Clark County nurse lends a hand internationally

Work helps train health care providers to give women earlier diagnoses and a fighting chance

By Patty Hastings, Columbian Social Services, Demographics, Faith

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Breast Cancer Awareness

Each year, more than 200,000 women in the U.S. are diagnosed with breast cancer, including thousands of women in Washington. In honor of their fight — and as part of National Breast Cancer Awareness Month — The Columbian recently published a collection of stories about the women who have received breast cancer diagnoses, the science and technological advances for treating them, and the community that supports them. You can find these stories in our special section, Confronting Breast Cancer.

In small villages surrounding Jerusalem, women with breast cancer may get diagnosed late, if at all. Then, they don’t always get the treatment they need.

“A lot of the reason is just lack of knowledge. People don’t know you can be cured so they think ‘Why try?’ ” said Melissa Hopkins, a registered nurse with The Vancouver Clinic who spent part of the summer volunteering there.

Misinformation, family pressure, finances and a lack of resources can all get in the way of the path toward survivorship — whether that patient lives here or in the Holy Land.

“They’re not so far behind us when it comes to these kinds of things. It wasn’t that many years ago where we thought breast cancer was always fatal. Now it no longer is, but the key to it is catching it early,” Hopkins said.

Having spent most of her 20 years as a nurse in women’s health care, Hopkins has carved a niche as a breast cancer expert.

The 59-year-old volunteered this summer in Israel. She trained nurses, midwives and other health care providers, mostly from villages, on how to provide women with earlier diagnosis and treatment of breast cancer.

She worked with In His Steps, a U.S.-based nonprofit that’s been addressing breast education in Palestine and Israel. The goal is to give local care providers the knowledge and tools necessary to create sustainable programs within their villages. That might mean teaching people how to do comprehensive breast exams or training them to be educators like Hopkins.

“And thereby slowly but surely help them understand that you actually can get in early enough to get cured and sometimes very simply so,” she said. “It’s exciting to see their faces because suddenly there’s so much hope.”

During her presentations, Hopkins tells stories of how places she’s worked at have evolved. Hopkins developed a breast cancer program at Legacy Salmon Creek Medical Center when it opened, and she helped set up the breast centers at Providence Medical Center in Portland and Compass Oncology.

Sometimes, it’s a matter of building networks and helping people understand what’s available.

“They don’t know that maybe two miles away is a mammogram machine,” she said. “I don’t ever expect to see huge steps. I just want to see small steps toward the right direction. If there was something I did to help that move forward, all the more blessed I am.”

Hopkins is a trustee for the National Consortium of Breast Centers and she serves on a couple of its committees. She got involved with the consortium after getting certified as a breast cancer navigator, someone who assesses and eliminates patients’ barriers to treatment in order to give them the best possible chances for a cure. After passing the certification test, she told the consortium that the test wasn’t any good, so she was put on the navigation certification committee to help revamp it.

Traveling internationally to do breast education is fairly new for Hopkins, but she spent several years doing trainings and presentations around the United States. She’ll go to the National Consortium of Breast Centers conference in March.

“I’ve got my daytime job and I love this. But, I also love bringing it to people who wouldn’t otherwise have it,” Hopkins said.

She first started working with an epidemiologist in Jeremie, a relatively isolated city on the southern tip of Haiti, to help a clinic there acquire an ultrasound machine.

Perhaps a year from now, she hopes to try again and join several people working in Jeremie. She plans to return to Jerusalem in January and then assist a breast doctor at villages in Malawi, a nation in southeast Africa, in the spring.