Last night, I actually sat in front of my laptop screen, and gazed at the candid photos of former beauty queen Eva Ekvall. The first photo showed a close-up crowned young lovely woman, standing tall posing for the cameras with a beautiful warm smile that genuinely reached your eyes and warmed your day. The second photo however, showed a new look: the same woman looking dreadfully pale, bald and lying faintly on a hospital bed as she struggles with breast cancer.
This young woman represented in both photos died last week, on Saturday, December 17, in Houston Texas. She was only 28. Ekvall was not only Miss Venezuela and the third finalist for Miss Universe 2001, she was also a model, an actress and television news anchor. In September 2007, she married radio producer John Fabio Bermúdez, and the couple had one daughter, Miranda, born in July 2009. In February 2010, just months after giving birth to her only child, Ekvall was diagnosed with advanced breast cancer, and underwent eight months of treatment that included chemotherapy, radiotherapy and a double radical mastectomy. Despite the intense medical treatment, her health condition began deteriorating leading to her death on that fateful afternoon of December 17.
Shaken and heartbroken by this news, I was reminded about how precious, valuable and fragile life is and how all can be taken away in an instant. Her news brought such an outpouring sensation and a deep sense of urgency that as a woman myself, more specifically as a young African woman, I felt compelled to reevaluate my priorities and to share with my fellow peers, the importance of investing a lot more in our health than in looking beautiful.
It is essential that as women, especially as young women living within the African community, we understand what breast cancer is and how we can detect it and/or prevent it.
According to the Merck Manual Home Health Handbook, breast cancer is a cancer that starts in the tissues of the breast. The first noticeable symptom of breast cancer is typically a painless lump that feels different from the rest of the breast tissue. More than 80% of breast cancer cases are discovered when the woman feels a lump. Breast cancer can differ by individuals, age groups, and the kind of cells that are formed within the tumors.
You can detect it by knowing your family’s medical history and by knowing the signs and /or symptoms of the cancer. Early detection is the best way to ensure a higher survival rate. Therefore, start early in your self-examinations looking for any lumps and changes in your breasts. In your late 20's to early 30's, schedule breast exams at least every three years. In your late 30's to early 40's have yearly breast exams and base mammograms. From that point on, have yearly mammograms and whatever other tests based upon previous findings. Last but not least, exercise and avoid alcohol and obesity. They each may decrease breast cancer risk.
Medical reports document many physical consequences of breast cancer. Damage can result in breast pain, a lump or tenderness. Symptoms of advanced cancer include: clear or bloody fluid that leaks out of the nipple, bone pain, weight loss, fatigue, swelling of one arm near the breast with cancer, itching, nipple inversion, warmth and redness throughout the breast, and skin ulcers. Eva Ekvall exposed her readers the horrors of breast cancer in her book titled "Fuera de Foco" ("Out of Focus"): "It's painful to look at yourself in the mirror…” She asserts. “Your face gets swollen. You lose every single hair in your body – your eyebrows, your eyelashes. You become some weird animal or something, you don't recognize yourself. That was scary.” In "Fuera de Foco", Ekvall exposes in even more details, with the intention of advocating responsibility and accountability.
The psychosocial complications are also devastating. A breast cancer patient may suffer in silence from the complication of having and/or treating the illness. She may develop feelings of humiliation, incompleteness, loss of self-esteem, depression, or even chronic anxiety. She may find it difficult to talk about her personal experience; but her obvious anxiety, her silence, and sometimes tearfulness reflect the depth of her emotional and physical pain. This anxiety, silence, and tearfulness are mainly due to feelings of betrayal, fear of the unknown, bitterness and anger at being subjected to such suffering.
More women than men are diagnosed with breast cancer. Then again, men should be aware of the risks and signs and symptoms, as well. It is important to note that although, most men are less likely to be diagnosed with breast cancer as most women are, there are ways in which they are harmfully affected by it. Many men and boys experience the pain of losing their mothers, their sisters, and/or daughters as they face breast cancer, often experiencing the consequences of impact of the illness with them.
It is my hope that each of us is doing our parts to spread the word about breast cancer within our African communities. Let’s begin to educate and promote programs that will help our brothers and sisters get the help that is needed, because as an African community, we can help lower the numbers of deaths and bring awareness to our family and friends. Empower yourself, get with your doctor and your family and come up with a plan of action on how we can prevent it, and what to do if we should find we have it. Remember, good health is so valuable, fragile, and a blessing; and this disease must not be allowed to reign.