In Hungary, Roma women are three times more likely to die from cancer as their non-Roma counterparts. There is a ten-year gap in life expectancy between the two populations. Contributing factors include a lack of access and awareness among impoverished communities living in remote areas, and long-standing discriminatory practices.
Yet 90 percent of these cases could be cured if detected in time and treated appropriately, according to the European Parliamentary Group on Breast Cancer.
Since 2007, the Equal Chances against Cancer campaign has provided breast cancer screening for more than 4,500 women in 39 locations across Hungary. Initiated by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) in partnership with the Open Society Roma Initiatives, and Susan G Komen for the Cure, the campaign is driven by the recognition that, as Marianna Jó, JDC program manager, puts it, "Early detection and diagnosis can mean the difference between life and death."
The Baranyai sisters accompanied their mother to the health day in 2009 in Bakonya. Seventeen-year-old Ramona had found a lump in her breast, and was unwilling to go to the doctor. This young Roma girl had found it difficult to talk about problems related to her body but was persuaded by the local organizers to have an ultrasound, duly given the all-clear, and her worries put to rest. Her older sister Monika who accompanied her that day, also had an ultrasound and was found to have a benign tumor. The Baranyai sisters were luckier than five other women who attended the same mobile screening event and were diagnosed with breast cancer. If it was not for the Equal Chances event, these women would not have been screened; their cancers would have gone undetected, and untreated.
One of these five women is 54-year-old Anna Bogdán, who at first absolutely refused to attend. After much persuasion from the local organizer, Anna finally agreed to go for a screening. Following her diagnosis she spent some weeks in a state of shock, before undergoing surgery and chemotherapy. She is now on the road to recovery. She said she is coming to terms with her situation and is forever grateful to the organizer, Ancsa "who kept nagging me to attend. If it was not for the Equal Chance outreach day, I would never have attended a breast cancer screening and would probably be dead by now."
In addition to screenings and information campaigns about self-examination, there are public health days, with tests for lung diseases, high blood pressure, allergies, as well as free consultations with health professionals, and workshops to promote healthier lifestyles.
What is distinctive about the program, according to Anita Czinkoczi, senior program officer at the Open Society Roma Initiatives, is "the complexity of issues it touches upon: the campaign has the capacity to change the attitudes of health professionals as well as the majority population towards Roma, as in most cases, it is a Roma NGO or Roma activists who take care of the organization and coordination of the local Equal Chance health days which facilitates access to screenings for the whole population."
And attitudes do need to change. Czinkoczi recalled one encounter with a local doctor who followed a series of racist comments with the snide question: "What color is this event?" They could only reply "Pink!" She still finds it "shocking" to encounter resistance from some local stakeholders. After one successful event in Tiszabő, the poorest settlement in Hungary with a 90 percent Roma population, Czinkoczi remembers how "at the end of the day, the resentful local social service providers—all non-Roma—were at pains to insist that these Roma people are not so active and not so nice as they appeared on that health day."
Health days are designed to attract entire families to ensure that as many women as possible can attend. A major attraction is the cast of well-known actors and musicians who volunteer and perform for free at the events. The campaign serves as an example of "explicit but not exclusive targeting" of Roma populations, bringing benefits to entire communities, Roma and non-Roma alike, which are poorly served, geographically isolated, and socially disadvantaged.
Klara, a 52-year-old banker recalls her experience back in September 2007 at one of the first Equal Chance health days in Kiskőrös: "The screening assistants were very flexible as I had a busy working schedule and fixed an appointment for me after working hours. I was diagnosed with cancer. From this point on everything happened very quickly. I was operated in October. When the weeks of worrying and shock were over, I called to thank the head of the mobile screening unit, Dr. Éva Ambrázay. She told me that if I had not attended this screening, I could have died in three months because the tumor was extremely aggressive."
She then contacted Melinda Sztojka, the local organizer from Baxtale Rom, who arranged to bring the screening bus to Kiskőrös to express her profound gratitude: "If not for this special program, my next scheduled screening would have been too late. With Melinda’s help, the mobile screening bus visited our town again last year. Three of my close friends were diagnosed with breast cancer. All three of them have had their operations, and right now are under chemotherapy and radiotherapy. I am extremely grateful for this program and that the mobile screening bus was organized to come to this town. I hope this will become a routine, and will continue to save lives of women."