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Monday, May 8, 2000

Woman had to
convince doctors she
had breast cancer

She says they didn't think
a young Asian with her
family history would get it

By Suzanne Tswei


Susan Shinagawa doesn't look like a troublemaker, but that's exactly what she is.

And she won't mind you calling her that if it can eliminate the misconception that American women of Asian or Pacific Islander ancestry do not get breast cancer.

"I am now considered a troublemaker, and I am proud of that," she said.

Shinagawa's bout with breast cancer has turned her into an advocate for Asian and Pacific Islander cancer patients.

"While heart disease is the leading cause of death for all U.S. groups (all ages),1 cancer has been the No. 1 killer of American Asian and Pacific Islander women since 1995," said the California native.

Shinagawa is a guest speaker at a free forum today at Kamehameha Auditorium at Queen's Hospital. The forum, from 5:30 to 8 p.m., includes the first showing of "Mothers, Daughters, Sisters," a movie filmed in Hawaii and California about Shinagawa and other cancer patients.

A panel discussion is scheduled after the movie.

"I don't know how many times I've been called hysterical or paranoid. But if that's what it takes for the medical profession to change their minds about Asian and Pacific Islander women and breast cancer, then I don't mind being called that," she said.

In 1991, when Shinagawa first suspected she had breast cancer, a surgical oncologist in San Diego assured her it was only her imagination.

She had nothing more than lumpy breasts, he insisted, and refused to take a biopsy of the small lump in her right breast.

"I was only 34. So I was too young to get breast cancer. My family has no history of cancer. Besides, he told me, Asian women don't get breast cancer," Shinagawa said.

The one thing that may have saved her was that the small lump in breast hurt all the time. (Another misconception about breast cancer is that it doesn't hurt, she said.)

The pain kept her wondering about cancer and eventually she went to the University of Southern Alabama to seek another opinion.

"The doctor looked at me and my medical files, and he told me he agreed with the doctor in San Diego. He told me: 'I am 99.9 percent certain you don't have breast cancer.'

The doctor agreed to give her a biopsy and assured her afterward that the lump he removed was not cancerous. But it was.

"Even the doctor was shocked when the lab called him to tell him I had cancer. He didn't believe it.

"He walked all the way down to the lab to look for himself," she said.

Research shows that one in eight women will get breast cancer in their lifetime, she said.

For Asian and Pacific Islander women, the number is supposedly one in 20, but that is not an accurate picture, she said.

Shinagawa said the statistics are based on an Asian population made up of 70 percent to 75 percent first-generation immigrants, who because of their origins may not be as likely to develop breast cancer.

However, for third- or fourth-generation Asian Americans, the risk for cancer is as high as the white population, she said.

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