Each woman will meet her cancer diagnosis with a different cultural background that will often influence her journey in many ways. For Latina women—among whom breast cancer is the most commonly diagnosed cancer and the number one cancer killer—the impact of family and culture is especially strong.
In Nuestras Historias: Mujeres Hispanas Sobreviviendo el Cáncer del Seno (Our Stories: Hispanic Women Surviving Breast Cancer), 26 South Texas women describe their personal cancer journeys and the way that culture, family, and faith were involved in their experience. The book, published by Redes En Acción, the National Latino Cancer Research Network, is a 114-page, full-color publication presented in both English and Spanish that seeks to highlight the experiences and the coping skills of this population.
In this excerpt from Nuestras Historias, we bring you four of the book’s stories. For more information about Nuestras Historias or the National Latino Cancer Research Network, visit www.redesenaccion.org.
The Three Musketeers
By Tanya Enriquez
When you’re 27, terms like breast self-examination and fibrocystic disease are not common topics of conversation. My friends and I would talk mostly about weddings, careers, and starting families.
My doctor had said I was too young to have a mammogram, so when I finally heard the breast cancer diagnosis after tests on my “cyst,” my whole body went numb. I didn’t have time for cancer; I was getting married.
On December 5, 1997, I walked down the aisle with friends, family, and colleagues crying, and not because the wedding was beautiful. Instead of an exotic honeymoon, we went to the hospital, where I had a lumpectomy with 20 lymph nodes removed, followed by four rounds of aggressive chemotherapy.
Before treatment, I met Marta Zuniga Harding, a stage-III breast cancer patient who was to become my best friend. Marta introduced me to Susan Coll, and soon we were known as the Three Musketeers. We had a bond that not many shared. We were all under 30 and had breast cancer. We would talk, laugh, and go out to lunch, shocking everyone who watched as we traded hats that covered our bald heads. Chemotherapy continued, and I was doing great. But Marta’s treatment was not working, and she went to Houston for a second opinion. She never came home. Eight months later Susan also passed away. I made a promise that I would do everything to make young women aware of this disease and the importance of early detection. After their deaths, my pledge became more of a mission. I became heavily involved with the education committee of the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation. I would tell my story and hopefully touch one woman. But it wasn’t enough. I wanted to do more.
When I met the director of education at the Komen Foundation in San Antonio, I knew how I would complete my mission. Her idea to direct our efforts to the Latina community was the beginning of Latinas for A Cure. Today, the group develops programs and events to reach out to and educate the Latina community in San Antonio.
Education is the power behind fighting this disease, and that was the promise I made to Marta and Susan. I am the only Musketeer left, and I have kept my promise.
Follow Your Instincts
By Joan Treviño Lawhon
I think women are blessed with a sixth sense. Recently, during a show on breast cancer survivors, several said they knew immediately that something was wrong. I could definitely relate.
My basic tests were within normal limits, but I had what I can only describe as a “gut feeling.” I had some very supportive doctors who followed through on my instincts. It took five tests to confirm a malignancy.
Within an hour of my diagnosis, I was at Barnes & Noble buying layman’s books on breast cancer. We can freeze and let the disease consume us, or we can fight. My choice was to fight. I was going to make sure my choice was an informed one. My husband Garey had lost his valiant battle to pancreatic cancer the year before. I lost a brother to kidney cancer. I thought I would face “my cancer” alone.
A cancer diagnosis is not a death sentence, but it does make you face your own mortality. I updated my will, organized important papers, selected the music for my service, and even had my obituary picture taken. My friends still laugh over this. But I also highlighted pages in my new books and made lists of questions for my surgeon.
Along with my research, I turned to a source I had treasured since early childhood – St. Theresa, the Little Flower. Her comforting presence assured me that God had found a meaningful way to remind me of his love. I knew then that I was not alone. My close-knit family also saw to that. In typical Mexican family style, during my nine-hour mastectomy and breast reconstruction, I had 21 people following me from the admitting area to pre-op, surgical waiting, recovery, and finally to my room. My aunt brought a guest book. With this entourage, people probably wondered if I was somebody important. To my family and friends, I am.
This is my last year of tamoxifen (a hormonal treatment). I choose to see my nightly medication not as a reminder of my cancer but as a means of providing me another day to enjoy life. Now if people see me in a low-cut gown, I love hearing them say, “You don’t look like you had cancer,” because they are right. I had cancer. And I thank God for those beautiful words.
The Value of Education
By Mary González
I never dreamed I would be diagnosed with breast cancer at age 33. My grandmother had died of ovarian cancer at 55. I also lost my mother to ovarian cancer at 56.
Shortly after my mother’s death, I asked my doctor if I should have a mammogram. He said that at 31, I was too young. If only I had insisted.
Two years later, when I found a lump, the doctor said it was most likely a cyst and to come back in six weeks. If only I had been more assertive.
Then when I found a lump under my arm, I called him and insisted he see me immediately. The biopsy indicated that the mass and some lymph nodes were malignant.
It was like a bad dream. Things were going way too fast and I was in shock. Too many decisions had to be made in too little time. As I remembered my mother going through chemotherapy, losing her hair, the nausea and vomiting, I was terrified. Losing a breast was difficult, but I didn’t want to lose my life. My husband and I became very educated on breast cancer and its treatment. We read, asked a lot of questions, and took it one step at a time.
One subject there wasn’t a lot of information on was pregnancy after breast cancer. After discussing it with my oncologist, my husband and I made a decision to conceive. Three years after my treatment, our son Matthew was born. Today at 13, he stands taller than me and is more handsome than ever. The fear of a recurrence is always present, but it is comforting to know that each year greater advances are made in the treatment of this and other types of cancer. If I were ever diagnosed again, my newfound knowledge would definitely enable me to make a more informed decision.
Just Do It
By Julie LaFuente Louviere
At 29, I was living in Puerto Rico, and I was in the best shape of my life, training for a triathlon and weighing only 115 pounds of muscle. I felt like I was in total control of my life.
I found a knot near my collarbone, which I believed was nothing, but my husband made me get it checked out. The diagnosis was breast cancer. I was in shock. I thought cancer was something that only old people got. I learned the ugly side effects of chemotherapy, like losing hair and eyebrows, but I could give them up if I had to. If I had to lose a breast to survive, I was ready. My motto became “Just do it.” If you want to live, you’ll do what you have to do. This thing called cancer was not going to take me down. I put temporary tattoos on my bald head and wore a T-shirt that my niece gave me that said “I’m Too Sexy for My Hair.”
After my treatment, there was no sign of cancer. More than four years later, I became pregnant again. But the cancer came back, now in my liver and bones. The doctors recommended termination of my pregnancy because they said it would be easier to treat. For me that was not an option. On Valentine’s Day, 1998, I gave birth to my second daughter, Alis Ami. I found out later that the doctors had given me two months to live. In a way, I believe it was my new daughter who saved my life.
I had faith before, but now I have a lot more. My prayers have been answered. I’m not as materialistic, and I’m not always in a rush. When you’ve had a close call like this, all the other stuff doesn’t matter. You know you have it together.
I enjoy each day to the fullest. If I want to stop and smell the flowers, I can. If I want to bake cookies with the girls, I do. Sometimes I get sad about the way I look, but I’m trying to fight for my life, not be a model. I want to see my rosebuds bloom. I want to see my daughters graduate from college. All I can live with is hope. Tomorrow will be there. Today is today.