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This breast cancer survivor is changing her community's perspective on mammograms

American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network
Mary Kemp
Kalo Cornett (right) is a cancer-screening advocate and a two-time breast cancer survivor.

A two-time breast cancer survivor on Oʻahu wants to adjust the stigma of getting mammograms, specifically within the Pacific Island community.

Kalo Cornett was diagnosed with the earliest stage of breast cancer in 2019 and then relapsed with a more severe case, known as HER2, in 2021.

Cornett would drive from her home in Hauʻula to Kapiʻolani Women's Center in Honolulu every three weeks for chemotherapy.

"Chemo isn't something that's easy to walk through. The treatment itself, you get very sick, fatigued. Every day is a struggle," Cornett explained.

However, while she sat in her chemotherapy chair, she noted how there was an absence of Tongans at the hospital — despite knowing people in her community with cancer.

"There's a lot of women that I knew in my community that was sick with some type of cancer, but they didn't show up to do their treatment. That spoke to me in volumes," Cornett said.

Cornett became a health advocate with the University of Hawaiʻi Cancer Center while receiving treatment for her second diagnosis. She started her advocacy work by hosting educational seminars with her Hauʻula 6th Ward (Tongan) church.

She said that doctors from the UH Cancer Center would even travel to the northeast side of the island to explain breast density and mammograms to the community.

She says fear is the number one factor people avoid regular screenings. "Fear of knowing that I'm sick, fear of knowing that I'm gonna die. The fact of the matter of getting a mammogram is the fact of the matter that I'm getting old. The word 'cancer' in itself is basically a diagnosis that you don't want."

But without her annual mammograms, she said she wouldn't be here today.

Knowing how difficult the drive to town can be, Cornett now offers free rides to Tongan women from Windward Oʻahu to Honolulu to get mammograms and participate in clinical trials with the UH Cancer Center.

Cornett laughed as she explained the women in her community have mixed reactions when they see her.

"They're happy to see me or I'm a reminder to get a mammogram," said Cornett. "Just for that, it's a blessing. I've done my job."

A bill currently in the state Legislature seeks to launch a multi-ethnic cancer cohort study with the UH Cancer Center. House Bill 1301 would fund research that focuses on the social factors related to cancer in the Native Hawaiian, Pacific Islander and Filipino communities.

Zoe Dym is a news producer at Hawaiʻi Public Radio.
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