By Celina Maluf
As Breast Cancer Awareness Month concludes in October, advocates and family members are bringing attention to the disease that affects Latinas across the country. The coronavirus pandemic has added a new challenge, with delays and disruptions in breast cancer care.
Latinas in this country are more likely to be diagnosed with breast cancer at a younger age, and tend to be diagnosed later and with more aggressive cancers than other patients, according to various studies. One of the main reasons Latinas are being diagnosed later is because they don’t get screenings early, due in part to lack of health insurance coverage. As a result, studies show that by the time cancer is discovered in Latinas, it is harder to treat and more advanced. Another strong barrier to early breast cancer detention for Latinas is citizenship restrictions, according to a study done by UCLA Center for Health Policy Research.
When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, a pause button was put on breast cancer screenings, treatments, diagnosis, and surgery due to public health authorities recommendations.
During quarantine, choosing to have cancer removed is not as simple as it sounds. Patients who once had the cancer removed along with reconstructive surgery at the same time now have to do them separately. In essence, they are facing having to choose between living with cancer or undergoing multiple surgeries.
Maria D’Alleva learned of her breast cancer diagnosis just as the COVID-19 crisis started. At the time, elective (non-urgent) surgeries needed to be postponed, including D’Alleva’s breast reconstruction after her scheduled double mastectomy. “I didn’t want to be completely flat, wait to recover, then do some kind of reconstruction,” she said. But D’Alleva did opt for multiple surgeries and continued with her cancer removal.
Because of pandemic restrictions, “delays in screening can lead to delays in diagnosis” says Erica Warner, assistant professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School. Women should start performing self examinations at the age of 18 at home, Dr. Violet M. McIntosh of Harvard Medical School, recommends. “The purpose of this is to figure out your ‘normal’ early on if something changes, you’ll be able to pick it up quickly,” said Dr.McIntosh.
Reaching out to friends and family directly is another way to spread awareness of a disease that can be effectively removed when found early. That is one reason why Austin resident Linda Medina-Lopez is sharing short stories from friends and family who’ve been diagnosed with breast cancer. One reads, “a family member had been feeling a sharp pain for a couple of days then she felt a lump. She immediately got a mammogram. She’s got 8 more months of treatment.”
By sharing the experience of other women, and what an impact getting tested made in their lives, Medina-Lopez is helping health promoters to raise awareness, especially in her social media circles. One of the most important messages Linda wants to convey to other Latinas is that they should check themselves “If you feel or see any changes notify your doctor. Schedule your annual mammograms.” And, she reminds women to take care of themselves, “because you mean so much to your family and friends.”
Do self-check-ups: The best way to do a self-check-up is to lie on your back three-to-five days after your menstrual cycle and check for any lumps on your breasts., according to Dr. Violet M. McIntosh, from Harvard Medical School.
Schedule mammograms: The average age for women to begin getting a mammography screening is 40, according to Dr. McIntosh. If there is history of breast cancer in the family, she recommends getting screened at the age of 30.
Resources: TeTocaTocarte is a nonprofit organization covering breast cancer information specifically for the Latina community, funded by music executive Clara Pablo after she was diagnosed with stage 1 breast cancer at 36 years old.