A new program aimed at helping ultra-Orthodox women to overcome the stigma of breast cancer - and at saving lives - was launched this week in Bnei Brak. Thirty-five women began a teacher-training course Wednesday as part of the new program, which is modeled after an existing program for breast-cancer awareness and prevention within the framework of Beit Natan, a women's health center in Jerusalem's Har Nof neighborhood.
The Beit Natan outreach-oriented center was created in 1997 primarily for the purpose of educating Haredi women about breast cancer, and its educators have since spoken to some 4,000 women on the subject. Sparked by increasing interest among Bnei Brak women in Beit Natan - and the fact that a half-dozen of them traveled to Har Nof for a teacher's course - the center's founder, American immigrant Chaya Heller, decided last year that there is at least as much work to be done in the large ultra-Orthodox city as in Jerusalem. A substantial grant donated by the Jewish Federation of New York helped pave the way for starting the program in Bnei Brak.
"Many Haredi women are frightened [about breast cancer]. There are so many women who bury their heads in the sand like an ostrich, thinking: If I don't know about breast cancer, it won't happen to me," says Irish-born Esther Cooperman, who is leading the teacher-training program in Bnei Brak.
Cooperman, a long-time resident of the city, supervised kindergartens for years. But she is also familiar with the medical world because her husband, also from Ireland, is a cardiologist at Ichilov Hospital. His patients include some of Bnei Brak's best known rabbis, which "certainly played a part," says Cooperman, in allowing her to launch the program with relative ease: Indeed, she received the go-ahead from several influential rabbis in the city.
Similarly, Beit Natan received nods of approval from a host of rabbis, including Shas spiritual leader Rabbi Ovadia Yosef and Chief Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau. The center is under the personal rabbinical direction of Rabbi Yisrael Gans.
The Bnei Brak course, which consists of eight weekly meetings, is being taught in Hebrew but a number of native English- and French-speakers are participating as well: They will eventually speak to groups of women in their native tongues. Cooperman selected religious women as trainees for the course based on whether they have public speaking experience or a medical background: Many are teachers and some are nurses or physicians' secretaries.
After completing the course, the new cadre of instructors will speak to women in various frameworks, including Torah study and exercise classes.
"This way, we will be able to reach a lot of women and make the subject less scary," rather than taking on the more challenging task of recruiting women to attend information sessions on breast cancer, says Cooperman.
The "graduates" will teach women about anatomical issues, oncology and mammography, and will address the social and spiritual dilemmas breast cancer patients face, with a specific emphasis on those dilemmas in the context of the Haredi world.
A handful of experts in both Torah and medicine will participate in teaching the training course, and the head of the mammography department at Ichilov will give the group a tour of the unit.
Adds Cooperman: "Ichilov is anxious to have Haredi women come and learn because when Haredi women [with breast cancer] come to the hospital, they're already in the advanced stages of the disease."
Beit Natan's Heller founded the center originally after a close friend died of ovarian cancer. Named after Heller's father, the center operates on the basis of funding from private sources, the Ministry of Health and the Israel Cancer Society. Many Beit Natan instructors are religious women who have either had cancer or have experienced it in their families.
About 25,000 Israeli women are living with breast cancer, and a U.S. survey done two years ago found that the number of women with breast cancer has not declined, but the death rate has. In fact, experts say that women have a near-95 percent chance of survival if the disease is caught early.
Men can learn to do it, too
Experts in breast-cancer detection complain that too few women in Israel do their own breast checks. Here's a solution: Men can do it!
Getting men to check their wives' breasts for lumps has been "my fantasy for 20 years," says American-born Michal Schonbrun. But Schonbrun is not talking about bodily pleasures. An expert on breast health who lives in Jerusalem, she is finally fulfilling her dream on Monday, when a group of men from Beit Shemesh will gather to learn from her and a male surgeon how to conduct monthly breast checks on their wives.
It is the first such seminar for men in Israel, according to Schonbrun - and it is religious men who are breaking new ground by participating in Monday's seminar. Such a group of men is also a rarity in the United States, she notes.
Schonbrun, who has a master's degree in public health, developed an educational breast health program at Cedar-Sinai Hospital in Los Angeles and, in Israel, has run hundreds of workshops on breast cancer and trained nurses and doctors in breast-cancer detection, both privately and as a consultant for various organizations. She is also one of several experts who will speak to the new teacher-trainees in the breast-cancer awareness program in Bnei Brak organized by the Jerusalem women's health center Beit Natan (see story).
"Many lumps are found by husbands by chance, which is a sign that detection isn't just in women's hands. Men should be educated about what is a normal lumpiness and what is abnormal, and take a role in encouraging their wives to tend to their own health," says Schonbrun. "Behind most women is a man. Husbands must be a target group."
Too few Israeli women do their own breast checks and aren't checked regularly by their doctors, she says, despite the fact that "there is a disproportionate number of women here who develop breast cancer." This is attributed to the mutation of a gene, carried by many Ashkenazi women, that may predispose them to breast cancer.
Beit Shemesh residents Davida and Moshe Nugiel came up with idea of a workshop for men and contacted Schonbrun. They have since found some 25 interested men to attend the seminar, which will be held in English.
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