By Angela Barnes
A Chicago organization is helping to save women’s lives through breast exams, primarily in underserved communities. Here is how one woman’s life was saved because of its efforts.
“I was 52 years old when I was diagnosed with breast cancer,” said Nadine Willis, a seven-year breast cancer survivor.
Yet she had never had a mammogram as of 2008. While attending her churches yearly health fair that year, she learned about Sisters Working It Out and the free breast exams provided inside a mobile mammography unit. She decided to finally get checked, not realizing that her decision would change her life forever.
Sisters Working It Out (SWIO)-Health Advocacy in Motion is a non-profit dedicated to finding breast cancer early, when it is most curable. Dr. Monica Peek, associate professor of medicine at the University of Chicago founded the women’s organization in 2001.
SWIO brings together everyday women with a hybrid of expertise and a passion for outreach, education and early breast cancer detection. “Some of us have health backgrounds such as physicians, nurses or mental health counselors,” said Peek. “And some of us are teachers or just everyday women.”
No matter the women’s background, Peek said their goal is to spread the message that it’s important for every woman to get screened and understand their personal health.
“The purpose of our group is to train women to reach all parts of the Chicago community to do health and outreach, particularly in breast health and breast cancer,” Peek said.
Breast cancer is one of the leading causes of death among women. The National Cancer Institute estimates there will be nearly 232,000 new cases of breast cancer and 40,000 deaths among women in 2015, but there are significant disparities in mortality rates among Black women.
As a disparity researcher, Peek said her job is to try and understand some of the reasons why and to create interventions and problem solving solutions for the differences that she sees in the health of African Americans.
After moving to Chicago in 2001, Peek saw drastic differences in health care between the ethnic groups.
“One of the most striking things I noticed were the disparity in breast cancer outcomes,” Peek said. “That inspired me to want to work in this area in particular.”
Chicago has many disparity death rates. Although white women are more likely to be diagnosed with breast cancer, African American women have the highest breast cancer mortality rate – 25 percent higher than for white females, according to the National Cancer Institute at the National Institutes of Health (NIH). They are more likely to die of breast cancer than any other ethnic group.
“We want to break down a lot of misinformation and myths in the community,” said Peek. “We try to put a face of health to what people associate with things that are very scary,” she added.
While working in various communities helping to bring awareness to women’s health care and preventive health management, Peek’s role changed from physician/researcher to patient.
“I was doing my own routine self breast exam when I noticed a lump in one of my breasts,” said Peek. “Within two weeks of me doing an exam at home, I actually had a scheduled mastectomy on the right breast.”
She was diagnosed at age 35, several years after she started the organization.
SWIO strives to support women and infuse positive messages in the community through social support, education, health fairs, screening events wherever their services are needed. Providing free medical services to the community, SWIO utilizes a local health center to get more women connected to the organization and involved in their own health care.
“Our purpose is to empower and educate the women” who may not be aware of their breast cancer risk, said Beulah Brent, president of SWIO and health care manager at Access Grand B health center on the South Side of Chicago. “We’re putting ourselves out there to educate these women,” Beulah added.
Chicago is plagued with many underserved communities that lack health services.
According to Brent, the Access health center serves as a conduit to bring access to women and provide them with the necessary services they need.
“We actually link our women to our service, “ said Brent. “Once we sign them up and they need that mammogram and they need that Pap smear, we actually give them an appointment to see our providers here.”
“Breast cancer is not a death sentence,” said an emotional Peek, a 10-year-breast cancer survivor.
Through routine screening and family risk factors many women’s lives can be spared, said Peek. If detected early, the survival rate is extremely high.
SWIO is helping to spring women into action about their health, giving them tools for early detection, prevention and self-advocacy.
The organization wants women to know that they are a sisterhood of women getting tested every year and working to help make sure other women are doing the same.
For more information about SWIO and it’s services log onto www.sistersworkingitout.org.