The Pink Shawl Initiative: A Story of Joining Together for Breast Cancer Screening

By Emily Young, Public Health Educator

For many years, the Cancer Services Program (CSP) has collaborated with the Onondaga Nation to screen local Native American women for breast cancer. This partnership has grown and evolved in many ways over the years. It is true that breast cancer rates do tend to be lower in American Indian/Alaska Native women when compared to other ethnic groups, but mammography screening rates among these women are also somewhat lower than rates among other non-Hispanic groups of women, including white, black, and Asian.

When the CSP first began working with the Onondaga Nation, we had access to a mobile mammography unit. The unit was transported directly to the Onondaga Nation Health Clinic and set up inside of the building, which allowed women access to Free Mammogramstheir mammograms at a location that was both convenient and familiar to them. Due to various factors, the use of the mobile mammography unit was eventually discontinued. As a result, the number of Native American women in Onondaga County who received breast cancer screenings through this program dropped dramatically over the next several years. These women no longer had a familiar and convenient location to have their mammograms and the sense of community that the mobile mammography program had offered to them was unique and difficult to replace.

Recognizing this, the CSP initiated contact with the Onondaga Nation’s clan mothers to discuss strategies to increase breast cancer screening rates among their Native women. Out of these discussions the “Onondaga Nation Pink Shawl Initiative” was created. This initiative is a collaborative effort between the CSP, the Onondaga Nation, and Wellspring Breast Care Center at Upstate University Hospital-Community Campus. It encompasses both education and the provision of breast cancer screening services to women of the Onondaga Nation. Promotional materials were designed with culturally appropriate artwork that was obtained from a well-known Native American artist. Now this artwork is easily identifiable among women within the Onondaga Nation community and has been extremely successful at bringing awareness to the availability of this mammogram program.

Through the “Pink Shawl Initiative”, three to four mammogram clinics are scheduled at Wellspring Breast Care Center each year. The clinics, held on Saturday mornings, are open only to Native American women.  We encourage women to schedule their mammogram appointments around the same time as other family members and friends who also need their mammograms so they can come together. This practice promotes a sense of community which is a very important part of the Native American culture. So far in 2017, approximately 60 Native American women have been screened for breast cancer through the “Onondaga Nation Pink Shawl Initiative”. The CSP looks forward to continued collaboration with our partners to provide these breast cancer screening clinics for our community’s Native American women.

Learn more about breast cancer and current federal screening guidelines at:



Carbon Monoxide Alarms Save Lives

By Erika Frye, Environmental Health Technician II             

In October of 2014, the Onondaga County Healthy Neighborhood Program (HNP) visited a family who lives on Garfield Avenue in Syracuse. The HNP is a program that provides health and safety related services to people who live in the City of Syracuse. At the visit on Garfield Avenue, the HNP completed an assessment and provided the family with a carbon monoxide detector. As part of the HNP’s collaboration with the Syracuse Green and Healthy Home Initiative (GHHI) the program visited the home again in December of 2016 and provided the family with another carbon monoxide alarm for another level of the home. In June of this year, the family discovered just how valuable these detectors are.

On June 11, homeowner Kimberly White said that the carbon monoxide detector in her kitchen began to beep. Kimberly said, “Around 9:00 our carbon monoxide detector went off in the kitchen and my husband said that it was probably the battery and I agreed. Twenty minutes later another alarm, one that was still in a bag in the hall closet, went off and I said now I am going to call the Fire Department.” The family evacuated their home and made the call.

The detectors that alarmed were the ones given to the family by the HNP. The family had not installed the second detector yet, but HNP staff always activates the detectors as they are given out so they are operable.

Kimberly continued, “The Fire Department came and picked up 45 ppm [of carbon monoxide] on their handheld detectors so we had to stay out. National Grid came and tagged the dryer and said it had been improperly vented.”

When I was speaking with Kimberly she was very thankful that the HNP took the time to visit her home and to educate her and her family about home health hazards, including carbon monoxide. Kimberly told me that she was “just glad we had detectors because they [the Syracuse Fire Department] said that at these levels, in 2 to 4 weeks we could have all died.”

Kimberly also wanted to thank our program for all that we do. She believes that the services provided by the HNP saved her family, but I explained that it was also because she listened and knew what to do. The HNP gave her the tools and she did the rest.

Kimberly White and her family stand in the kitchen where the carbon monoxide alarm went off.

The products that we provide improve the health and safety of the home, but I believe the education that we provide is just as valuable to our clients.

If you would like to learn more about the Healthy Neighborhood Program or the Green and Healthy Homes Initiative please call 315-435-5431.

STDs: You Don’t Always See the Signs

By Melanie Drotar, Public Information Specialist
and Karyn Johnson, Public Health Educator

The Onondaga County Health Department recently collaborated with students at S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University on a video public service announcement (PSA) project. It was a perfect partnership: students produced these videos for course credit while gaining real world experience with a government agency, and the Health Department—which does not have in-house video production expertise—is now able to use these professional-quality videos to get important public health messages out to the community.

The Newhouse professor and students met with a team from the Health Department early in the process to gather information and discuss the Health Department’s goals. The students then presented their concepts to the team and went to work writing the storyboards and scripts, recruiting actors, then shooting and editing the videos. This all resulted in high quality video PSAs that can be used for Health Department promotions.

The first videos in the series deal with two priorities in Onondaga County:

  1. Sexually Transmitted Diseases (STDs)
  2. Opioid Addiction

April is Sexually Transmitted Disease Awareness Month, so this month’s article features the video PSA entitled “STDs: You Don’t Always See the Signs”:

This video captures people’s initial reaction to signs printed with the names of numerous STDs. Individuals infected with an STD may not experience any physical signs or symptoms. That is why it is so important to step up and get tested!

Anyone who is sexually active can get an STD.  The good news is STDs are preventable and treatable. Use the following tips to protect yourself and your partner:

  • The only sure way to prevent STDs is to not have sex. This means not having vaginal, oral, or anal sex.
  • Using a condom correctly every time you have sex can help prevent STDs; however, some STDs, including herpes and HPV, can be spread even when using a condom.
  • Reducing your number of partners can help reduce the spread of STDs. By having sex with only one person who has been recently tested, you can reduce your risk for getting an STD.
  • Getting an HPV vaccine can help protect you from HPV, a virus that can cause some cancers and genital warts. The vaccine is recommended for boys and girls 11 to 12 years of age, but can be given to women through age 26 and men through age 21.
  • Talking with your partner about preventing STDs before having sex is important. It may be uncomfortable, but protecting your health is up to you!
  • Get tested: just because you or your partner has no symptoms does not mean you are STD free. Getting tested is the only way to know. If you have a positive STD test, make sure you follow through with your treatment to prevent getting re-infected or infecting others.

Get peace of mind. Get checked. There are many options for STD testing. Some people choose to go to their doctor while others prefer to come to the Onondaga County Health Department STD Center. The STD Center provides confidential STD testing and treatment.  For more information about the STD Center, call (315) 435-3236 or visit our website.

Special thanks to the faculty and students of S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications for the production of this video:
Robert Emerson, Adjunct Professor Television, Radio, and Film
Students: Fatima Bangura, Adam Ganley, Laura Hegstetter, Rachel Kucharski, and Maxine Williams

Get Screened to Prevent Colorectal Cancer

By Emily Young, Public Health Educator, Cancer Services Program
Onondaga County Health Department

 John* has been experiencing colorectal symptoms for a few months yet he hasn’t seen a doctor because he doesn’t have health insurance. He works full-time but his company doesn’t offer health insurance coverage. John is 55-years-old and knows that he should have had a colonoscopy when he turned 50, but he put it off because he couldn’t afford to pay the out-of-pocket cost.

John finally decided to call his primary care doctor for an appointment. His rectal bleeding and abdominal pain was getting worse and his stool was starting to look black in color. When John saw Dr. Smith*, he told her about his symptoms and how long they had been going on. Dr. Smith asked John if he had any family history of colorectal cancer or pre-cancerous polyps. John didn’t know of anyone in his family ever having colorectal cancer. Dr. Smith asked John when his last colonoscopy was. John reluctantly told Dr. Smith that he had never had a colonoscopy because he doesn’t have health insurance. Then Dr. Smith gave John some good news. She told him about the Onondaga County Cancer Services Program (CSP) which could cover the cost of his colorectal cancer screening because he didn’t have health insurance. John couldn’t believe there was a program that could help him get screened and find out what was causing his colorectal symptoms.

Dr. Smith gave John the telephone number. John called and spoke to the program’s Case Manager who quickly got him set up for a colonoscopy at a convenient location. During John’s

Colorectal cancer can be prevented through the removal of pre-cancerous polyps!

colonoscopy, the doctor found and removed five pre-cancerous polyps. The doctor told John he would need to follow up with another colonoscopy in three to five years. John was very thankful to Dr. Smith for telling him about the CSP and was so grateful for the peace of mind knowing that he had help with his colorectal cancer screening when he did not have the financial means to do so himself.


When was the last time you had a colorectal cancer screening? Screening for colorectal cancer is recommended for men and women between the ages of 50 and 75 years old using high-sensitivity fecal occult blood testing, sigmoidoscopy, or colonoscopy. Colorectal cancer can be prevented through the removal of pre-cancerous polyps in the colon and/or rectum. For men and women without health insurance or those who have other barriers to accessing screenings, the CSP provides free colorectal cancer screening. Uninsured men and women may call 435-3653 to register for their free screening.

For more information on colorectal cancer and free colorectal screenings for uninsured men and women please visit: or

*Names changed for confidentiality purposes.

How is the Health of Onondaga County?

By  Indu Gupta, MD, MPH, Commissioner of Health

To kick off 2017, I would like to make you aware of a new and important document that is now available. A community health assessment (CHA), also known as community health needs assessment (CHNA), is performed on a regular basis to identify key health indicators in a community through a collaborative, systematic, and comprehensive data collection and analysis process. The indicators for interventions are selected after active input from the community.for-blog-article

The Onondaga County Health Department (OCHD) worked with Crouse Health, St. Joseph’s Hospital Health Center, and Upstate University Hospital in this comprehensive process throughout 2016. We also worked with several community-based organizations.  The yearlong effort has resulted in shared ownership of community health improvement, including assessment, planning, investment, implementation, and evaluation. Various strategies are aimed to address disparities among subpopulations, while improving community engagement and accountability. We also placed a strong emphasis on evidence-based interventions, while encouraging innovative practices with thorough evaluation and continuous improvement.

A community health improvement plan (CHIP) is a long-term, systematic process to address the identified public health problems in a community, following a thorough assessment (CHA).

Based on Onondaga County’s CHA, two priority areas were selected by OCHD and the partner hospitals to address during the 2016-2018 cycle:

  1. Promote mental health and prevent substance abuse. We will give special attention to the ongoing opioid epidemic and its relationship with mental health.
  2. Prevent chronic disease: This will focus on improving nutrition and physical activity by changing the environment.

To fully engage the community in this effort, a survey on health issues was created and distributed. The survey was completed by almost 3,000 individuals, and provides an eye-opening perspective into the true voice of our community. Review the summary of the results.

The full CHA / CHIP is an easy read and will be helpful to anyone. For example, identifying racial and geographic disparities in the rate of emergency room visits and hospitalizations in the diabetic population can help support the need for resource allocation to improve care.

Together we will make our community a better place for everyone! Please join our hands in achieving this in 2017!

Happy New Year!

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Let’s Get Pretty in Pink this October!

By Emily Young, Public Health Educator, Cancer Services Program

In October the leaves are changing colors and signs of pumpkins are all around, but in my world, I see pink! The Onondaga County Health Department’s Cancer Services Program (CSP) is partnering with several local pumpkins patches and diners to raise awareness about the importance of women getting routine mammograms. Look for our pink pumpkins when you’re out and about this month!

Pink pumpkins are a colorful way to promote the importance of screening for breast cancer. We know that breast cancer is the most common cancer among women in the US, no matter race or ethnicity. But there is good news! Breast cancer that is found early when it’s small and hasn’t spread is usually easier to treat and has better outcomes. A mammogram is the best test to detect breast cancer early.

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Lyme Disease is Preventable!

By Jackie Shostack, MSEd, Public Health Education Supervisor
Bureau of Health Promotion and Disease Prevention
Onondaga County Health Department

It’s been a great summer and I hope everyone’s been enjoying the outdoors. Onondaga County has so many beautiful parks to explore and play in. However, when you are outside, you need to play it safe! This time of year not only brings nice weather but it also brings ticks. And with ticks, we see Lyme disease.

A couple of weeks ago, my son was at a camp with a group that went hiking through the woods. When they returned from their hike, they partnered up and did a tick check on each other as well as thoroughly checking themselves. When he told me this, I realized that as a health educator, I talk to groups in our community about how to protect themselves from Lyme disease but I never really educated my own family and friends about it and what they need to do to prevent tick bites! Now I include my own circle of family 92806200 (Small)and friends in the conversation about how to protect themselves from Lyme disease. You should do this too!

Lyme disease is caused by the bacteria, Borrelia Burgdorferi, which is carried by deer ticks. Specifically, the black legged deer tick. Not all deer ticks are infected with the bacteria, but you need to do everything you can to protect yourself from tick bites. The good news is that we can prevent Lyme disease and it’s important that we all know what to do when we are outdoors, whether it’s hiking on a trail, playing at a park, or just enjoying your own backyard. If you find a tick attached to your skin, don’t panic! Remember, an infected tick needs to be attached for 36 to 48 hours before they can transmit Lyme disease bacteria. So, take a deep breath, relax, and find a pair of fine-tipped tweezers to remove it carefully. Visit the Onondaga County Health Department’s webpage to see a video on how to properly remove a tick. Once you have removed the tick, keep an eye on the bite site for 30 days. You should consult your health care provider for any questions you may have regarding symptoms, testing, and treatment.

Don’t forget about your pets. They can also bring ticks into your home. Talk to your veterinarian about tick control products. You’re not only protecting them but treating them also will help prevent your pets from bringing ticks into your home. So, don’t be afraid to go outside and have fun and bring your pets along too!

For more information so you can educate others, please see the resources below.

OCHD: Lyme disease:
NYSDOH: Tick and Lyme disease:
CDC: Lyme disease: