Adapting a breast cancer prevention curriculum for South Asian women

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Written by Seema Mutti on Monday, February 2, 2015

There are many myths surrounding breast cancer. Among these are beliefs that men do not get breast cancer, that only older women get breast cancer, and that it is primarily caused by our genes. In fact, there are approximately 200 new cases diagnosed each year in Canadian men, 18% of cases occur in women under the age of 50, and 4 in 10 breast cancers could be prevented through modifiable lifestyle risk factors. Dispelling these myths and empowering women to take control of their breast health are the primary objectives of the Breast Cancer Prevention and Risk Assessment Clinic.

As a visiting PhD student, I had the privilege of working with Dr. Carolyn Gotay, Director of the Centre of Excellence in Cancer Prevention and lead for the team involved with this initiative. I was involved in adapting the existing curriculum for a South Asian audience—a population that makes up the largest visible minority group in Canada. Historically, South Asian women have lower rates of breast cancer compared to Caucasian women, but as South Asian women adopt a more “western” lifestyle (sedentary behaviour, limited fruit and vegetable intake, etc.), their breast cancer risk increases.

Another unique concern among this group is that these “new Canadians” also bring distinct cultural traditions including religion, food, and communication style that may also extend to health beliefs and practices. For example, the literature in this area, albeit limited, suggests that for some women, belief in karma lends itself to ‘passive fatalism’—that a disease outcome is the result of one’s fate, destiny, or of God’s will. This mindset may prevent some women from getting screened, and possibly from adopting prevention strategies. Even though these views are not shared by all South Asian women, particularly those who have become acculturated, programs like the clinic, which build on these features and the preferences of this population, are more likely to be relevant and useful for South Asian women.

Our team held interactive education sessions in the Lower Mainland that provided attendees with tangible ways to reduce their own risk of breast cancer. At the end of each session, we would play a Punjabi-language video produced by the Canadian Cancer Society that aims to promote mammography in the South Asian community. The campaign, called “sirf dus”, translates to “just tell” or “just ten”, and asks women to spread the word and talk to just ten of their family and friends about the importance of screening. “Sirf dus” is a goal that is similar to ours: that women attending our sessions would share this information with loved ones. Our hope is that we could begin to overcome some of these cultural barriers, and empower individuals to take ownership of their breast health, one woman at a time.

How can I reduce my breast cancer risk? See these resources for more information: