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Breast Cancer Cancer Awareness Training in South Africa
I had a most adventurous career at a pharmaceutical company in New Jersey over the span of 25 years. I started off as a bench scientist in metabolism and pharmacokinetics, which is a fancy way of saying I was a drug discovery scientist. Because I am what career coach Emile Wapnick calls a “multipotentialite” –one who has many interests, many jobs over a lifetime, and many interlocking potentials– my career has been somewhat eclectic. My life over the past 25 years has included drug discovery, learning and development, diversity and inclusion, science education reform, network marketing, mentoring, life coaching, homeschooling, writing, consulting, event planning, and instructional design and development. Today, I am a social entrepreneur and certified life coach who holds a masters in education.
There have been many adventurous highlights of my career but by far the one I hold most dear to my heart was a trip abroad to implement a breast cancer awareness training program in the KwaZulu Natal region of South Africa. I was serving as the chair for the Bristol-Myers Squibb (BMS) African American Affinity Group (AAAG), an employee resource group, which was a component of the company’s diversity and inclusion strategy. I got a call one day from the president of the BMS Foundation asking if I was interested in having the members of AAAG participate in an employee “skills transfer” project involving breast cancer. My mother is a breast cancer survivor so, for both professional and personal reasons, I answered with a resounding “Yes!”
So began a year-long journey of planning, designing, developing and implementing a breast cancer awareness program in a country that does not have the same level of care and access that we have in the United States. A planning team of AAAG members came together to make the vision come to life. In addition to two AAAG members, the travel and implementation team included two oncology nurses, a surgeon, a BMS Foundation director based in South Africa and a professional photographer to document our work.
We actually had to raise the funds to design a program, consisting of train-the-trainer workshops, breast self-examination (BSE) models. We also needed funds to pay the expenses of the team that traveled to South Africa to deliver the training. We applied to the BMS Foundation and received a medical grant to purchase 100 BSE models and designed an “I Promise” employee fundraising campaign to manage all other expenses. In total we raised $30,000.
There was also quite a bit we had to learn in advance of the trip; for example, understanding and respecting the role that traditional healers play in the local culture. Also important was our understanding of the global plight of women in developing countries who are diagnosed with breast cancer and the widely different range of treatment options available. And, of course, we were aware of the sociocultural and language differences. Interestingly, we came up with some visual aids to help with conveying the breast cancer message so those differences did not become barriers. For example, we used necklaces made of different size beads to illustrate the importance of discovering a lump when it is very small versus when it is very big. On the ground in South Africa we worked with a local community-based organization, met with the minister of health, and spoke with physicians in one of the local hospitals. We got the mission done by working directly with volunteers, community workers, healthcare workers and, of course, traditional healers.
We were there for seven days and in that short period of time we went to several different villages, communities and clinics to conduct workshops. Sometimes we had air conditioning and electricity and other times we did not. But we were very clever in adapting and delivering under less than ideal conditions. In one instance, demonstrating the magnificent spirit of “ubuntu“, we ran an extremely long extension cord from the home of someone who had electricity into the community center where we were delivering a workshop. In the instances where there was no electricity we used our own bodies to demonstrate the lessons.
By far the most rewarding part of the mission was recognizing the thirst for knowledge exhibited by the workshop participants and the satisfaction of knowing we were giving something that had the power to quench that thirst. We ended up serving 395 workshop participants in the five days of active training. What a triumph! Not just for the team but for all the women (and men) whose lives we were able to touch in such a short period of time.
At the end of the week of training we had a magnificent community celebration where the audience was graced with wonderful food, music and children dancing and singing. When the event ended we traveled to a surprise destination. When we finally arrived we found ourselves in the midst of a lodge designed as a replica of a traditional Zulu village, . It is also a working farm located next to a game preserve. We hiked along a path filled with dung chips and crossed a river. It was a most extraordinary experience!
This experience was a personal testimony of what can happen when people have the heart and the desire to make service to others a career choice. I was forever changed by the experience and would do it again in a heartbeat.