In the U.S., Asian American women have the lowest breast screening rates out of other historically underrepresented groups. An immigrant from Taiwan and a breast cancer survivor herself, Chien-Chi Huang, is working to increase access to health education and high quality care for Asian women and their loved ones. In this interview, we detail the history of Asian Women for Health (AWFH), Huang’s 2023 AARP Purpose Prize Fellow selection, and her strides to make the Asian community heard and seen.
Has your career always involved advocacy? Can you describe your journey leading up to the formation of the ‘Asian Breast Cancer Project’ (ABCP)?
Before I started the ABCP, I was working as the Asian Community Program Manager for the Massachusetts Council on Gaming & Health. So, I had prior experience in advocating on others’ behalf. Not to mention I am a breast cancer survivor turned patient advocate.
My passion turned into my purpose because of my personal experiences. When I was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2005, I was afraid. I didn’t want people to go through what I went through. That’s why I started this program.
How has expanding your early work into ‘Asian Women for Health’ transformed the work that’s possible? Can you share any highlights of your experience?
We decided to shift from a disease specific program to a nonprofit that was dedicated to advancing women’s health because we wanted to promote more than just the physical health and wellbeing of Asian women. This allowed us to better address linguistic barriers often experienced by Asian women seeking support. We train and deliver education in Mandarin, Cantonese, and Vietnamese.
I get the greatest satisfaction from empowering Asian women.
Our core values are: educate, advocate, and reciprocate. Everyone receives something and then pays that forward. By building confidence and connections, we’ve been able to create a pipeline of future Asian leaders.
Is this a second career for you, if so, can you describe your decision to enter the workforce again?
Yes! Before I worked in the nonprofit sector I was working in the film and video industry. My last big project involved making a documentary about Taiwan called “Tug of War: The Story of Taiwan”—it was actually funded by PBS. But I later decided that I didn’t just want to have a job, a career; I wanted something that would bring purpose to my life.
I get the greatest satisfaction from empowering Asian women.
What challenges did you have to overcome to see Asian Women for Health through? What significant changes to available healthcare and resources have you noticed in the last 5 years?
When starting ABCP, culture and language was a huge barrier. Many Asian women don’t seek help because there aren’t many places to turn to. We wanted to create a space to generate a sense of belonging so that they could get the support and information they need.
There’s also a fear of clinical trials and a very low representation of and participation from Asian-Americans and Pacific Islanders. AWFH is tasked to coordinate community engagement efforts throughout the east coast region, working with Asian-serving agencies to perform community outreach services.
Asian Community Support Key
Providers are now recognizing the importance of working with community organizations like ours to have better linkage to clinicals, support, and treatment. We are a part of a national research study called “All Of Us” that is aiming to collect data from over 1 million people. This information will enable scientists to practice “precision medicine”. We also just received a two-year multi-year funding to recruit, train, and create jobs for Asian-Americans to become community health workers and provide gender specific support!
Can you talk a little bit about your experience as a breast cancer survivor and why breast cancer awareness should be a high priority for Asian women/men? Any tips for older adults who identify with this community?
I was diagnosed with triple negative breast cancer at age 40. I didn’t have any obvious symptoms and had actually had my first mammogram three months before my first diagnosis. Because Asian women have more dense breast tissue, regular mammograms don’t normally detect tumors. I was luckily called in to do a biopsy and my whole world crashed, everything turned black and I felt alone.
Mental Health is very close to my heart and this is a huge stigma for Asian women and men. We rarely talk about it and that is why AWFH hosts mental health forums. We value peer voices and believe peers should have a space to discuss lived experiences. It’s important for people to know that their story matters.
The AARP Purpose Prize award recognizes the work of leaders who are using their life experience to build a better future for us all. How did becoming an AARP Purpose Prize Fellow influence your current work?
It’s perfect timing, we’re actually celebrating our 10 year anniversary! Being a founder that began an organization at the age of 47, it’s such great recognition and has really propelled our agency to a national level.
I am really grateful to have this opportunity to share what we are doing and what we are passionate about and I’m hoping people will be inspired by my story and be more willing to share their own while supporting others on their way to recovery.
What does ‘aging with attitude’ mean to you?
As I grow older, I’ve become more assertive. I am proud of my wisdom, confidence, and the ability to pass on what I’ve learned, leaving a legacy, whatever that may be.
AWFH is a peer-led, community-based network dedicated to advancing Asian women’s health and well-being through education, advocacy and support. Learn more and get involved here.
Photo: (Top) Asian Women for Health
Photo: (Left) AARP @Stephen Voss)
NaBeela Washington, an emerging Black writer, holds a Master’s in Creative Writing and English from Southern New Hampshire University and Bachelor’s in Visual Advertising from The University of Alabama at Birmingham. She has been published in Eater, The Cincinnati Review, and others. Learn more at nabeelawashington.com.