Fighting breast cancer in Morrisania

Ana Brito talks to staffers at Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. clinic health fair. (MOHAMMED ADEMO/The Bronk Ink)

A woman living in the Morrisania section of the South Bronx has a 50 percent higher risk of dying from cancer than women in the rest of the New York City and a 15 percent higher rate than the rest of the Bronx. Regular screenings and early detection can significantly lower the number of breast cancer related deaths. That was the message of the annual Breast Cancer Awareness and Health Fair held Oct. 1 at the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Health Center.

The health fair drew around 200 children and parents to the parking lot on Franklin Avenue, where they received health information, food, and music. The goal was to reach the whole family, organizers said. “We are here to make sure that the community knows what we offer and children receive recommended vaccinations,” said Sandra Tramble, a medical records clerk at the clinic.

The health center is part of the Bronx-Lebanon Hospital’s BronxCare network system. Staffers from across the clinic’s various departments welcomed visitors with a smile and a small gift to take home. They handed out backpacks, books, socks, shirts, and notebooks to children. Parents received information on vaccinations and sexually transmitted diseases along with free condoms and nutrition guides. Volunteers gave out fried chicken, French fries, and beverages to visitors as they made their way through the exit door.

On the third floor of the clinic, a team of 10 volunteers and four doctors performed an initial breast examination. According to the New York City Department of Health, breast cancer kills over 1,200 people in the city every year but 23 percent of women 40 and older have not had a recent mammogram. In Morrisania, where one in three people live below poverty line, the number is even higher.

For some of the clinic’s staff, the fight against cancer is a very personal one. “I lost my aunt to cancer,” said Valencia Johnson, a patient care technician. “It is an unfair disease that doesn’t discriminate along cultural or economic lines.”

Seven of the 21 people who came to the breast cancer awareness event were referred to a hospital because doctors found potential problems during a physical exam.

Mariam Brown, who has worked at the Center for over 10 years, said she’s known patients who died from breast cancer and those that survived. “I had patients who came back saying, good thing we came to you early,” said Brown. “I enjoy talking to patients about breast cancer because I feel like I am doing something about it.”

As part of its national Breast Cancer Awareness month activities, the clinic is offering initial breast cancer screenings throughout October. A community health survey released in 2006 shows nearly one in three adults in Morrisania are uninsured or underinsured. Angela Aguasvivas, a social work assistant at the clinic, said many of the clinic’s patients are undocumented.

To offset the medical cost for qualified uninsured and underinsured patients, the clinic offers a program called ” community healthcare benefits”. Eligibility and discounts are based on annual income and household size. Those who don’t qualify for these benefits are referred to other clinics for free mammograms.

“But no one is turned away,” said Aguasvivas.

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