Health & Medicine

Groups for blacks, Hispanic woman offer support, care, information for those with breast cancer

Karen Brown makes a tutu to wear in Saturday's Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure where she will march with a group from Mt. Calvary Missionary Baptist Church that includes at least six survivors at Brown's home in Lexington, Ky., Thursday, October 1, 2015. Photo by Matt Goins
Karen Brown makes a tutu to wear in Saturday's Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure where she will march with a group from Mt. Calvary Missionary Baptist Church that includes at least six survivors at Brown's home in Lexington, Ky., Thursday, October 1, 2015. Photo by Matt Goins Herald-Leader

Vanessa Webb Brown and Gisella Astolfo began volunteering with two local breast cancer organizations because they were affected by the disease, but in different ways.

Brown was performing a self-examination the day after her 44th birthday in 2012 when she noticed a lump.

"I just thought it was calcium build-up, because there's no history of breast cancer in my family. ... Well, it turned out it was breast cancer."

Brown had four tumors in her left breast and had to have a double mastectomy and chemotherapy.

Just a few months after treatment, she began volunteering with Colors of Promise, a support group for black woman that strives to share information about breast cancer and the services available for those diagnosed with the disease.

"One of the ladies that I went to church with was talking about being an ambassador for the Colors of Promise. And she explained to me what the organization was, ... so I decided that was something that I wanted to be involved with," she said.

Unlike Brown, Astolfo didn't have breast cancer. But her mother did.

"My mother was sick. They found something in her right breast almost eight years ago," she said. Astolfo had been in America for only three years then and was learning English. She noticed a Susan G. Komen brochure in a local hospital. Astolfo was able to read it, but her mother, who knew very little English, couldn't.

That motivated her to get involved with Lazos Que Unen — Ties That Bind — a Spanish-speaking program that aims to "spread the word about what we can do and how we can help the ladies" of Kentucky's Latino community, Astolfo said.

"For me, it was easy at that point, because I spoke some English. But for my mother, it was something difficult. And my main goal all these years is, not only improving my language and trying to help my mother to learn English, it was also to help some people who are in the same aspect who need information, but in your own language."

Astolfo first volunteered a few years later after meeting Eileen Levy Smyth, the director of mission outreach for Susan G. Komen Lexington.

"I met Eileen at one of these health festivals that they were doing one time in the year almost four years ago," Astolfo said. She volunteered "little by little" for Susan G. Komen, then joined Lazos Que Unen when it was founded.

More than 224,000 women were diagnosed with breast cancer in 2012, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. According to 2011 data from the National Cancer Institute, white women are slightly more likely to get breast cancer, but black women have a 41 percent higher mortality rate.

These two Lexington groups are making an effort to educate minority women and spread breast cancer awareness in Central and Eastern Kentucky.

At monthly meetings of Colors of Promise, members discuss "ideas on how to spread the word about breast cancer," Brown said. At one recent meeting, Brown said, "One of the things that we talked about is putting baskets in ... salons, because women go get their hair done, and that's a good way for us to give information out."

Colors of Promise also goes to events, including the Lexington Roots & Heritage Festival, to have a more personal interaction with people. Attending such events helps them "reach people who are unaware of the steps that they can take, and unaware of the places they can go, and the agencies that are out there to help them, and more or less unaware of what to do if they should find a lump," Brown said.

Talking face to face allows them to build trust.

"A lot of these women that we talk to and that we want to reach, they have a distrust of doctors, they have distrust of going to the hospital, and we kind of understand because they're just not used to doing that. A lot of them are used to dealing with whatever they have to deal with and let the chips fall where they may.

"And for them to see women like them — women of color — and know that we're going through the same thing that they're going through, ... I think that helps out tremendously," she said.

Lazos Que Unen has similar goals, Astolfo said. The group's "main concern is the language — the barrier of the language."

Founded in 2013, Lazos Que Unen targets Hispanic women and is attempting to change a cultural norm.

"This program is reaching the Hispanic community in a different way because women in Latin culture, they leave themselves for last, and usually they take the kids to the doctor, they take the husband to the doctor."

To better reach more people, Lazos Que Unen recently started a Spanish-speaking resource line. Those who want or need more information can call (859) 806-5488 from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday. The resource line already has been successful, Astolfo said.

Members of both groups will be downtown Saturday at Race for the Cure, handing out information and speaking with people.

Smyth said, "These groups of women are the reason I get up in the morning. ... I have never been a part of something so loving. We all want more for our community, and this is how we choose to give back."