Grantor: Bristol-Myers Squibb Foundation, New York City
Grantee: University of California, San Diego Cancer Center
An innovative program in Southern California is quietly making headway in the fight against breast cancer. The program is designed to encourage black women to participate in early mammogram screenings, with the encouragement coming from an unlikely source: their hairstylists.
Actually, project leader Dr. Georgia Sadler describes them as “health educators.” Since many hairstylists have a close relationship with their clients, they are being instructed in how to use their role as confidant to explain the benefits of early detection. As a group, white and black women have equal likelihood of developing breast cancer, but the mortality rate is far higher for blacks—a differential Dr. Sadler attributes to the reluctance of some black women to participate in early screenings. As a result, when the cancer is detected, it is further developed, leaving the patient with fewer and more drastic treatment options.
Four years after its inception, the program is expanding thanks to a three-year, $300,000 grant from the New York City-based Bristol-Myers Squibb Foundation. The grant is being used both to widen the scope of the pilot program from the original group of eight San Diego area beauticians to approximately 20 today, and to compile the research data so that the program can be replicated. According to Claire Payawal, director of the foundation, the pilot program matched their interest in locating “unique programs that foster effective health education for women.”
But getting these women, and even the beauticians, to take part in the program required researchers to clear a number of hurdles. Chief among these was the concern of the beauticians over how much time it would take away from their business. Dr. Sadler assured them that any interference with their work would be minimized and helped them prepare for the prospect of the emotional stress of facing a client who has just discovered that she has a life-threatening illness.
The program has made some interesting discoveries already, the first of which is that micro-philanthropy is alive and well. The study originally had two groups of beauticians. One was instructed to simply hand out brochures on early screening, while the second would take the more active role described above. Dr. Sadler and others had initially thought that the more intense involvement of the second group would lead to a higher dropout rate. Happily, things turned out exactly the opposite.
Because women who know someone with breast cancer are much more likely than those who don’t to follow the screening guidelines, the beauticians employ an African storytelling device, playing the role of the acquaintance who knows someone afflicted by the disease. The clients are often handed laminated cards with enlarged graphics and information about breast cancer myths, to read while under the hairdryer. Then with the information fresh in their clients’ minds, the beautician can strike up a conversation on the importance of early detection while cutting or braiding hair. The beauticians found this method much more effective than simply passing out brochures, which were often taken home, but never read.
And getting that message into the public domain has been the hallmark of this endeavor. “We’ve found the program to be very innovative and effective in delivering health information because it goes where women are,” said Ms. Payawal in describing the reasons for Bristol-Myers Squibb’s support. After allaying their initial fears, the salon members have really gotten into the swing of things, too. “The first success really hooks the beautician,” according to Dr. Sadler, “and then, even if the program disappears, she will continue to have this knowledge and dispense it to others.” It seems quite likely, even given the short history of the program, that its success will not be short-lived.