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A mission of hope
By Ann Coppola, News Reporter
Published: 10/22/2007

Breastcancer Most women know that once they turn 40 they need to get yearly mammograms, but not many are aware that after age 20 they’re supposed to conduct a breast self-exam every month. If you take a population of incarcerated women, the number who knows this drops dramatically. That’s where Alabama’s Lucille Latham comes in. She might not have a medical degree, but she does have a voice and a passion for stopping the spread of the most common form of cancer among women in the United States.

Latham is a two-time breast cancer survivor. She was first diagnosed in 1988 and again in 1993. Like so many others, she has seen breast cancer afflict multiple generations of her family. Her daughter is a breast cancer survivor, but she lost a grandmother to it.

“When I was first diagnosed in 1988 we did not talk about breast cancer,” Latham says. “It was sort of taboo. When I was diagnosed the second time in 1993, I had been a hairdresser for forty years. Because of the extensive surgeries they were doing at that time, I was no longer able to continue with my job.”

Latham decided not only to fight for her life, but for the lives of other women as well. She became a volunteer for the American Cancer Society and began going into churches and factories to encourage women to get clinical breast exams and mammograms. Eight years ago, she joined the Coffee County Family Services Center in Enterprise, Alabama to reach out to more underprivileged women.

“One of my greatest challenges was to go out and break down barriers and find underserved women,” Latham says. “I wanted to make them aware of the importance of early detection of breast and cervical cancer. This was not an easy task. I spent hours upon hours traveling to small country churches finding ways to reach this population. I then realized that a group I could not reach otherwise were incarcerated women.”

Latham contacted the Coffee County Sheriff’s Department and asked if she could make a presentation on breast cancer awareness at the jail.

“At that time we had no idea how it would go,” Latham explains, “but after the first presentation and the response we got from the inmates we realized we were doing a good thing.”

The local sheriff contacted the Alabama’s director of jail services, and Latham took her presentation on the road going from jail to jail.

“This began a journey that has been the most rewarding thing that I’ve ever done in my life,” Latham adds.

Today, Latham travels to prisons and jails throughout the state with funds from the Avon Foundation Breast Cancer Crusade. She sometimes gives presentations to two or three facilities in one day.

“I realized very early on if I was going to hold my audience’s attention, I had to have good teaching tools,” she says. “so we here at Family Services redesigned the Beads of Hope. I use those as a teaching tool to impress upon the ladies the importance of good breast care.”

The different-sized, wooden beads are strung together to make a necklace, with each bead designed to teach women what a lump in their breast might feel like. During the presentation, Latham works her fingers over the smaller pea-sized beads towards the largest walnut-sized one in the center. She does this to illustrate how tiny a lump can start out and how it may not always have a round shape.

“I then use breast molds or models to do one-on-one training with the women to show them what breast cancer actually feels like,” Latham says, “and to teach the proper way to do a breast exam.”

These demonstrations are not just informative, but lifesaving too.

“One lady said she had never been told to do a breast exam,” Latham recalls. “After we left, she did an exam and found a large mast. She wrote us and thanked us for the presentation, for making a difference in her life, and for saving her life.”

The rewards for Latham’s efforts even have the ability to multiply themselves in ways she never imagined.

“With the information I bring to inmates, they can share that with their families,” she explains. “I can reach a total other population that I could have never reached otherwise.”

“This is not a job to me,” Latham adds. “It is a passion.”

It’s not only her passion; it’s also her great success. Other states have now adopted similar programs. A DVD of Latham’s presentation is also being made to be handed out to facilities.

“Every woman deserves the same right,” she says. “Every woman’s needs are the same where her health is concerned. And my mission is to make sure that every woman knows the importance of early detection for breast cancer and knows that there is someone out there that cares.”

Related Resources:

October is National Breast Cancer Awareness Month

The National Breast and Cervical Cancer Early Detection Program


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