After Ify Nwabukwu’s mother and best friend died of breast cancer, she was stunned to learn that African immigrant women were getting—and dying from—breast cancer at much higher rates and younger ages than their African American and Caucasian counterparts. Investigating the disparity, Nwabukwu discovered a perfect storm of barriers that included cultural silence, skepticism of medical treatment, and fears of the health care and insurance bureaucracy.
“African women are getting breast cancer when they are under 40, and often still raising young children,” said Nwabukwu, a nurse who founded the African Women’s Cancer Awareness Association (AWCAA) in Silver Spring, Md. AWCAA works to eliminate disparities in awareness, prevention, and treatment of cancer for Africans in the Washington, D.C., area, including Prince George’s and Montgomery counties in Maryland. “The stigma around breast cancer is so deep it has led to poor prognosis, and that is why there is a need to educate African immigrants here in the United States about cancer and the resources available to them.”
According to the association, Nwabukwu’s efforts have reached more than 7,000 women and provided free screening to more than 600 since the organization’s inception in 2004. Nwabukwu has encouraged community leaders to talk about breast cancer, has published educational materials in seven African languages, and has arranged for free mammograms at local hospitals.
For her fearless efforts to help African immigrant women battle breast cancer, Nwabukwu has been named one of 10 recipients of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Community Health Leaders Award for 2012. The award honors exceptional men and women who have overcome significant obstacles to tackle some of the most challenging health and health care problems facing their communities. Nwabukwu will receive the award during a ceremony in San Antonio on October 17.
To improve access to mammograms, one of the barriers Nwabukwu had to overcome was the requirement that immigrants provide a Social Security number and immigration status. Fear of deportation among some patients resulted in delayed treatment and more severe cancer cases. Nwabukwu met with state and county officials to change the requirements. She also worked to persuade the immigrant population that health departments can provide treatment no matter a person’s immigration status.
“We don’t know why African women get breast cancer at much younger ages,” Nwabukwu said. “But it presents a whole new set of challenges when you have just had a baby and must fight breast cancer. So our volunteers work to navigate the life and health-system issues.” Her organization recruits and trains volunteers, provides translators, schedules doctor’s appointments, and sometimes transports women to their appointments or provides babysitting. Her work also includes helping husbands and families overcome cultural or religious assumptions that can impede treatment.
Janice Ford Griffin, national program director of Community Health Leaders, said the selection committee honored Nwabukwu for her tireless commitment in challenging cultural stereotypes. “Ify’s efforts to disseminate factual information about cancer and other health issues are dispelling myths and superstition. She is setting an example of leadership to improve health and health care that will have a ripple effect among the families and communities of new Americans.”
Nwabukwu’s journey has not been easy. She emigrated from Nigeria to the United States to attend college. After graduating with a bachelor’s degree in nursing from Howard University, she worked as a registered nurse in various hospitals in the Washington area. “I see myself through the women we reach, their situations and stories,” Nwabukwu said. Today, she is expanding her efforts, partnering with the Caribbean, Korean, and Hispanic communities to promote breast cancer awareness. “Unfortunately, cancer does not discriminate,” she said.
Heather Patrick, managing director of Community Health Programs at Susan G. Komen for the Cure, said, “Ify’s tenacious character shines through in her role as an advocate for the African women in the community. Her greatest contribution has been her ability to empower women to seek education and timely access to preventive services and medical care. Her efforts in the plight for breast cancer awareness are truly remarkable and inspiring. Under her leadership, the African Women’s Cancer Awareness Association has provided culturally and linguistically appropriate educational materials and programs that address the African immigrant needs in cancer care.”
The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation has honored more than 200 Community Health Leaders since 1993. The work of the nine other 2012 recipients includes culturally appropriate care for Native Alaskan elders; a community initiative to reduce opioid abuse and drug overdoses in Wilkes County, N.C.; a program to prevent and treat cancer among medically underserved populations in South Carolina’s Low Country region; an initiative to connect refugees to mentalhealth services in Seattle; a free health care clinic for the working poor in Little Rock, Ark.; support services for Latino survivors of sexual violence in Philadelphia; a project to promote healthy lifestyles and working conditions for immigrant workers in Los Angeles; an initiative to prevent childhood obesity in Garfield, N.J.; and an outreach program to assist older adults living at home in California’s Sierra Nevada Mountains.
For details on how to submit a nomination, including eligibility requirements and selection criteria, visit www.communityhealthleaders.org.