San Francisco Stories

San Francisco Stories: Hepatitis Screening

Shawne Jabonero Lopes

I am a first generation Filipina American living with hepatitis B.

My father, mother, younger brother, and I all tested positive for the virus in 1988 after my brother came down with an episode of jaundice as a toddler. Later, we discovered my father’s siblings also had the virus, which they also contracted through birth. We weren’t told much after that except that we were chronic “carriers.” I don’t recall ever being told that my condition was serious or to monitor my liver function regularly. To me, being a carrier of the virus meant that I simply harbored some weird, benign trait that couldn't harm me.

In 2004, my father was diagnosed with liver cancer. We were told he had a few months to live, with few options for treatment. He passed away the following year, surrounded by his children, our mother, and his siblings. My father was 53 years old.

After losing our Dad, we didn't immediately make the connection between the hepatitis B virus and his cancer. We didn't realize that we also were at risk for liver cancer. Nor were we under the proper care of a liver specialist the way all hepatitis patients should be. However, Dad’s death reminded how short life can be, so we made it a point to end our family cycle of unhealthy habits and to live healthier lives. I decided to study alternative and Chinese medicine, and my brother, AJ, became an Ironman triathlete.

It wasn’t until a couple of years after our Dad passed that my doctor explained the seriousness of hepatitis B. He emphasized that I needed to have semi-annual check-ups with a liver doctor, and I made sure to communicate this to my mother and brother. Unfortunately, I was the only one who followed the doctor’s recommendation.

In 2014, just a few months after completing a full Ironman triathlon, AJ was diagnosed with end-stage liver cancer. We lost him three months later. My brother was a vibrant, energetic 30-year-old husband and father of two young children and a baby on the way. So many people loved him.

I’ve made it my life’s work to help spread awareness around hepatitis B and the impact it has within the Asian community. Many are unaware that they are at risk and never get screened. Some know they have hep B and avoid discussing it with their friends, families or doctors out of fear or shame. This needs to change.

Hepatitis B isn’t something we should be ashamed to talk about. Knowing our status and regularly monitoring our liver can ensure that Hepatitis B doesn’t have to end with cancer.

San Francisco Stories: Risk Assessment

Justine Shapiro

I am a Jewish woman from a family with a number of relatives who carry a genetic mutation known as BRCA. My maternal and paternal grandparents and great grandparents were born in Lithuania and Latvia, a part of the world where BRCA is prevalent in certain ethnic groups. People with BRCA are at significantly greater risk for certain cancers, most notably, breast and ovarian cancer.

In 2009, my 38-year-old cousin was diagnosed with breast cancer. Tests revealed she and her father carried the BRCA mutation. Given our heritage, my mother and I decided it was important to know our risk, and in 2010 we decided to be tested. Both of us tested positive for BRCA. While neither of us had been diagnosed with breast cancer, we were facing some very tough and necessary decisions about what to do next.

I was 47 years old, the mother of a nine-year-old son, and newly in love with a wonderful partner. After much research, I decided to have my ovaries removed and undergo a double mastectomy, followed by reconstruction. Six years later, I am doing well, but my cousin’s breast cancer has returned. It’s a cruel irony that her cancer has greatly increased my odds for survival.

Not all breast cancers are hereditary, and many women won’t face these decisions. But I’ve found that many women with no known family history of breast cancer believe they are unlikely to develop the disease. This is why it’s so important to know one’s risk.

Knowing when and how to get screened for breast cancer can be incredibly confusing. The first step is to begin a conversation with one’s doctor to assess risk, and decisions about when and how to get screened can flow from there.


San Francisco Stories: Colon cancer and early detection

Joseph Chen

After my 50th birthday, my physician reminded me it was time for my first colonoscopy. I thought I’d always lived a pretty healthy lifestyle. I never smoked and rarely drink. I have a healthy diet and usually exercise several times a week. There is no history of colon cancer in my family... I didn't think it was an urgent matter needed to be done right away. So I put it on hold.

I finally got around to getting it two years later and was stunned my doctor told me I had early-stage colon cancer. I never expected it could happen to me.    

Two weeks later, I had surgery in which part of colon and some lymph nodes were removed. Fortunately, because of the early detection, the cancer had not spread and I didn't need chemo or radiation. My cancer was considered cured.

These days, I’m nagging my sister about having her colonoscopy. I hope my experience will demonstrate to others the importance of early detection. It is the key to survival. I am a perfect example that in addition to living a healthy, active life, people should follow their physician’s advice and get screened.


San Francisco Stories: Renal cancer, tobacco and smoking cessation

Jerry Belletto

I didn’t smoke in high school. Cool kids did and I thought it looked phony. I was short and baby-faced and that would have made it worse. When I got to college, the tobacco companies gave out free pipe tobacco so I gave it a try. I was soon bumming cigarettes at an alarming rate. By my sophomore year, I was a pack-a-day man.

Like all young people, I thought I was immortal, so when the medical studies revealed the dangers of the habit, I ignored them. I stayed a pack a day for 30 years, often smoking cigarettes I didn’t really want with a burned out and sour mouth.  I was addicted.

Three years ago, I was diagnosed with renal cancer. The probable cause, since there was no family history, was demon tobacco. I had to quit. Since I am a man and supposedly master of my urges and needs, I tried doing it on my own.

It didn’t work, maybe because I was lying to myself about how necessary it was. For at least a year, I kept hidden packs around the house. I did cut back considerably, but the urge, the comfort, my companion in a quiet moment, kept winning despite my best intentions. The next one would always be my last, I told myself repeatedly.

In a moment of remorse and shame for my lying and duplicity, I decided to seek help and found a smoking cessation group at the UCSF Fontana Tobacco Treatment Center. Talking informally with others with the same struggles lifted the guilt and shame. With those gone, it was easier to deal with the real issues and apply some of the techniques and methods others had successfully used.

I may fall again at some point. I’m not putting that pressure on myself anymore. I’m good so far. And I know I have a place to go to keep me on the path.


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San Francisco Stories: Prostate cancer, disparities, and screening

James McCray, D.Min.

In 2005, I participated in a screening event at my local church. My test came back with an abnormal result that I initially ignored. I was busy with family and my work as a pastor, and the results weren’t an immediate priority. A few months later, I was in a serious car accident and new tests revealed I had advanced prostate cancer. A doctor told me I couldn’t expect to live beyond five years. I was stunned and confused.

Through the comfort and guidance of friends, I was referred to UCSF where I underwent seven months of treatment. Ten years later, I remain cancer free and just celebrated my 65th birthday with my wife, children, and grandchildren.

Truly, I was "blessed," as they say within the Christian tradition, to have the support of friends and family and access to excellent medical care. I want to share my blessing with other African American men who might be unsure if they need screening or are fearful of it.

Spreading the word about SF CAN and screening is my way of giving back. I invite people to join the movement that seeks to add years to our lives, years that cancer too often steals from us. I don’t know if things would have been different if I’d followed up immediately on my first test results, but I am sure of one thing: I am a survivor of prostate cancer. I believe in screening and encourage men to have it.