation is supporting the work of a national health promotion manager at the Zambian Ministry of Health, who coordinates cervical and breast cancer events around the country. The Health Promotion team travels to rural areas of Zambia, works with the Ministry of Chiefs and Tribal Affairs and local leaders, and educates women on breast health, self-awareness, and offers clinical breast exams.
First Ladies have served as prominent champions in breast and cervical cancer care. They have raised awareness about women’s cancers in their countries, and mobilized women to seek screening for the diseases. Their voices have also moved senior officials in Government, and have been key to the development of national-level policy. Mrs. Roman Tesfaye, First Lady of Ethiopia, has been a prominent advocate to address cervical and breast cancer in Ethiopia and improve the health of women girls. Mrs. Roman has led efforts to improve cancer care in Ethiopia with ambitious plans to expand screening and treatment services, create a breast health Center of Excellence in Hawassa, and launch Ethiopia’s first ever National Cancer Control Plan. The leadership of First Ladies has been instrumental to advocating for investments in and attention for breast cancer in Africa and Pink Ribbon Red Ribbon is grateful for their commitment and participation.
In addition to awareness, early detection, and creating service delivery guidelines, we are planning to improve the availability of low-cost drugs and access to cancer care through a partnership with Novartis Access, which will greatly reduce the burden of breast cancer and lift the stigma of a cancer diagnosis. Through this partnership, we are going to focus on building the capacity of health workers to diagnose breast cancer, and we plan to increase access to immunohistochemistry so we can better target drugs. By correctly identifying the type of breast cancer a woman has, we can tailor her treatment and improve outcomes. This will decrease the stigma of breast cancer, and motivate health workers.
We have a long way to go to make breast cancer a treatable disease in many low resource settings. But there is strong leadership from First Ladies on women’s cancers, and there is increasing awareness that with support from the private sector and donors, we can save women’s lives. Partners such as Susan G. Komen, the National Breast Cancer Foundation, MD Anderson, and American Cancer Society have allowed PRRR to tackle some of the stigma, access, and educational barriers to providing breast cancer care in the countries in which we work.
We believe that cancer is a treatable disease, not a death sentence. With education, early detection, and access to the right treatments, we can save lives together.
By Meera Sarathy, MPH, MBA, Pink Ribbon Red Ribbon Country Program Manager