Photo by Richard Cavosora, courtesy of Asian & Pacific Islander American Health Forum’s “A Book of Hope: Stories of Healing to Honor Asian American & Pacific Islander Cancer Survivors.”
We may be nearing the end of October, but that doesn’t mean breast cancer awareness stops here. The most commonly diagnosed cancer among Asian American women is something we have to be vigilant about year-round. Here, a personal story about one woman fighting for awareness in the Asian American community.
“Asian women don’t get breast cancer.”
What if you heard these words from a medical professional? Susan Shinagawa did in 1991 after finding a lump in her breast during her monthly self-exam. Today, it’s those words that drive the work she now does. Shinagawa wants to make sure that no other woman of Asian descent will hear these words and that all women regularly get screened for breast cancer.
A decade ago, Shinagawa was working as a program administrator at an academic cancer center in San Diego, Calif. She says that, at the time, she knew very little about cancer even though she worked at the center. A friend of hers was giving breast self-examination (BSE) workshops and asked Shinagawa to attend. So she went to support her friend.
At the workshop, Shinagawa’s friend mentioned several risk factors for breast cancer that caught her attention. She had a couple of those risk factors and decided that she should start doing BSE. She began doing monthly BSE and recorded what she felt each month on a breast map.
“After several months of doing monthly self-exams, I felt something completely different in May 1991 than I’d ever felt,” Shinagawa says during our phone interview. “It was really obvious and just underneath my skin. I could even look straight down and see this lump sticking out.”
Shinagawa was preparing to take a leave of absence from work to join her naval pilot husband in Florida for a year. Before she left, she decided to get the lump checked out.
Her mammogram came out negative. However, says Shinagawa, at that time, 40 percent of all pre-menopausal women had false negative mammograms. The diagnostic radiologist decided to do a sonogram, which showed Shinagawa’s lump to be a solid mass, and not cystic. So Shinagawa went to see a surgical oncologist, who told her that she had fibrocystic breast disease, a.k.a. lumpy breasts. He told her that she had nothing to worry about, that she was too young to have breast cancer, she had no family history of it and besides, “Asian women don’t get breast cancer.”
“At that time, I really didn’t know anything about breast cancer or cancer statistics. So his comments really didn’t hit me,” says Shinagawa. “All I was thinking was, ‘I’m young and this is what I want to hear.’” But a little voice inside Shinagawa’s head kept telling her that something was going on.