SAN JOSE — Susan Shinagawa was just 34 years old when she received the devastating news after battling to convince her doctor to give her a biopsy — that she had breast cancer.
“The doctor said I was too young and that Asian American women don’t get breast cancer,” said Shinagawa, who spoke as part of a Yu-Ai Kai forum, “Cancer in the Nikkei Community: Awareness, Coping and Resources,” held at the nonprofit, on Feb. 6 in San Jose’s Japantown.
The forum, which drew a turnout of about 100 people, focused on increasing awareness among Nikkei families and providing information about cancer prevention and available resources.
“That doctor prompted me to become a breast cancer activist,” said Shinagawa, who now travels around the nation speaking to others about breast-cancer awareness.
Shinagawa, who discovered a painful lump in her breast during a self-exam, said, “I was too young to get a mammogram at the age of 34.”
Shinagawa, who is now healthy, added that she is now a staunch advocate for self- examinations.
“Get screened and do everything you can to be healthy. The sooner it’s found, the better chance you have to live a long life,” she said.
Robert Nishime, a medical doctor at the San Jose Japantown Medical Group, said that cancer is the second leading cause of death in Americans overall and among Nikkei in California. The second is cardiovascular disease.
Marjorie Kagawa-Singer, a UCLA professor in the School of Public Health and Asian American studies, added that Japanese American men have the fastest-growing rate of colorectal cancer among all ethnic groups, while Japanese American women have the fastest-growing breast cancer rates among all groups.
She added that stomach cancer is more of an issue than it was 30 or 40 years ago and that liver cancer is more prevalent among young adults due to Hepatitis B.
“That’s why it’s important for us to be informed about what’s going on,” Shinagawa said.
Shinagawa said that the Westernized diet is chiefly to blame for the high rates of cancer among Japanese Americans compared to those in Japan. She said that Japanese Americans tend to have much higher cancer rates compared to those who live in Japan.
“Prostate cancer is extremely high in Japanese American men compared to those in Japan. And the same can be said for breast cancer. And colorectal cancer rates are fast-growing as well,” she said. “The longer that you’re in the United States, the higher your rates will be.”
Nishine said that the key to cancer prevention among Nikkei is a healthy diet and exercise.
“When you have a diet high in animal fat and sugar, you gain weight and see an increased risk for cancer. For example, red meat increases the risk for colon cancer,” he said.
He added, “Eat a diet high in fruits and vegetables. Five fruits and vegetables a day is a good rule to go by. And take a walk after lunch.
Kagawa-Singer added that greater efforts must be made to make the Asian American community aware of the threat of cancer.
“There must be better education and outreach. Knowledge and understanding are key to stemming the tide of cancer,” she said.