Breast Cancer Awareness Month

With JDC and WHEP Support, Breast Cancer Activists Help Women Across Europe

When it comes to breast cancer, Bori Halom has a simple motto: “Together, it’s easier.”

But that doesn’t mean it’s easy.

We want people to know we’re still women. We never asked for this. It just happened.

“I’m recovered, I’m fine, and it seems like a long time ago — but I can’t finish a sentence on stage without crying. It’s still so close to me,” said Bori, 43, a Budapest-based florist.

Born from a blog documenting her health journey back in 2012, Bori now runs Mellrákinfo, a support group of Hungarian breast cancer patients and survivors that now connects about 900 women on Facebook.

Many of these women come to Budapest each year for a daylong summit at Bálint Ház, the centrally located JDC-supported Jewish community center.

The women share stories. They offer words of comfort and support. They hear about groundbreaking research. They mourn, celebrate, and process the unexpected, the tragic, the long-hoped-for — together.

Bori’s support group is a partner in JDC’s Women’s Health Empowerment Program (WHEP), which works in Hungary and Bosnia and Herzegovina, focusing on the importance of early detection of breast cancer while providing psychosocial and other support services for women currently living with the disease.

WHEP, a partnership with Susan G. Komen since 2004, also provides leadership training for breast cancer survivors, empowering them to form NGOs, run peer-support groups, and advocate for better health care services for women.

For Bori, the WHEP relationship has given her financial support, advice, and professional consultation.

“I’m very grateful to JDC. We started from zero,” she said. “It’s amazing that they believed in my vision and were willing to follow me.”

There are many stories to tell, Bori said — tales of chemotherapy and of tragedy, of remission and resilience — but one core mission: “We want people to know we’re still women.”

“My main goal is to break down the taboos, to shake the stigma, to end women being gawked at for wearing headscarves or having shaved heads,” she said. “We never asked for this. It just happened.”

Six and a half hours south of Budapest, Stoja-Mira Simic surveyed the sea of pink T-shirts at the ninth annual JDC-Komen Race for the Cure in Sarajevo.

The journey to the Bosnian capital was far longer than the 260 miles it takes to travel there from her rural hometown.

A war refugee, Stoja-Mira had been healthy all her life, rarely visiting a doctor. She’d heard of breast cancer — but in her remote village, where many did not even have electricity, it was almost never discussed.

One day, a friend told her about a WHEP mobile mammogram unit visiting the village. Since it was free, she decided to get herself tested.

“I thought my introduction to breast cancer would end that day. I thought it was a disease that some women got, but not me — I was healthy,” Stoja-Mira recalled. “But after about ten days, the results came in. I had cancer. I had to keep saying it to myself over and over again.”

WHEP’s support made all the difference, she said.

“The woman from Behar [JDC’s local partner] brought me first aid packages, which made me happy and helped me to feel like I wasn’t alone,” she said. “It was as if we’d known each other our entire lives.”

This year, when October came, Stoja-Mira — now healthy once more — heard that women from a nearby town were taking the bus to Sarajevo to attend the Race for the Cure and mark Breast Cancer Awareness Month.

She knew she had to go.

“When we arrived in Sarajevo, I suddenly saw a sea of women in pink around me, at least 500 others,” she said. “I felt sadness that there were so many of us, but also joy that I’d survived and that my life was saved. I’ll attend the Race every year. This is the place that everything started for me, and for so many other women.”

Back in Hungary, WHEP is also dipping its toes into the world of cervical cancer — often thought to be the most preventable cancer, but a disease with a low public profile in Central and Eastern Europe.

Icó Tóth was diagnosed with cervical cancer in 2011, shortly after the birth of her daughter. She was struck by how hard it was to discover information about what ailed her and how alone she felt.

That’s when she decided to create Mellow Flower, which now receives support from WHEP, just like Bori’s breast cancer organization.

Working in 70 villages and cities across Hungary, Mellow Flower visits schools to educate young girls on cervical cancer vaccines. It also meets with women who are undergoing treatment or are in remission to offer support, discuss rehabilitation strategies, and more.

“All women are mellow flowers, very powerful, unwavering, and beautiful — like a woman’s soul,” Icó explained. “But our petals can be hurt.”

Icó said she can’t overstate the impact of JDC’s support on her organization and its growth.

“I had no place to meet. You gave it to me,” she said. “I had no money to buy even a carpet. You bought us one. Big things can happen when you get help like this.”

For WHEP, it’s important to expand the focus beyond just breast cancer — and women like Icó and Bori are excellent partners in helping to elevate the discourse that surrounds both diseases.

“It’s important to mainstream cervical cancer awareness,” said Marianna Jó, JDC’s WHEP representative in Hungary. “It’s all women’s health.”

JDC’s global programs are made possible by the generosity of our supporters.