BIG CYPRESS — Perky pink hues from bubble gum to bright magenta brightened a somber reason for the Big Cypress Reservation’s Wear Pink Day: breast cancer awareness.
Amid cheery balloons, more than 50 Tribal members and employees in pink-ribboned T-shirts, skirts, hair ties and tiaras, mustered at the entrance of the Frank Billie Field Office to pick up free health information about the disease and to pose for a unified photographic statement Oct. 4.
“Who do I wear pink for? My great grandmother’s sister died of breast cancer, so I wear pink for all women,” said Michael Thomas, who donned shocking pink sneakers and a hot pink baseball cap.
Nearly a dozen more men also wore the otherwise feminine color in socks, shirts, shorts and baseball caps to show support.
Lunch at the Senior Center followed with healthy portions of whole grain rolls, beef tenderloin, squash and the “super food” broccoli, said Toma Hunter, a nutritionist with the Big Cypress Health Education. Hunter and health educator Sarah Pinto emceed the three-hour event that also featured a video about cancer from the eyes of a Native American woman who suffered through the illnesses and deaths of loved ones from lung, brain, breast and cervical cancer.
The Big Cypress event commemorated Breast Cancer Awareness Month.
The department’s community health outreach coordinator Edna McDuffie said other reservations also held events to bring attention to the disease that in 2009, the most recent year that numbers are available from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), killed 40,676 women and 400 men nationwide.
Cancer is the second leading cause of death among American Indian and Alaska Native people, the CDC reports. Heart disease is first.
Though breast cancer occurs less in Native American populations (89 per 100,000), according to the Susan G. Komen for the Cure organization, than Caucasians (125.4 per 100,000) or African Americans (116.1 per 100,000), per the CDC, breast cancer diagnoses have steadily increased across Indian Country over the past two decades.
“The most important thing people will take from today is awareness. When our people hear cancer they don’t always think breast cancer. No matter, we hope they get the message that they must check their breasts,” McDuffie said.
Pinto said causes for breast cancer are unknown but the disease occurs when genes and DNA mutate. Preventative steps include: exercise three times for 30 minutes per week, consume only one alcoholic beverage a day – if at all, eat healthy foods to achieve and maintain a healthy weight and drink plenty of water.
For women with a family history of breast cancer or other high-risk factors, early detection through self-examination, mammograms and ultrasounds often hold the key to an easier, less painful battle. Many women can prevent breast cancer with yearly mammograms and other diagnosing tools that can detect pre-cancer conditions.
Kathryn Toahty, a family preservation counselor on Big Cypress whose great aunt had breast cancer, said her 16-year-old daughter and her 70-year-old mother were both diagnosed with early warning signs. Both underwent pre-emptive lumpectomies and are now fine.
“Events like this provide a sense of community for those who are sick,” Toahty said. “It brings everyone together and provides a platform for us to talk so we can learn from each other’s experiences – our joys and our struggles – and so we can pass what we learn on to generations.”