Addressing breast cancer in the country of Georgia: Promoting screening and fighting stigma

In Georgia, breast cancer is the leading cause of death among women of reproductive age. Since 2005, JSI has played an active role in the country to spread awareness about breast cancer, promote the use of early screening diagnostic centers, and help support and scale up the work of breast cancer advocates.

Like many of the women depicted in Wednesday’s (10/16/2013)  New York Times article about breast cancer in Uganda, women in Georgia tend to be diagnosed with breast cancer at a later stage when their cancer is more difficult and more expensive to treat. Historically, there have been several reasons for such late diagnoses, including access to screening and stigma.

Now, access to screening is being addressed assertively by the Georgian government, which set up a national screening center in 2008 and began offering free breast cancer screening services for all women living in Tbilisi, the capital city. In 2010, the program was expanded nationwide. JSI received funding from USAID to develop a communication campaign to increase the use of and spread awareness about the free screening services.

JSI, along with many global breast cancer advocates, believes that screening services coupled with advocacy and awareness-building are critical – and integral – steps to saving lives. In 2005, JSI supported Georgia’s first breast cancer run/walk to raise awareness about breast cancer and the importance of early screening. In 2009, the event became an official Susan G. Komen Foundation Race for Cure©.

This year, Georgia’s Race for Cure was held successfully for the eighth time with support from JSI. For the first time, JSI and its local partner NGO were able to convince the city of Tbilisi to allow the race to be held in a location that necessitated the closing off of part of a major thoroughfare. This meant that all Georgians driving or walking by the race were exposed to the event and its messages, not just those who chose to participate.

The race was attended by the U.S. ambassador to Georgia as well as the country’s first lady, who is a well-known advocate for women’s health. A benefit concert featuring popular Georgian entertainers followed the race.

This year, JSI also supported the Women’s Empowerment Cancer Advocacy Network (WE CAN) and the Georgian National Screening Center to hold a breast cancer advocacy, education, and outreach summit in Tbilisi. The summit is a forum for bringing together patients, medical professionals, advocates, and policy makers from different countries to advance the exchange of ideas, information, and resources across borders. Leaders from 12 countries presented at the summit and also participated in an advocacy training given by the LIVESTRONG Foundation. The participating countries were Georgia, Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Poland, Romania, Russia, Tajikistan, Ukraine, Uzbekistan, and the United States.

Dr. Julie Gralow, the founder of WE CAN and director of the breast medical oncology program the Seattle (Washington) Cancer Care Alliance, led the summit this week. She has been working in the Eastern Europe region since 1997 to improve the rates of breast cancer detection, diagnosis, and care. She is a firm believer in the importance of supporting patient and survivor advocacy efforts.

“I really think that it is the patient advocates who bring the face of cancer to the community. In many countries [we worked in], we needed survivors to be vocal and say, ‘yes, cancer is a survivable disease.’ So we want to encourage that because in many of the countries we went into, no one knew a cancer survivor. Also, having lived through [cancer], [survivors] can be some of the best support for a newly diagnosed woman. But also going the other way, [survivors] can be strong advocates with the policy makers and the cancer center directors in terms of helping them set priorities.”

In Ethiopia, where 4,935 new cases of breast cancer were diagnosed in 2008, JSI is also supporting efforts to increase awareness around breast cancer, early screening and stigma reduction. This month, JSI staff from multiple projects, including its new urban health project, will join colleagues from the Mathiwos Wondu -YeEthiopia Cancer Society (MWECS) at their annual event to raise breast cancer awareness in Addis Ababa.

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