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How to Fight Breast Cancer in Bosnia: Togetherness

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Each October, for six years now, thousands of Bosnians -- Muslims, Catholics, Orthodox Christians and Jews -- gather in this historic city to battle again. But they don't raise arms against one another, but rather against a breast cancer. For people who suffered years of horrific warfare, the war against cancer is a metaphor that is perhaps best left on the sidelines. But the fight to contain and prevent this disease is a battle we fight daily.

Our most visible activity is the Bosnia-Herzegovina Race for the Cure, which has become an annual national event each October in our country of 4 million people, marking Breast Cancer Awareness Month.

Each year, as I get ready for the race, I reflect back on my own engagement with this advocacy work. It began with a phone call at my home in the early morning hours of April 10, 1992, just a few days after the outbreak of the Bosnian War. On the other end of the line was a Jewish community member with an urgent offer.

The representative said we could either leave Sarajevo for the airport immediately and be airlifted out -- part of a clandestine operation by an aid group to protect members of the Sarajevo Jewish community and others from the siege -- or stay at our own peril. Reluctantly, and at the behest of my father, who lost his entire family in the Holocaust, my family headed for the airport for Israel, where we watched helplessly as our country was torn apart by internecine fighting.

Ten years later and homesick, we returned to a very different nation. Bosnia-Herzegovina was divided into Serbian, Croat and Bosniac zones of control, essentially a country politically divided in two. And while peace has thankfully lasted, progress has been mixed -- old hatreds still run deep.

In 2004, I was offered a job running a small health education initiative called the Women's Health Empowerment Program (WHEP), which encourages the early detection of breast cancer. WHEP is, ironically, a program of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, the same aid group that rescued me from Sarajevo years before. Shortly after, Susan G. Komen became a partner in our work. That phone call years ago still rings in my ear.

Through WHEP, we have created something unprecedented in my country's history: support groups and hotlines for breast cancer survivors, health-related services such as free mammogram check ups and pap tests, workshops and facilitating the collaboration of government agencies, non-governmental agencies, and the medical community.

This work has offered me a surprising pocket of hope. After all, breast cancer does not differentiate between religions or ethnicities. And because awareness of the disease in Bosnia lags far behind that of other Western nations and cancer detection facilities are fewer and less advanced, survival rates tend to be markedly lower than elsewhere. For these reasons cancer education has been a high priority of ours, and a challenge, given the various groups seeking information.

But, we've had some significant success. More than 2,200 breast cancer survivors received psychological support through 13-peer support groups created by WHEP. When the race celebrated its fifth anniversary in Sarajevo last year, the more than 6,300 participants included 400 survivors from all ethnic backgrounds.

Last year we were able to provide some 1,300 post-surgery health and care packages to every woman diagnosed with breast cancer in the country as well as close to 700 mammogram (and other health-related) check ups for under-served women and women with no health insurance. More than 4,000 first aid packages were distributed to breast cancer patients in hospitals across Bosnia and Herzegovina. More than 1,600 women received free mammography screening.

Along the way, we organized interfaith meetings for survivors of breast cancer. Inevitably, some suspicion and apprehension carried over from the war. Yet over the years, this has been replaced by a sense of camaraderie, even friendship. On weekends, Serbian Orthodox participants in our project from East Sarajevo might meet with Catholics Croats from Siroki Brijeg or Muslims in Visoko.

It's not always been without conflict. In 2010, we thought about calling off the annual race due to political tensions incited by local elections and conflict in the Middle East. In the end, however, we went ahead and were rewarded with an exceptional turnout of more than 4,000 people.

The model that we've created is a model that could be replicated elsewhere. Women don't need to share national aspirations or religious beliefs. All that is needed to make this work a success is to acknowledge that cancer is a killer that doesn't differentiate among ethnicities or religions. That may sound like a simple observation, but believe me -- it's not. However, we have shown that women can come together on behalf of a greater good to achieve health and well being for ourselves and our daughters and granddaughters.

Some 20 years since I fled my home and returned to an uncertain future, I am proudly part of a movement bringing together women of all faiths to battle an indiscriminate killer. It may not completely heal the wounds of a struggling country, but it delivers hope -- and life -- to women and families in a place eager for healing.

Nela Hasic is the Bosnia director of the Women's Health Empowerment Program.

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