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Breast cancer not just a women's issue
October 26, 1998

When Zora Kramer Brown's great-grandmother found she had breast cancer, she was so ashamed that she didn't even seek treatment. The same thing happened when her grandmother was diagnosed with the disease a generation later.

When her mother contracted it, however, she was able to benefit from medical and scientific advances.

By the time Brown herself got cancer, the "shroud of shame and secrecy was gradually falling away," she told more than 300 people at the ninth Women's Health Update October 15 at La Renaissance in East Windsor.

"I am a living testament to the power of knowledge and education to conquer this disease," said Brown, a 17-year cancer survivor. The disease has affected her sister Margaret, who had a mastectomy at the age of 27, her sister Joyce who was diagnosed with ovarian cancer at the age of 50, and her sister Belva, who was diagnosed with breast cancer in her mid-30s and died 12 years later.

Brown, the first African-American woman appointed by the President to the National Cancer Advisory Board of the National Cancer Institute, said that women's health issues have been ignored for too long by the scientific community.

"The issue of women's health generally is not just a women's issue. Rather it is a national issue and therefore must be addressed as a national concern," she said. "Women's health must ultimately be viewed as an essentially human issue confronting us all. We cannot rest until we have helped women to achieve wellness."

The conference, "From Breasts to Zinc," took place during national breast cancer awareness month, a month dedicated to sharing information about the disease. Brown said the incidence of breast cancer is growing in the United States, with more than 184,000 new cases of breast cancer reported among women each year, up 30 percent since 1970. One in 15 American women was expected to develop breast cancer in 1975, while today it is one in eight.

Breast cancer is the second leading cause of cancer death among all women, but is the leading cause of cancer death among African-Ameri can woman, Brown said. The survival rate for white women stands at 84 percent but the survival rate for African-American women stands at only 69 percent. Overall, 46,000 women die from breast cancer each year, she said.

Brown, a public relations consultant to Broadcast Capital Fund, a leading small business investment company, is the founder and chair of Cancer Awareness Program Services, the Breast Cancer Resource Committee and Rise Sister Rise, a support group for women diagnosed with breast cancer. The Breast Cancer Resource Committee hopes to halve the mortality rate among African-American women with breast cancer by the year 2000.

"Through awareness, preventive measures and early treatment, breast cancer victims can survive the disease and maintain a productive and fulfilling quality of life," Brown said. "In the absence of a definitive cure for breast cancer, the emphasis must be placed on prevention."

Her talk was part of a conference that included sessions on Health After Forty, featuring, among others, RuthAnn Lobo and her daughters Rachel and Rebecca, UConn's former basketball star; and a session on Cultural Considerations and Alternative Medicine. The conference also featured a talk on humor by Regina Barreca, professor of English.

Karen Grava