Bakersfield resident and Sikh Gurbinder Kaur was only 43 when she was diagnosed with stage 4 cervical cancer.
She died in April at 45, rocking the Sikh community. Local leaders and health professionals say that like many other Sikh women, she avoided any kind of preventive cancer screening before her death.
“If she had had a routine pap smear, she would have been fine,” said Raji Brar, co-founder of the Bakersfield Sikh Women’s Association. “The devastating part of it is she was this healthy, vibrant woman. It was sad to see her get demolished by the cancer.”
The association is using Kaur’s death as a springboard to educate more Sikh women about the need for preventive cancer screenings and convince them to participate in them.
The association is partnering with Adventist Health Bakersfield to hold the first Kaur Care Women’s Health Preventative Cancer Screening. Kaur Care will provide free breast exams on Sunday at the Gurdwara Guru Dashmesh Darbar, a Sikh temple at 7000 Wible Road.
While the event is largely targeted at Sikh women, all women are welcome to attend the screening.
“We realized there was a growing need in the community for something like this,” Brar said. “A lot of women aren’t educated on health issues. They don’t even know what cervical cancer is or how you get it. We realized we had to do something and show them that cancer is preventable if caught early. This is a real step in the right direction to start a dialogue.”
Brar said she got together with Kiyoshi Tomono, assistant vice president of community partnerships for Adventist Health, and came up with the program.
“We’re excited about it,” he said. “It’s a tragedy that (Kaur) died so young, but if we could save one person in the community through this, that’s worth it. That would be an amazing legacy.”
Tomono said the goal is to be able to provide different kinds of cancer screenings on a regular basis, hopefully once per month or every other month.
Handesh Kaur, the daughter of Gurbinder Kaur, said she’s happy that something is being done in her mother’s honor.
“It’s an amazing thing,” she said. “I know she would have loved this. If we can inform even one person and make a difference, it would really help a lot. People will really see the impact cancer and screenings can have on their lives and their loved ones. You just want to run away from it, but you shouldn’t.”
Brar said there are many women in the Sikh community who, if not uneducated on health issues, purposely avoid going to a doctor for treatment, especially if it has anything to do with sexual or reproductive health.
She said discussions of those kinds of topics are often avoided and have had a sense of taboo attached to them in the Sikh culture.
Culturally, women don’t want to talk about their bodies. It’s not openly discussed even between women,” Brar said. “They avoid visiting a doctor because they don’t want someone touching their bodies or having to take off their clothes. They’re usually covered up and don’t show much skin in public.”
Brar said another factor is that many women who are mothers tend to push their husband and children to go to a doctor but often will put their health needs on hold.
Tomono said these kinds of concerns and attitudes are not just exclusive to the Sikh community.
“It’s a challenge in a lot of different communities were finding,” he said. “I’ve heard stories of Hispanic women who are afraid to get medical assistance because of their immigration status. It’s not just gender-based but culture-based. The challenge in health care is to find a way where can make screening as easy, painless and convenient as possible and take all the barriers and excuses away.”
Both Brar and Tomono said they believe it’s likely that more Sikh women have gotten cancer or other ailments than non-Sikhs, but Tomono said he’s not sure if there’s any data that supports that claim.
Given that the screening on Sunday will be held at a place of worship and with Kaur’s death fresh in the community’s mind, Brar said women will be more likely to participate.
“It’s a very bold statement for our temple to even take on, as well as Adventist Health,” she said. “I think there will be a trust factor built in with the fact that it’s at the temple.”
Brar said she believes the screening could make a big difference for the Sikh community.
“They’re isolated in their own little bubble. Our job is to infiltrate that bubble and give them some information,” she said. “We’re looking for that lightbulb where they say ‘oh, my gosh, I need to go!’ This is Gurbinder’s legacy. She’s not going to die in vain.”