Latina singer knows breast cancers risks

Latinas in the United States are among the least likely to contract breast cancer and among the most likely to die from it. That’s a startling statistic, but for the Colombian-American singer Soraya, it’s reality. Her mother, grandmother, and aunt all died of the disease and, at age 31, she herself is a survivor of it.

That’s why Soraya has made it her personal campaign to raise awareness among Latinas and African Americans – who have similar risks – about the disease and what they can to do to avoid joining this deadly sorority. It’s been almost four years since Soraya’s diagnosis and today she brings a message of hope to other women facing the same condition.

The effects of poverty and racism put African American women and Latinas at a disproportionate risk of any disease, including breast cancer. Inadequate access to health care, lack of insurance, and the concentration of polluting industries in communities of color and low-income neighborhoods all contribute to the problem.

“We’re trying to break the cycle,” Soraya said during a round of interviews in New York City April 6, “to make it easy for them to get the information that they need.”

As the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation Latin spokesperson, Soraya is getting that information out through her Awareness is Love Campaign, which is targeting Hispanic and African American women ages 30-54 and their families.

Retailers, such as grocery stores and pharmacies, are sponsoring 350 “Wellness Days” through the end of May in the Metro New York, northern New Jersey and Philadelphia areas. There shoppers can pick up a breast health kit, an informational CD by Soraya and other educational literature. Similar events have already taken place in Miami, Texas and California.

“There’s not one easy way” to spread the word,” Soraya said. “You have microcommunities amongst a larger community, so you have people from different countries coming with different levels of awareness and we have to find a way to break through. That’s why this program is so great ... everybody goes to the supermarket.”

There is an alarming shortage of Spanish-speaking doctors. Staff often rely on a child or family member with no medical experience to translate information without knowing if they are being understood. Latinas also must confront child care, immigration status, lack of transportation and cultural differences.

You have cultural, economic, social and religious barriers – “You name it” – to keep Latinas from getting information about breast cancer. “It’s a matter of being more reserved about their bodies, being raised to believe that it’s not okay to do self-exams ... that going to the doctor and showing that part of your body is not quite right. It sounds a little bit archaic and yet it’s true,” Soraya said. “So we’re out there trying break the myths and trying to inspire as well.”

Soraya, who has toured with Sting, Alanis Morisette and Natalie Merchant, received her diagnosis of Stage 3 breast cancer in 2000, just two weeks before she was to start a national tour to promote her third CD. She put her career on hold to fight the disease.

Where did she find the strength to wage her fight so publicly? “When I was first diagnosed I wasn’t thinking of anyone but myself. I wanted to stay home, I didn’t want anybody to know, I wanted to go through it on my own.” Ultimately, she didn’t have that luxury.

“Somebody had either seen me at the doctor’s or something had happened and [there was a] ridiculous story that had come out.” To set the record straight, she did a short public service announcement.

“In four days, I received probably 7,000 e-mails and they kept coming and coming and they did not slow down for another two years ... and when I realized the myths ... the things that were affecting quality of life issues, and the injustices in this super-advanced country, how we have such huge disparities in access to so much information. It would have to be someone without any sort of soul to turn your back and say, ‘I’m not going to do anything.’”

Her challenge is simple. “I’m trying to teach women to take care of themselves, to respect themselves enough to learn. Early detection is the best weapon we have.”

Now Soraya is back with her new self-titled CD featuring 11 songs in Spanish and one in English. You don’t need to speak Spanish, though, to feel the energy, power and beauty of her songs – and her message.

The author can be reached at crummel@pww.org.