Byline: Braden Harper/Reporter
Aside from genetic factors, it is a disease with an unknown origin. TVLSE, Oklahoma – October marks a critical month of awareness and celebration for breast cancer survivors. The Muscogee (Creek) Nation appropriately celebrated those who have fought breast cancer with the annual Pink Party at River Spirit on Oct. 18.
The celebration marked the first time the event had been hosted in person in recent years due to the COVID-19 Pandemic. Last year’s Pink Party was held virtually.
MCN Health Leaders and Dignitaries all gave remarks on the significance of beating cancer and spreading awareness for preventative services. MCN Secretary of Health Shawn Terry said the core of celebrating the Pink Party is the breast cancer survivors.
“I get the privilege of talking to many of you about your journeys,” Terry said to the crowd. “Screening and protecting our mothers and our grandmothers are at the top of our priority. This is a big day for all of us.”
Sunny Hammer is the director of radiology for the MCN Department of Health. She oversees breast cancer prevention services for the tribe. These services include 3D mammograms and breast MRIs. Over the years, she has seen the event grow into what it has become today.
“I remember starting way back with the Okmulgee Clinic,” Hammer said. A women’s health doctor and her nurses started this on a much smaller scale.”
3D mammograms are offered across the MCN at the Coweta Clinic, the Okemah Community Hospital, and the Medical Center in Okmulgee. According to Hammer, Council Oak Comprehensive Healthcare in Tulsa will also provide 3D mammograms soon.
Preventative screenings for breast cancer are not exclusive to MCN Citizens at the Medical Center in Okmulgee and the Okemah Community Hospital. They are open to anyone in the area with a doctor’s order. Breast MRIs are offered at the Medical Center in Okmulgee and Council Oak Comprehensive Healthcare.
While it is unknown what causes breast cancer explicitly, there are ways to detect and prevent it. According to the National Breast Cancer Foundation website, one in eight women will be diagnosed with breast cancer in their lifetime. Although men can also develop breast cancer, male diagnoses constitute less than one percent of overall cases.
The risk factors involved with being diagnosed with breast cancer include age, gender and race. According to the Susan B. Komen breast cancer nonprofit website, non-Hispanic Native American Women pose a ten percent lifetime chance of developing cancer.
Tina Mcdowell is one of those brave Native Women who has fought breast cancer. She is an MCN Citizen and a two-time breast cancer survivor.
According to Mcdowell, she was diagnosed with breast cancer when she was 40, then again 13 years later. She did not know anyone else in her family who had been diagnosed with breast cancer at the time of her first diagnosis.
“I was just shocked. It took a couple of days for it to sink in,” Mcdowell said. “It just didn’t feel real.”
Mcdowell’s treatment involved chemotherapy every three weeks. Each session lasted somewhere between three to four hours. Her chemotherapy treatment went on for three months. After chemo came the radiation treatments. Although the treatments eradicated cancer from Mcdowell’s body, it came with an exhaustive physical strain.
“Right when I was starting to feel like I could get up and start doing things, it was time for me to go back,” Mcdowell said. “It was a struggle the first time.”
The fight against breast cancer took huge sacrifices for Mcdowell. She had to take a leave of absence from her job during chemo. After returning to her career, she still had to attend radiation treatments when she got off work.
“It’s really touching,” Mcdowell said. “I wasn’t aware of how many women had breast cancer as I did.”
Hammer stressed that age is becoming less of a factor when it comes to being diagnosed. In recent years healthcare professionals have begun to see younger breast cancer patients.
“You’re not safe from it just being a young person,” Hammer said. “We are seeing it a lot in younger ages now. It’s just something to be careful with.”
According to Hammer, it is essential to self-perform monthly breast exams to be vigilant for any abnormalities, such as lumps or changes. It is also pertinent to be completely transparent with your doctor about the pain you experience and its duration.
“No symptom is too small,” Hammer said. “If you notice any change at all, you need to get into your primary care and let them feel it, let them talk to you about it.”
Upon an early self-examination, Mcdowell said she noticed an abnormal but painless bump on the side of her breast. One of those symptoms could include small lumps within a breast. This led her to get it checked out by the doctor and begin her journey to becoming cancer free.
Mcdowell’s advice is that you can never be too cautious about your health.
“Just get checked when anything shows up, and you’re not too aware of what it might be,” Mcdowell said. “Don’t take anything for granted.”
Today, Mcdowell is in remission. While her journey has not been easy, Mcdowell tries to combat it as optimistically as possible. She said she enjoyed getting to mingle at the Pink Party. She even won a door prize.
“Just one day at a time, it’s all you can do,” Mcdowell said. “Just try to stay positive and take care of yourself.”
The fight against breast cancer has seen victories over the past decades. According to the American Cancer Society, breast cancer death rates declined by 40% from 1989 to 2016 among women. This is attributed to awareness and improvements in early detection.
“Many of these women that come in here, I’ve done their mammograms, or I know somebody that has done their mammograms,” Hammer said. “To honor these women that have survived is a big deal. It is a big deal to beat cancer.”
Visit the National Breast Cancer Foundation website for more information about breast cancer awareness. Educational resources and support can be found for those with questions about risk factors and preventative treatment. It also provides information on how to donate, volunteer and support others in the fight against breast cancer.