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Women’s Health Empowerment Program Brings Services to Women Overseas Living With Breast Cancer

Women on PhoneThe Women's Health Empowerment Program (WHEP) is a groundbreaking project developing services to improve the lives of women living with breast cancer and their families overseas. A partnership between The American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) and Susan G. Komen for the Cure, WHEP utilizes a "peer support" model, through which women who have had breast cancer are trained to provide information and support to others similarly diagnosed.

Currently operating in countries such as Bosnia and Herzegovina, Hungary, Montenegro, and Russia, the program builds leadership within the local community; creates new services, such as support groups and hotlines; strengthens doctor-patient communication; and facilitates partnerships among government agencies, NGOs and the medical and health community.

The WHEP program has proven successful in uniting women from different backgrounds around the issue of breast cancer survivorship. The WHEP program began in the Czech Republic in 1995 and has since been replicated in countries such as Israel, Ukraine and Hungary. The program began in Bosnia and Herzegovina in 2004.

The WHEP in Hungary

In Hungary, the Women's Health Empowerment Program has been working with three existing, local cancer organizations to increase their own capabilities and to enhance the communication and cooperation among them. Each of these partner organizations has participated in a series of conferences to date-in October and December 2006, then February 2007-to hone the skills to better promote themselves, increase their own fundraising capacity, and improve their individual and combined effectiveness.

The WHEP in Bosnia and Herzegovina

In Bosnia and Herzegovina, the JDC-Komen for the Cure partnership has been focusing on empowering local women's organizations; heightening breast cancer awareness, education, and early detection; and developing new psychosocial support services for women with breast cancer.

SOS Breast Cancer Hotline

One such service is a toll-free SOS Breast Cancer Hotline, through which local volunteers have fielded hundreds of calls from women since kicking off in November 2006. Offering women a non-intimidating resource for information and support, the hotline is staffed with local volunteers who are themselves breast cancer survivors. Though not trained in medicine, the warm voices that answer the phones offer something equally essential-an empathetic ear.

The volunteers are equipped to handle callers' inquiries thanks to a Resource Guide, published with the help of the Women's Health Empowerment Program. The Resource Guide covers each kanton (province) of Bosnia and Herzegovina, providing information on local doctors who treat breast cancer; where to go for a mammogram, radiation therapy, and chemotherapy; locations of medical institutes; instructions for doing a breast self-exam, as well as many other frequently asked questions.

SOS Hotline volunteers
Volunteers on the SOS Hotline are a group of women who come from diverse socio-economic, religious and regional backgrounds. But it is what they have in common-their survival of breast cancer-that transcends those differences and brings them together.

Shukrata’s story
It all happened very fast for Shukrata. At 57, she was diagnosed with breast cancer. Three days later, she was in surgery having a mastectomy. A widow of 26 years, Shukrata found herself in a state of depression. Fortuitously, her neighbor was the President of the Women's Group in her town and she suggested that Shukrata join.

Today, Shukrata is a different person. Full of energy and passion, she is an active member of the group and has attended two training conferences through the Women's Health Empowerment Program. After a recent training conference in Mostar, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Shukrata shared her eagerness for the hotline to open: "I listened very carefully to what was discussed and can now share that knowledge with others." Meeting different people from across the region was also a significant part of the event for Shukrata, a Muslim woman. "I felt extremely welcomed. I met so many other members of organizations-now we are breathing as if part of one soul."

Shukrata knows that the skills and information she has to share will save lives. Her training has already paid off, as she has taught her children the importance of self-exams and one of her daughters has already undergone two lumpectomies.

Hatidza’s story
Like Shukrata, Hatidza has also already touched lives with the tools she gained as a volunteer for the Women's Health Empowerment Program. In 2004, Hatidza's life was turned upside down. In the span of one week, she was diagnosed with breast cancer and had a mastectomy. Today, she has come to terms with her illness and knows that there are many years ahead.

Recently, Hatidza's sister was diagnosed with breast cancer. Hatidza was there, armed with the tools she learned from the WHEP program to offer support, understanding and information to her sister when she needed it most. Beyond being an empathetic ear to her sister, "I am an example of survivorship," says Hatidza.

Both Hatidza and Shukrata are fortunate to live have a place to go and meet with other breast cancer patients and survivors. Hatidza's sister lives in Orashie, where there is no such support group-but this is about to change. Wanting the same for her sister, Hatidza plans to start a women's breast cancer support group in Orashie. "The women's group is special," says Hatidza. "No one pities me here-I am not treated as an invalid."

Hatidza and Shukrata are just two of the volunteers who have taken their illness and struggle and have turned it into an opportunity to support one another.