Actress Gabrielle Union traveled to Ghana recently as part of the Susan G. Komen for the Cure's mission delegation trip designed to help reduce the rate of breast cancer among women in the country. She also joined Ghana President John Kufuor for a dedication ceremony at the new HopeXchange Medical Center, a state-of-the-art breast cancer diagnostic and treatment facility in Kumasi. Nearly 70 percent of all Ghanaian women who have breast cancer don't see a doctor until the disease is in advanced stages. We spoke to Union about her trip abroad, how breast cancer has affected her own life, and why this issue is so important to her.
ESSENCE.COM: What was this experience, traveling to Ghana as part of the Komen for the Cure delegation, like for you?
GABRIELLE UNION: Traveling to Africa as an African-American, or just as an American, on the more "privileged" side of things is always an eye-opening, life-changing experience. It always puts everything in perspective for me.
ESSENCE.COM: Did you encounter any breast cancer survivors in Ghana? What was that encounter like?
UNION: I met at least 50-60 survivors, which was important because in Ghana, there are so many myths and rumors floating around saying that if you get breast cancer, your life is basically over. So it is important for women to see these survivors. Also, there are a lot of consequences for women in Ghana who are diagnosed with breast cancer. For instance, these women may have their husband leave them, their daughters may not be able to get married off, and they consider it a curse on the family. It's thought of as something you did wrong, so we always included survivors to show that if you do have breast cancer, you can beat it and you can live.
ESSENCE.COM: You were there with President Kufuor when the HopeXchange Medical Center opened last week. How do you believe a facility like this will make a difference in these women's lives?
UNION: We were able to tour the hospital prior to the celebration with President Kufuor. There are only two mammography machines for literally every 2 million patients. Overcrowding is the biggest understatement. I saw with my own eyes what they're dealing with at one of the major hospitals in Ghana and it was unbelievable. What we deal with in terms of health care in the U.S. pales in comparison to what people encounter around the world, especially in developing countries. It really put the importance of a hospital of this caliber into perspective for any patient who needs long-term care to treat conditions such as AIDS, malaria or breast cancer. The HopeXchange Medical Center will make a huge difference in these women's lives.
ESSENCE.COM: How did you get involved with the Susan G. Komen for the Cure mission?
UNION: I got involved in the breast cancer movement two years ago when one of my closest girlfriends was diagnosed with Stage IV metastatic breast cancer. She was underinsured and needed money for treatment and medications. I instantly became active in fund-raising to help her and then became passionate about making sure other people didn't have to go through what she did. I wanted to make sure that people have the access to health care, support groups, counseling and whatever is needed as they battle this disease. Susan G. Komen then reached out to me and asked if I would become a Circle of Promise Ambassador. I jumped at the chance and eventually became a Global Ambassador. While I was just in Africa advocating for breast cancer, my aunt was diagnosed with the disease. So the fight continues...
The need to get the word out and help raise funds for research and treatment is definitely an urgent one. By going to Ghana and seeing firsthand that African women are suffering and dying at an alarming rate from the disease is terrible because I know if caught early, breast cancer is treatable and survivable. It just makes me want to help that much more.
ESSENCE.COM: What are some of the issues you believe Ghanaian women face when it comes to receiving breast health and breast cancer care?
UNION: The biggest thing is the lack of equipment needed to do things like mammograms, and there aren't enough trained technicians to get out there and help people in the rural communities. There are tons of women that live too far to get treatment. We need to get the word out about early detection. In Ghana and other developing countries, by the time these women get to the hospital, their cancer is so developed and the mortality rate is high.
ESSENCE.COM: Why go all the way to Africa to help Black women affected by breast cancer?
UNION: Part of my work with Susan G. Komen for the Cure is with the Circle of Promise, which works with Black women in the United States. But I realized that, surprisingly, much of the numbers and statistics for breast cancer in the U.S. are very similar to countries in Africa. If we really want to call ourselves a sisterhood or brotherhood, then we have to recognize the plight of the women in Africa is our plight as well.