March 02, 2007

Case Western Reserve University staff member battles breast cancer at home, in South Africa


Fatima Karriem collects, donates bras to Africa

The words of Mother Teresa and other noted social, justice and human rights advocates such as Lech Walesea, Nelson Mandela, Rosa Parks and Mahatma Gandhi are part of a collage of quotes listed under a banner, "The Power of One." The quotes are arranged on a plaque that is mounted on a wall in the third-floor Crawford Hall office of Fatima Karriem, a human resource specialist at Case Western Reserve University.

One such quote reads: “We can do no great things, only small things with great love.”

Karriem is doing a small thing with great love.

In October 2006, she launched Bras for Africa, a program to benefit underprivileged women in her native Cape Town, South Africa, by increasing their awareness about breast cancer and self-breast exams.

Bras for Africa seeks to supply new bras for women young and old as a means to draw their attention to this deadly disease, which—according to the Minister of the Executive Council for Health in the Western Cape, Pierré Uys—will affect one in 27 women sometime in their life. Breast cancer is the leading cancer among women in Cape Town, yet with early detection, the survival rate is 80 to 90 percent, Uys reports.

Karriem, a training manager for the university's human resources department, knows about the importance of monthly self-breast exams. During her annual physical in November 2005, she told her doctor about tenderness she felt in her left breast. Subsequent tests and X-rays detected four tumors. Treatment at the Cleveland Clinic began immediately, which included a radical modified mastectomy, followed by chemotherapy and radiation.

"Once I accepted my diagnosis and the idea that I was 'chosen' for this disease," she says with a smile, "I had to change my attitude. I believe that healing must start in the head; the notion that I am already healed. That was my entire approach. 'I can do.' I stayed positive; I had to." She tried to maintain the mindset of "living my life as if I am healed. That I need to exercise, eat right…do all the things I did before the diagnosis."

During her treatment and early recovery period, she attended cancer support group meetings. Her upbeat attitude—a factor she believes was critical to her care and recovery—was off-putting to some, as many cancer patients express anger and bitterness about their diagnosis.

Karriem didn't want to succumb to their the anger nor did she want to be reminded of her own pain by being surrounded by people affected by the disease. For the same reason, she even reconsidered her decision to run in the annual Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure.

"I still felt I needed to do something. I just wanted to do something different."

That something different became clear as she made plans for a family trip to Cape Town with her husband, Junaid Ward, and their son, Zaid, 12. She began to consider what she could do and take that was hard to find there. Bras as a breast health education instrument came to mind. "Good quality bras are hard to get and very expensive," she says, adding that those are key reasons why many underprivileged women do not wear bras, which is a culturally acceptable practice. Additionally, bras are not a priority; these women use their money for other needs. She also notes that unlike in the United States, it is difficult for some large women to find quality bras that fit well. The same is true of prosthetic bras for women who've had radical mastectomies, she says.

“My short-term goal was to be able to collect enough bras and donations to take with me on my visit to South Africa," Karriem says.

With the help of her coworkers in the human resources department and her campus colleagues, the collection gradually began to build. Karriem received more than 50 bras and individually wrapped each with a pink ribbon and a message of encouragement from the donor. Tags with illustrations were included for women unable to read. Each package also included pamphlets about breast care, mammograms and breast cancer.

Karriem had made no prior arrangements to donate the bras to a specific organization. Once in Cape Town, however; she managed to be interviewed on a live, call-in radio show; meet with a group of hospital administrators from Groote Schuur Hospital, to whom she donated the bras; volunteer at a homeless shelter; and network with a young entrepreneur about developing what she terms a tranquility center for cancer patients in recovery.

Her husband, along with family and friends in Cape Town, proved essential to connecting her with people and organizations that would be willing to give ear to her efforts. The immediate interest of the local radio station produced quick results. Karriem and the host shared their testimonies on air of their cancer diagnosis and treatment. "People were calling in to encourage us and also to share their stories about loved ones who had the disease. It was a great way to get the word out."

Likewise, Groote Schuur Hospital, one of the major teaching hospitals in the Western Cape, was amenable to Bras for Africa and offered to facilitate the distribution. Administrators agreed to donate the bras to underprivileged women at the hospital's cancer treatment center at the conclusion of their care. Karriem received a certificate that acknowledges the donation and, once all the bras are gone, she will receive a letter of confirmation from the hospital.

Now back home in the states, Karriem plans to build upon her initial efforts by investigating ways to secure prosthetic bras for women. She is in the process of registering Bras for Africa as a nonprofit organization so she can receive bras directly from manufacturers, financial donations, grants and other revenue without certain limitations. In terms of her well-being, Karriem has three monthly checkups and will take Tamoxifen for five years. Her positive attitude remains strong.

Her ultimate dream is to develop that tranquility center. "I met a young woman who is a massotherapist. We talked of creating a space where women undergoing treatment can come by doctor referral for massage, makeovers, hydrotherapy or consider alternative treatments like reiki. We have many support resources available in the states," she says. "It would be wonderful to establish some in Africa."

For information about Bras for Africa, e-mail to
For more information, contact Marsha Lynn Bragg, 216.368-6949

Posted by: Kevin Adams, March 2, 2007 11:15 AM | News Topics: HeadlinesMain

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