Austin women urged to be proactive, vocal in fighting breast and ovarian cancer

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Virginia Griffith remembers 1967 all too well. That was the year she moved into the house on Jackson Boulevard, the home she lives in to this day.

It was also the year she felt the lump. The year she was diagnosed with cancer. The year she told her doctor, in no uncertain terms, to cut off her left breast.

Now 80 and cancer-free, Griffith talks openly about the experience – and the lifetime of mammograms and doctor’s visits that’s followed. Ever the optimist, she sees it not just as a struggle she had to overcome, but as a time when her family came together to support her, when she took control of her body and her life.

“I love taking care of me,” she said matter-of-factly. “I don’t take care of me, no one else is gonna do it.”

But experts know not all women are quite so comfortable talking about their bodies – and when dealing with breast and ovarian cancer, that can be a huge roadblock to saving lives. That’s why Loretto Hospital and Rotary One joined forced with the nonprofit Bright Pink on Saturday to teach Austin residents about preventing and detecting these potentially deadly diseases before it’s too late.

The event drew about two dozen residents, many of them women in their 60s and 70s, as well as a handful of teens. Through a series of speakers and a video presentation, participants learned how to make healthy choices to prevent these cancers – exercise, healthy eating habits, not drinking too much alcohol – and how to monitor their bodies to catch symptoms early – mammograms, self-exams, listening to your body.

But the main focus – one central to Bright Pink’s mission – was on keeping the lines of communication open about the diseases, both in the doctor’s office and at home. That entails learning your family medical history, being proactive about your health and sharing this awareness with younger generations, the speakers said.

“We want to have grandmothers, mothers talking to their granddaughters and daughters earlier,” said state Rep. Camille Lilly, the hospital’s vice president of external affairs. “We’re hoping that brings about discussion before detection.”

Bright Pink advocate Lorraine Gibson, a 28-year-old Humboldt Park resident, lost her mother to breast cancer when she was just 14. At first, she said, she didn’t even want to think about breast cancer; years later, she’s realized that when it comes to her health, “knowledge is power.”

“Talk to your daughters, talk to your nieces,” Gibson told the group. “It’s so important for us to have these conversations.”

Saturday’s event marked the first time Bright Pink held an event in Austin. The organization is the only nonprofit in the country whose main focus is early detection and prevention of breast and ovarian cancer. The organization – which is based in Chicago with 10 other offices across the country – holds educational events six times per year in neighborhoods throughout Chicago.

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