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Fighting breast cancer stigma

Updated Thursday, March 5th 2009 at 00:00 GMT +3

By Peter Orengo

For so many women, there is no more dreaded disease than breast cancer.

Breast cancer elicits fears related to loss of body image and sexuality, surgery, and death.

"You don’t really know what your breasts mean to you until you risk losing them," says Ms Catherine Ngaracu, a breast cancer survivor for the last five years.

She believes a woman is defined by that part of the body. "Before I was diagnosed with the disease my husband would joke that if anything happened to them, our marriage would end," she says.

Like Catherine, many breast cancer patients worry more about how they will cope with stigma of losing their breasts than the pain associated with treatment.

After having a masectomy, Ms Caroline Mumo stopped visiting relatives’ upcountry because she was labelled a witch for having one breast. In the streets she was met with strange stares and her husband started staying out late into the night.

"My life revolved around my too daughters and my job," she says.

Her doctor advised her to joins Kenya Breast Health Programme, a cancer advocacy NGO. "The organisation linked me up with other cancer survivors. I was shocked at how many we were," she says. There are has over 14,000 new breast cancer cases and around 6,000 deaths annually in East Africa.

Mumo learnt how she could deal with the stigma that goes with lose of one’s breast from Ms Olive Nduati, Marketing & Communications Manager of Deacons, Woolworths’ parent company. The company sells mastectomy bras and the prosthesis to breast cancer survivors. Today, Mumo says the bras are comfortable and fitted with a pocket(s) where the prosthesis is put in. " I perform my chores without fear of the fitted ‘breast’ falling off or shifting position. They have enhanced my self esteem and I no longer have to throw a kitambaa on one side of the shoulder," she says.

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