When my mom died after three years of battling breast cancer, I decided to work on a project with women who survived the illness. To me it was a way to create more awareness about how devastating this disease can be on the woman (some men get breast cancer too) as well their family and loved ones.

My mom smoked and worked in a plywood mill with other smokers and sawdust in the air. She didn’t do self-exams and only discovered something wrong when her breast started discharging what she called “milk.”

After one mastectomy she went 10 years without a recurrence. That’s when she got a cough that developed into an infection. I had to bring her back to Eugene from Taiwan on a nightmarish weekend trip. She was immediately hospitalized, got over the infection but retained the cough.

Chu-Yin Roberts

Six months later, her surgeon found a speck on an X-ray. The surgeon performed a biopsy and discovered the speck was cancerous. My mom’s  breast cancer had metastasized in her lungs. She took one chemo pill that made her sick with pneumonia. She was again hospitalized. She went home under hospice care because she feared she would die in the hospital. The cancer continued to grow slowly for another two years till the cells overtook her lungs, and she couldn’t breathe anymore.

When I worked with women survivors in 2003, one in eight women were projected to get breast cancer in America.  That statistic hasn’t changed in nearly 10 years.  In all the breast cancer awareness month celebrations, here’s what no one talks about.

Cancer often comes back. The longer you “beat” it, the better. But the specter of a recurrence is always there.

Why? There just isn’t enough research into the causes. A quick Google search will show links to toxicity and breast cancer: pesticides sprayed on our food crops, benzene in the air from vehicle emissions and in cleaning solvents, chemicals in plastics like water bottles and parabens used as a preservative in women’s products.

The food we eat can reduce some breast cancer risk. Rates for breast cancer in Asian women in Asia are significantly less than Asian American women living in the U.S. According to the National Center for Biotechnology Information, higher soy intake (primarily tofu) in Asia might explain the increase of breast cancer rates in Asian American women who eat less tofu.

Foods containing phytochemicals may also help. “Phyto” means plant and can be found in fruit, vegetables, grains, beans and other plants. Other sources of phytochemicals include red wine and tea (especially green). The best choices of vegetables are in the cabbage family and includes bok choy, broccoli, mustard greens. (breastcancer.org)

If Asian American women can follow a more traditionally Asian diet could that possibly help reduce our higher breast cancer rate in America? What else would help? Get a yearly mammogram and do regular self-examinations. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention posts some warning signs:

  • New lump in the breast or armpit.
  • Thickening/swelling of breast.
  • Irritation or dimpling of breast skin.
  • Redness or flaky skin in the nipple area or breast.
  • Pulling in of nipple or pain in the nipple area.
  • Nipple discharge other than breast milk, including blood.
  • Any change in the size or shape of breast.
  • Pain in any area of the breast.

The other thing we can do is to support our family members and friends who have breast cancer. This is my advice to family and loved ones based on the interviews and workshops I did with breast cancer survivors.

  • Don’t be afraid. You can’t catch cancer from someone. Call, visit, or do activities for short periods of time.
  • Be careful what you say. Sometimes it’s best just listen and be available when someone needs help.
  • Offer to babysit, do household chores, errands, shopping and healthcare visits. Daily life is difficult when you’re fighting an illness.
  • Check in once a day. Ask often if there’s anything you can do.
  • Find out what gives them comfort and makes them laugh and enjoy these with them.
  • Be positive when you’re helping or visiting, but don’t give false hope. Don’t talk about “the miracle” or “the cure” that might come in the future. It doesn’t help them with the pain of the present.

During October, there are breast cancer awareness events and activities.  One is the Worship in Pink Community Celebration on Oct. 30th at 2pm at Legacy Emmanuel Medical Center in Portland. There will a performance by the Survivor’s Choir as well as a reading of my short play, The Breast Cancer Monologues. The latter was gathered from interviews and workshops as part of my radio documentary of the same name. To find out more about this event visit this link or to hear my documentary visit MediaRites.org.

My personal belief is that it isn’t enough to put on a Pink ribbon or to buy “Pink” products that only give a small percentage to fight breast cancer. We must know more about the products we use, the food we eat and the very air we breathe. We must actively urge the corporations that make products and our lawmakers to think about our health. And we must educate ourselves to take action to protect our own health.

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