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Chien-Chi Huang

Founder and executive director of Asian Women for Health, Somerville, Massachusetts


spinner image Chien-Chi Huang
Stephen Voss

Cancer is the leading cause of death of Asian women in the United States, and breast cancer is the most commonly diagnosed cancer among them. Despite this, Asian women are less likely to be up to date on key cancer screening tests, such as pap smears and mammograms. They are also less likely to seek help for physical, behavioral or mental health issues than white women. I launched Asian Women for Health (AWFH) 10 years ago to advance Asian women’s health and well-being through education, advocacy and support. Over the past decade we have empowered more than 10,000 women to do just that.

The problem I'm trying to solve

AWFH’s main goal is to increase health care equity for Asian women and their loved ones. Asian women have lower breast cancer screening rates than Black and white women, for example, and they have more delays in follow-up care after an abnormal mammogram. They’re also one-quarter as likely as whites, and half as likely as Black and Hispanic Americans, to seek mental health services.

As an immigrant and cancer survivor, I know firsthand how difficult it is to navigate the U.S. health care system. We provide culturally responsive and linguistically appropriate programs to reduce these barriers for Asian women and girls, especially those who are new to this country. When they encounter stressors or illnesses, we do not want them to feel afraid, ashamed and alone.

The moment that sparked my passion

I was diagnosed with breast cancer at the age of 40. I had my first mammogram three months before my diagnosis, but that did not catch the tumor: I found the lump on my own. Asian women tend to have denser breasts, which may make it harder for tumors to be detected on a mammogram. After my diagnosis, I realized that there were many other Asian women with breast cancer, but no one talked about it, and we were all isolated. I wanted to find other Asian cancer survivors, to share and support one another on the recovery journey together.

What I wish other people knew

Since Asian women tend to be the backbone of the family, we always put everyone else’s needs before our own. This comes at a steep price. We often neglect our own physical and mental health. Asian women also tend to revolve their lives around their families, so when their kids grow up and leave home, they can slip into depression. I constantly remind myself and other Asian women to be more compassionate and loving toward ourselves so we can prevent burnout and resentments.

Advice to others who want to make a difference

You never have to go at it alone. Put your intention out there, and the universe will respond to you. Make sure that you get as many supports as you can. I speak from personal experience: I started my nonprofit a decade ago, and I only hired a full-time staff member two years ago. I had to learn everything from grant research to proposal writing to creating a budget to fundraising — all hard tasks for anyone, never mind someone whose native language is not English.

It took me a long time to recognize that it was not sustainable to do everything by myself, but I eventually realized that I needed to walk the talk and model for other Asian women and girls to practice self-care.

Why my approach is unique  

We are built on a peer-empowerment model. The core values of our organization are to educate, advocate and reciprocate.

We aim to build capacity, confidence and connections among Asian women and encourage them to pay it forward by volunteering. You can really see this lived out in two of our programs: Achieving Whole Health (AWH) and EducAsians, which provides important health information for English-language learners using ESL (English as a second language) as a platform. Volunteers can teach this ESL health curriculum as a community service. The AWH program teaches Asian women how to set and maintain personal health goals. It also provides a safe space for Asian women to share and lean on their lived experience to support others. Program graduates are encouraged to apply and be trained as the peer facilitators to run a new cohort for other Asian women.

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