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Ify Anne Nwabukwu, B.S.N., R.N.

Founder and executive director, African Women’s Cancer Awareness Association

Through the Loss of Loved Ones to Breast Cancer, Woman Serves to Teach Others

Many African immigrants diagnosed with breast cancer face barriers that make it difficult for them to access health care, which may lead to worse outcomes. I founded the African Women’s Cancer Awareness Association (AWCAA) to reduce the disparities in awareness, education, prevention and care. Since 2004, we have served more than 3,000 women diagnosed with breast cancer and their families in the Washington, D.C., metro area and the international community through mission trips to various countries in Africa.

The problem I am trying to solve

The African immigrant population in America is one of the most negatively affected by existing health inequities in the U.S. Like many Blacks, they are underserved, underprivileged and underinsured. African immigrants also experience a language barrier and a strong cultural stigma about cancer that can delay diagnosis and treatment. Some don’t seek medical care because they are undocumented. By the time they come in for a screening, they’ve already discovered a lump, and then it may be too late for a positive outcome.

AWCAA stands in the gap to help African immigrants overcome these barriers and live to be survivors of breast cancer. Our cultural ambassadors conduct community outreach activities and ensure that up to 60 women get mammograms every year. We provide patient navigation services to women diagnosed with breast cancer as they move through the continuum of care. Our breast cancer support group serves as a haven for women to come together and to be connected to local resources for their needs, such as mastectomy bras and prostheses.

We touch an average of 2,500 lives through breast cancer screenings, patient navigation services, support groups and online counseling every year. Overall, we have reached more than 30,000 people through our awareness and educational outreach in the U.S. and on our mission trips in Africa.

The moment that sparked my passion

When my mother moved to the U.S. from our native Nigeria in 1989, a doctor found a lump in her breast. She had attributed the lump to “formed milk” that had accumulated during her breastfeeding days, not knowing that it had the potential to take her life. She didn’t have health insurance and had no idea how to access health care and navigate breast cancer care. She needed a patient navigator to at least interpret what the doctor was saying in her local dialect.

My friend who was a physician got her professional colleagues together, and they were able to work with and treat my mother. Due to the treatments she received, she was able to add 17 more years to her life. Experiencing all of this opened my eyes to the needs of other African immigrant women in this community and also prepared me for my own battle with early breast cancer in 2016.

What I wish others knew

African immigrants to this country have huge dreams of accessing opportunities that will improve their lives. These dreams are not theirs alone, but are also the dreams of their family members back in Africa and sometimes their entire community. These immigrants are a symbol of hope that they may one day help to improve the lives of their family and community. As Africans, we believe in coming together to lift one person up amid scarce resources, and that when that person succeeds, they will lift another one up. This is why AWCAA is here.

Why my approach is unique

Unlike other breast cancer organizations, our approach was developed specifically to help African immigrants diagnosed with breast cancer. We address their particular set of difficulties responding to the disease. To access this community and offer effective solutions, we take an approach that is linguistically and culturally appropriate.

The AWCAA team is made up of 100 percent African immigrants, and the membership and the staff of the organization represent most of Africa’s diverse countries. We serve as translators and interpreters for most of our clients and have breast cancer resources in 11 African languages — French, Arabic, Amharic, Portuguese, Ibo, Hausa, Krio, Yoruba, Shona, Swahili and Berber — which empower patients to face and overcome their breast cancer.

Advice to others who want to make a difference

Know your purpose. What can you as an individual, as a human being, contribute while you’re here? Once you know your purpose, don’t be dissuaded by negative thoughts or concerns about how you can get it done. Go out and find ways to make it happen.