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Hispanic Women

Breast Cancer

One in seven women is diagnosed with breast cancer, but it is not always a death sentence.

En español | One in seven women is diagnosed with breast cancer, but it is not always a death sentence. That’s the message from medical experts. And for Hispanic women, it’s especially urgent. Although they are less likely to get breast cancer, they are more likely to die from it. Among Latinas, it is the most commonly diagnosed cancer and the leading cause of cancer death.

You probably know someone who will be diagnosed with breast cancer. This year in the United States, breast cancer will strike more than 211,000 women and 1,600 men; 40,870 people will die from it.

The risk increases with age: 94 percent of new patients are 40 and older. Still, of critical concern, new research indicates that a high rate of younger Hispanic women with breast cancer may have gene mutations that increase the likelihood of developing the disease, according to the City of Hope Cancer Center in Los Angeles.

Scientists have yet to determine why Hispanic women are less likely to develop breast cancer, according to Amelie Ramirez at Baylor College of Medicine, who directs initiatives involving Hispanics and breast cancer. Perhaps it’s because Hispanic women smoke less, drink less, and have earlier and multiple pregnancies. Other experts question whether rates for this demographic are undercounted.

The lower survival rate, in contrast, is easily explained: Hispanic women are not getting screened regularly. If breast cancer is detected early, many experts say the five-year survival rate is nearly 90 percent. So doctors recommend yearly mammograms and clinical checks along with monthly self-exams starting at age 40. But many Hispanic women are diagnosed when their tumors are larger and harder to treat, explains Ramirez.

Ana Maria Polo says she was too busy to get screened. “Hispanic women are very concentrated on their family members,” says the Cuban-born lawyer who lives in Miami and has a weekday TV program on Telemundo. “They usually think about themselves last.” She was 46 when she had a mastectomy. She celebrates the date as her second birthday.

Privacy issues, too, prevent Hispanic women from getting screened. Many are hesitant to talk about or touch their breasts. Husbands may be reluctant to have male doctors examine their wives. And women fear mammography will smash their breasts “like a tortilla press,” as Ramirez has heard women say.

“I didn’t want anyone squishing my breasts,” says Polo, “and people would say it was a painful process. It’s not painful but uncomfortable.”

And for women without health insurance, it’s too expensive. For workers in lower-paying positions and for undocumented immigrants, says Ramirez, “not having insurance is one of the primary barriers.”

Another critical factor: Hispanics aren’t getting the urgent message that with early detection, cancer is not necessarily deadly.

When Venus Ginés was diagnosed with breast cancer at age 41, she promised God: “If you’ll just give me these extra years, I’ll do everything possible to help my community.” Ginés, a Puerto Rican who lives in Atlanta, has spent the last 13 years fulfilling her promise to God.

Advocates like Ginés are working hard to deliver information and access to Hispanics. Although Hispanics make up an estimated 13.9 percent of the U.S. population and constitute the fastest-growing minority, there is a dearth of Spanish-language materials and outreach. Groups like the American Cancer Society, Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation (perhaps known best for its Race for the Cure and pink ribbons), and Y-ME National Breast Cancer Organization and are also launching initiatives to reach the Hispanic community.

Meanwhile, science continues to seek preventions and cures. Doctors use radiation, chemotherapy, and drugs such as tamoxifen and anastrozole, and they continue to experiment with new therapies. Now a growing body of evidence indicates that a healthy lifestyle can help breast cancer patients beat the disease. The findings from three studies this year, though preliminary, offer clues—and hope.

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