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Advocates Speak Out: National Breast Cancer Awareness Month

October is National Breast Cancer Awareness Month. To discuss some of the issues facing seniors with breast cancer, Seniors Speak Out’s Nona Bear recently spoke with Geri Barish of 1 in 9: The Long Island Breast Cancer Action Coalition. Below is an abridged version of the interview.

NB: Can you tell us a little about your organization and the work you do for seniors in your area?

GB: In the late 1980s, a group of women fighting breast cancer got together to discuss issues facing those fighting the disease. We decided to hold a rally to see just how many people on Long Island were affected by breast cancer. The rally was a huge success—over 350 people—women, men, children, seniors, everyone came to show their support for those impacted by the disease and to advocate for more outreach and education. Our rally made the front page and was talked about on local radio; breast cancer really was an issue that was important to the Long Island community. 1 in 9 was formed as the first breast cancer organization on Long Island. We are an organization committed to education, outreach and support for those fighting or surviving breast cancer.

NB: What does your group do to advocate for seniors?

GB: We provide specific programming for seniors who have or have had breast cancer. We offer discussion groups focusing on health care education, finances and other issues facing the senior community. We also run a very successful on-site gardening club that allows seniors with breast cancer to join together to support a common cause—a vegetable garden. While gardening, these women spend time talking with each other about the challenges they face.

NB: What are you doing to commemorate National Breast Cancer Awareness Month?

GB: In honor of National Breast Cancer Awareness Month, we have a variety of programs aimed to raise awareness and help those currently fighting breast cancer. We are hosting special educational groups and survivor teas where we invite in guest speakers to discuss how to navigate Medicare and other ways to make sure seniors with breast cancer are getting the care they deserve.

NB: This month, what message would you like to share with senior women in particular?

GB: I would like women to remember that no matter what their age, they have a voice and they should use it. Senior women should not be afraid to speak out and demand answers about breast cancer. It doesn’t matter where these women come from, we are all in this fight together, and if we stand as a united front, we will beat breast cancer.

NB: We know detecting breast cancer early is critical. Do you have any tips to help recognize the first signs?

GB: For women of all ages, regular self-breast exams are always important. Senior women should also keep up their regular breast cancer screenings. Breast cancer can come at any time, so keeping a close eye on things is critical. Know your family history and don’t keep it a secret from your family—let your children know if you have shown signs of breast cancer in the past so they know what to look for in the future. The key is really staying healthy, active and alert and making sure you have the right knowledge to recognize the early signs.

NB: What should senior women do if they suspect they might have breast cancer?

GB: See their primary doctor. Your primary doctor is your best resource when you start the fight because they know your history. Once you have consulted with them, visit a breast cancer specialist. Call the American Cancer Society for a recommendation, and make sure to get two—you are entitled to a second opinion with your Medicare coverage. Find a doctor you are comfortable with, and be your own advocate. My best advice is simple, if you suspect something, don’t wait—early detection can save your life.

NB: Are there challenges specific to older women with breast cancer? How might we overcome those challenges?

GB: The main challenge is finding a support system among your peers. No general support group will be as beneficial as a senior-specific support group. A generation of laughter and jokes shared between friends is worth more than anything during the fight against breast cancer. I have seen such great things happen when seniors join together to fight this disease.

NB: What worries you most about the health care options available to senior women with breast cancer?

GB: I’m most afraid of losing our Medicare coverage. People—especially policymakers—don’t understand just how important Medicare is for seniors. Medicare is the only way many seniors with breast cancer can get the care they deserve, and my biggest fear is that it could be taken away.

NB: What gives you hope?

GB: I don’t want to die, I want to live. I want to keep fighting breast cancer and not give in. The research has come so far, but we have to keep fighting for advances. We cannot give up hope because that is all we have. We have seen miracles in the last 40 years, but we must keep fighting.