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Muslim women need greater breast-cancer awareness. FIU’s ‘mammovan’ is helping

Muslim women need greater breast-cancer awareness. FIU’s ‘mammovan’ is helping

As part of an op-ed series, FIU News shares the expertise and diverse perspectives of members of the university community. In this piece, medical student Seema Azim Al-Shaikhli discusses how many minority women forego regular screenings for breast cancer and how FIU's mammovan is helping change that. This op-ed was originally published by the Miami Herald.

October 1, 2021 at 9:45am

Seema Azim, second from left, stands with Imam Abdul Hamid Samra and the crew of the mobile mammography center at the Islamic Center of Greater Miami LINDA FENNER 3D MOBILE MAMMOGRAPHY CENTER



By Seema Azim Al-Shaikhli

A breast cancer diagnosis does not have to be a death warrant. Early detection is the key to saving lives. Mammography is the easiest and most important screening test for breast cancer. But many minority women forego regular screenings.

I saw this disparity as a volunteer at a Muslim women’s community organization. Delayed screening is a common denominator in many cases because of cultural factors and inaccurate beliefs about breast cancer. This is not unique to my local Muslim community. Studies show that American Muslim women, in general, are less likely to get regular mammograms.

A mammogram is a low-dose X-ray of the breasts. It can help detect cancer years before a woman or her doctor might be able to actually feel a lump. Yet, data shows more than a third of eligible women did not have a mammogram within the past two years. Reasons vary from lack of understanding about the importance of regular screening to fear of the procedure to lack of insurance. Not surprisingly, Muslim and other minority women have disproportionately lower mammography rates.

As a medical student and first-generation Afghan-Indian Muslim-American woman, I felt compelled to address this disparity and found an ally in my medical school. The Florida International University Herbert Wertheim College of Medicine runs a mobile center that offers free mammograms to uninsured women in Miami-Dade County. The service is supported by the Braman Family and The Batchelor foundations with the goal of “driving out breast cancer from our community.”

In Islamic history, mosques and medical institutions commonly were adjacent to one another. This inspired my idea of bringing the school’s mobile mammography center to a local mosque to create a sense of acceptability and comfort for Muslim women while highlighting the importance of health, a foundation of our faith.

Seema Azim Al-Shaikhli is an M.D. candidate, class of 2024, at FIU’s Herbert Wertheim College of Medicine.

The college’s Linda Fenner 3D Mobile Mammography Center routinely collaborates with community agencies, including places of worship, to provide free breast screenings. But it had never partnered with a mosque. That changed this year. With the support of Imam Abdul Hamid Samra, for the first time, our “mammovan” performed free breast screenings at the Islamic Center of Greater Miami, in Miami Gardens. We also hosted an educational webinar for the mosque and translated a mammography infographic into Arabic and Urdu. All of this encouraged Muslim women to consider the importance of breast health.

The mammovan’s next visit to the mosque is scheduled for October, Breast Cancer Awareness Month. However, as Lorraine Nowakowski, the mobile mammography center’s director of clinical operations, likes to say, “For us, every month is October.”

This year, more than 43,000 women are expected to die from breast cancer in the United States. We urge women 40 and older to speak with their healthcare providers about the benefits of mammograms and when to start. Women in that age group can call 305-FIU-PINK — 305-348-7465 — to see if they qualify for a free screening mammogram.

This op-ed was originally published by the Miami Herald.