“More than one million women worldwide will get breast cancer this year,” said Ileana Casillas said during her educational session on breast cancer prevention and screening on April 29. Casillas wasn’t trying to shock the women in attendance. She was simply stating a sobering fact before reminding them that “the earlier breast cancer is found and diagnosed, the better the chance of beating it.”

Casillas, a community health worker in Gándara Center’s NOEL (Navigating, Outreach, Education, Linkages) program in Springfield, detailed the three ways to detect breast cancer early: breast self-exams, clinical breast exams, and mammography.

The educational session was part of a Family Planning and Women’s Health Fair at the Caring Health Center (CHC) on Main Street in Springfield. The event, which was co-sponsored by CHC, Baystate Health, Gándara Center, and the Mason Square Neighborhood Health Center, provided women with family planning, reproductive health, and general women’s health and services information.

NOEL is a community-based prevention and early detection program offering free outreach, education and cancer screenings—specifically colorectal, cervical and breast cancer— to hard-to-reach populations.

Casillas’ presentation also covered the anatomy and physiology of the breast, risk factors for breast cancer, signs of breast problems—including unusual swelling of the upper arm or enlargement of underarm lymph nodes—and common myths about breast cancer. One of the myths is that all women with breast cancer have a family history of the disease. That notion is certainly a false one, even though these women are in a higher risk group. “Even if no-one in your family has ever been diagnosed with breast cancer, that’s no excuse to skip your yearly mammogram,” she said. “In fact, 80 to 85 percent of women with breast cancer have no family history.”

She emphasized that the signs of breast problems she had mentioned are not always indicators of breast cancer, but women should see their health provider if you notice any changes in their breasts. Casillas also went over the correct method for a breast self-exam, pointing out that it’s a good idea to make sure their health care provider teaches them how to do this exam correctly. Ideally, it should be done once a month—at the same time of the month. In addition, she detailed the procedures for yearly clinical breast exams and mammograms, which should be done every one to two years starting at age 40.

In addition, Casillas explained some of the ways women can reduce their risk for breast cancer, such as drinking less alcohol, not smoking, staying at a healthy weight, and exercising regularly. “Being overweight or obese can increase your risk of breast cancer,” she said.

Providing prevention and education services to culturally diverse populations is part of the mission of the Gándara Center. Our NOEL program stresses the importance of early cancer screening, particularly in underserved communities, where health disparities exist.

The other elements of the Health Fair, pictured below, included nurse consultations, information and resources on birth control, STD/HIV prevention and care, WIC benefits, health insurance, nutrition and fitness, and an educational session on cervical cancer prevention.