For Mother-Daughter Team, Breast Cancer Awareness is a Family Affair

October 14, 2015


After her father died of lung cancer in 2006, Irena Šimunovi?? attended a JDC Women’s Health Empowerment Program (WHEP) educational outreach event in her hometown of Mostar in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

That’s when she knew she had found her calling.

“I decided I wanted to become a nurse and volunteer with the WHEP support group for breast cancer survivors in Mostar,” the 26-year-old recalls. “I began to work with the women, participating in their activities — and that’s without knowing that my own mother would eventually be faced with a diagnosis of breast cancer.”

Established in 1995 by JDC, WHEP encourages the early detection of breast cancer, creates support groups and hotlines, and facilitates partnerships among government agencies, NGOs, and the medical community. In 2005, it became a partnership with Susan G. Komen®, the world’s largest breast cancer organization.

Before WHEP, women with breast cancer in Bosnia and Herzegovina experienced total emotional isolation and didn’t understand the importance of early detection. Now, WHEP has impacted the lives of thousands of women in Russia, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Montenegro, Georgia, Israel, and Ukraine.

In 2009, Irena began volunteering at the rural Health Days JDC runs throughout Bosnia and Herzegovina, bringing mobile mammogram units to villages with little other medical care.

Though her mother, Slavka, was initially reluctant to have a mammogram checkup for fear of discussing cancer again after her husband’s death, Irena convinced her mother to attend the event.

A year later, she was hit by a car and discovered a lump in her breast during a self-examination. A visit to the doctor confirmed she had cancer. Five years in, she takes a regimen of expensive medicines and feels well, going for checkups on a regular basis.

“She is enduring so bravely,” Irena says. “I am so proud of her.”

The mother-daughter team travel to Sarajevo each fall to participate in WHEP and Komen’s Race for the Cure, which attracts thousands each year for a celebration of resilience in the face of breast cancer.

This year, about 6,000 participated in the event, more than half of whom came from 42 different cities and towns outside of Sarajevo. Additionally, 500 survivors participated, proudly wearing their pink survivor Race shirts.

Others from throughout the Balkans attended as well, with the largest contingents from Serbia, Croatia, and Montenegro.

“It’s our way to be with our friends, survivors, and to celebrate life,” Irena says.

For Slavka, WHEP was a complete game-changer.

Irena says her mother likes to tell her, “I gave you life, and now you’ve not only saved mine, but you’re saving lives every day!”

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