Valley Voices

Susan Coulter: Breast cancer awareness for the deaf and hard of hearing

Breast cancer continues to affect women every year. October is breast cancer awareness month. There are numerous organizations all over the nation striving to bring awareness and understanding to the issues of breast cancer and the importance of early detection. What about the communities frustrated by language barriers? How will they get this valuable information?

As a deaf breast cancer survivor, my passion is to bring awareness and understanding to our local deaf and hard-of-hearing community. For many of those we serve through Deaf and Hard of Hearing Service Center, English is their second language. Their primary language is American Sign Language, a visual and conceptual language expressed through the hands, facial expressions and body movements. When given written information on breast cancer in pamphlets from their doctors, newspaper articles or captioned news on television, they do not always comprehend.

There are so many new words – mammogram, biopsy, benign, malignant, metastasis, stages 1 through 4, radiation, chemotherapy, estrogen positive, progesterone positive, triple positive, triple negative, BRCA1, BRCA2. What does it all mean?

Our center offers support services, including breast cancer awareness workshops in ASL, in October and attendance at doctor appointments to clarify any information that is confusing. Our staff can accompany the deaf or hard of hearing person to medical appointments to ensure that full communication and language access is provided. Our staff will also clarify and expand on information provided at medical appointments and assist with follow-up services. We also bring awareness by having a team for the Komen Central Valley Race for the Cure and related fundraisers to meet our team goal of $500.

Deaf and hard-of-hearing breast cancer survivors and hearing survivors who communicate in our language, ASL, have a strong connection, providing support to one another. In 2013, three deaf survivors painted a work of art called “Signing Survivors Bonding Together” for The Art of Life Cancer Foundation’s event. It reflects how signing survivors are drawn together, supporting one another and offering courage, strength and hope.

When my breast cancer was diagnosed in 2012, one of these ladies was by my side throughout my journey. I was able to offer the same support to another deaf breast cancer survivor last year.

I learned so much from my mentor, which developed my passion to be there for others. By working at the center and being involved with the local deaf and hard-of-hearing community, it is my goal to ascertain that our community members get the valuable breast cancer awareness information they need so they can proactively make fully informed decisions relating to their health.

Susan Coulter is educational services director for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing Service Center.