By International Community Health Services

Each year, we celebrate Breast Cancer Awareness Month in October and thanks to repeated messages in the media over the past few years, many more women now understand that preventive screenings, like clinical breast exams and mammograms, can help save their lives. The message, unmistakably loud and clear, is that: Early Detection is the Best Protection. Yet for many Asian and Pacific Islander (API) women, this message remains unheeded.

Compared to other ethnic groups in the United States, API women are the least likely to participate in preventive breast health screenings, making them more vulnerable to complications due to late diagnoses.

Although the incidence of breast cancer among API women has typically been lower than that of other racial and ethnic groups, statistics on breast cancer for API women are based on aggregate data that does not take into account the widely varying differences among the diverse ethnic groups. In addition, API women were the only group to experience a significant increase in breast cancer over the past 10 years. Breast cancer for all other racial and ethnic groups either remained stable or decreased in the same period.

One of the significant barriers that API women face when it comes to taking part in these health screenings is lack of insurance. “API women are more likely not to have insurance compared to the general population. Luckily, there are options for low-income women with limited or no health insurance,” says Veronica Kim, coordinator for the Women’s Preventive Health Services (WPHS) program at International Community Health Services (ICHS), a community health center with clinic locations in Holly Park and the International District.

For over 12 years, ICHS has provided free or low-cost mammograms to qualified low-income women between the ages of 40 and 64 through its WPHS program. The program, which is funded by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the Washington State Breast and Cervical Cancer Program, allows ICHS to offer case management, treatment and follow-up care for patients diagnosed with cancer.

“Not many women are aware that this service is available to them,” continues Kim. “That is why ICHS’ Community Advocates go out into the different API communities to educate women about the different ways they can protect their health. Our Community Advocates help them overcome the language and cultural barriers that might be keeping them from accessing preventive care.”

For many API women, especially newer immigrants, lack of familiarity with the Western medical system and medical practices may prevent them from obtaining health services. Traditional practices from their home country and taboos about revealing their bodies to medical providers can also contribute to their reluctance to seek care.

In addition to those factors, language remains a major barrier for many API when accessing medical care. According to a recent report by the Asian American Justice Center, over one-third (37 percent) of Asian Americans living in King County are considered limited English proficient.

“ICHS strives to provide culturally-appropriate and in-language health services to the entire API community. Many of our clinic staff and medical providers are API and multilingual themselves. I think this puts our patients at ease when they come in and see our providers,” says Kim.

Thanks to generous funding from other community partners like the Susan G. Komen Foundation, ICHS was able to publish a guide on preventive health screening for API women, “The Women’s Guide to Self Breast Exams and Breast Cancer Treatment Options.” The booklet, released earlier this year, is available in Chinese, English, Korean, Samoan, Tagalog and Vietnamese. ICHS also produced a series of in-language videos on breast health targeting the Chinese, Filipino, Korean and Vietnamese communities. “There has never been anything like this resource before and we are very proud of it,” says Kim.

Kim continues, “The important message that we want all women to hear is to take the time this month to schedule a visit with a health care provider. We want to tell our mothers, our sisters, our daughters, our grandmothers, our aunts and friends that this is one of the best gifts you can give yourself and your family.”

ICHS is a community health center that provides culturally and linguistically appropriate health services to improve the health of Asian and Pacific Islanders and other members of the community. ICHS offers mammograms at its Holly Park Medical & Dental Clinic, (206) 788-3500, every first and third Wednesdays from 8:30 a.m. to 4 p.m.; and at its International District Medical & Clinic (206) 788-3700 every Monday from 8:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. Please call the clinic nearest you to make an appointment..

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