Surviving Cancer Commands a Daily Attitude of Resilience by Isaac Itman

Source: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office of Minority Health

Delores Mason, 61, is a breast cancer survivor. In October 2006, she was newly diagnosed with cancer in the spine, and in January found out it had spread to her lung and kidney. So, where can we find her? At a cancer survivors meeting where she shares hope and vitality with others walking the same path.

“It’s a tricky disease,” said this African-American retiree who has battled cancer since 2004 after receiving a breast cancer diagnosis. “I am grateful to God I am still here.”

She attends two of the several groups offered by SHARE,  a non-profit organization bringing free services to women coping with breast and ovarian cancer around New York City.

National Cancer Survivors Day (NCSD)  is the right time to remember those who give hope, promote screening and early detection and demonstrate courage, generosity and humility regardless of their personal situation.

NCSD recognizes the strength, bravery and optimism of those diagnosed with cancer and determined to survive.

This occasion highlights the every-day life of millions of people battling cancer who not only overcome adversity, but also give of their time and effort to educate and bring support to those who need it.

According to the National Cancer Institute (NCI), approximately 10.5 million people were living with cancer in 2003 and an estimated 1.4 million people will be diagnosed with the disease in 2007. Nevertheless, support networks throughout the country offer survivor-led assistance to face the many issues that arise after a cancer diagnosis.

One of the groups Mason attends meets once a month in Queens, where a mosaic of women from different cultural and ethnic backgrounds meet to exchange their stories and give support to cancer survivors, the recently diagnosed and those undergoing treatment.

She also attends the metastasis – the spreading of cancer cells from one organ or tissue to another – cancer group on Wednesdays, where women with recurrent ovarian or metastasis breast cancer meet. Mason says that participating in both groups is very encouraging.

Though undergoing chemotherapy, she believes attending these meetings is very helpful, because not everyone understands what this process means.

“It gives me hope and it helps so much when others share their stories,” Mason said. “We laugh and cry together.”

In spite of what she is going through, she takes the time to educate younger women about the disease, advise them to get a mammogram and take preventive measures to lower the risk of cancer.

“If I see a younger lady smoking I would talk to her and tell her ‘I’m just concerned about you,'” she said.

SHARE also offers a program with services in Spanish for Spanish-speaking women, called LatinaSHARE, which comprises a Spanish hotline, educational programs, support groups, wellness programs and advocacy activities.

Ivis Febus-Sampayo, Director of the LatinaSHARE Program for the last 11 years, said her own experience made her embrace this mission to help other women suffering from cancer and empower them.

“As a 13-year breast cancer survivor, myself, who was misdiagnosed for over 18 months after having my second child, I truly understand the importance of helping others dealing with breast or ovarian cancer,” she said.

“My sons were only 2 and 10 years of age when I went through my diagnosis at the young age of 38. I had surgery, radiation, and a very harsh chemo treatment. At a time in my life when I should have been running around and enjoying my boys, I was dealing with terrible nausea, fatigue, devastating hair loss and looking at a stranger in the mirror”

Febus-Sampayo said information is the cornerstone in raising awareness about cancer and taking action to diminish high incidence rates in minority group populations. A group of Hispanic women convene once a year in Washington, D.C., at the National Breast Cancer Coalition’s Advocacy Training Conference, where they receive training on how to lobby for public policies regarding breast cancer research, treatment and diagnosis.

“There is so much satisfaction when I watch a Latina breast cancer survivor who has called our hotline, then participated in our support group, and then comes to this training in D.C.,” Febus-Sampayo said. “To watch her become so empowered with information, and then attend the lobby day, and listen to her speak to our Congressmen on the importance of funding research for a cure makes me realize how we can truly change the lives of others.”

Support networks like SHARE become an essential part of cancer treatment, because they ease the grim circumstances of the ordeal. Women rely on each other and open themselves to their peers in ways they don’t with others.

“You can talk of everything and everything, things you don’t even tell your family,” said Jennie Santiago, a 53 year-old breast cancer survivor. Santiago volunteers as a bilingual Survivor/Patient Navigator at St. Luke’s-Roosevelt Hospital as part of the LatinaSHARE program.

The program places trained bilingual breast cancer survivors in hospital clinics to provide emotional support, counseling, and translation assistance to women as they learn of their cancer diagnosis. Santiago said that besides the support a patient might receive from family members and friends, attending a support group is very important, because as patients deal with depression, it is a source of solace when they hear others sharing similar experiences.

Language and financial barriers are also obstacles to being informed and taking preventive measures.

“I noticed a very pronounced lump in one of my breasts while I was taking a shower. Once I went to the doctor I found out that I had stage-five breast cancer,” said Isabel Vera, a 45-year-old breast cancer survivor from Peru.

Vera had no medical insurance and received help by contacting Nueva Vida,  a non-profit organization that offers free support services for Latina women living with breast and cervical cancer in the D.C. Metro area.

“Most of our participants come from low-income backgrounds, ” said Larisa Caicedo, Executive Director of Nueva Vida. “Eighty-five percent of participants don’t have medical insurance and 65 percent don’t speak English,” she said.

Nueva Vida help Latinas navigate the healthcare system and works to help them gain access to cancer treatments.

“Since I had been working for so many years, I saved some money to start taking English lessons,” Vera said, “but two days before starting the first class, I was diagnosed with cancer.”

Once she contacted Nueva Vida, she started treatment and is now a survivor. Vera participates actively in support groups and tries to empower women with information and provides emotional support to those recently diagnosed.

“I try to teach them about everything I went through, from beginning to end,” she said. “I try to encourage them and let them know this disease is beatable and they must have faith.”