Most women living in the United States survive early-stage breast cancer. But for many Latin American women — either immigrants here or residents there — the news often comes too late.
Hispanic women 40 and older in the United States had the lowest rate of getting a mammogram over the past two years, according to the American Cancer Society. In 2013, the most recent data available, the mammography rate was 62 percent for Hispanic women versus 67 percent for Asians, 66 percent for non-Hispanic blacks and whites and 63 percent for American Indians and Alaska Natives.
Healthcare experts tackled this disparity at a University of Miami symposium, “Women´s Cancers in the Americas: Strategies for Synergy,” on Wednesday.
The conference was the brainchild of UM first lady Felicia Marie Knaul, the founder of the nonprofit Cáncer de Mama: Tómatelo a Pecho, director of the university’s Institute for the Americas and a UM health sciences professor. Knaul, who has a doctorate in economics from Harvard, also was a senior economist at the Mexican Health Foundation and is a breast cancer survivor.
“Advanced metastatic breast cancer is the result of a series of missed opportunities,” said Knaul, married to UM President Dr. Julio Frenk, a former Harvard health dean.
Lack of financial resources and lack of access to medical care contribute to breast cancer deaths, and obstacles like poverty, illiteracy and discrimination also diminish survivorship for Latin American women, she said. Knaul was referring to both Latina women abroad and immigrants in South Florida.
Some women don’t know how to perform a self-breast exam and don’t know what to ask for when they visit the doctor’s office, Knaul said.
“This speaks to the importance of empowerment, which I think is a greater and larger message,” she said.
Among things women can do: Eat healthy and exercise, as a growing body of research points to how overweight and obese women have a greater risk of not only contracting breast cancer but dying from it.
Additionally, simple breast exam training for healthcare professionals could save lives, as they can train others.
Knaul said these strategies could be the difference between a early diagnosis and a fatal one.
“Don’t be afraid of the diagnosis, be afraid of not finding out,” she said.
The professor also blamed machismo within Latin American relationships for a lack in self-care. Many women experience abandonment and a loss of self-worth when dealing with an unfavorable cancer diagnosis.
“Men can end gender discrimination and start by caring about their moms, their sisters, their girlfriends,” she said. “They can make it a very natural thing.”
Grammy award-winning singer and UM alumnus Jon Secada spoke about this at the conference. After being educated by his friend and breast cancer survivor Olivia Newton-John, Secada said he uses his position as a bilingual performer to not only tell Latina women they’re beautiful, but empower them to get necessary health exams.
“Take your health to heart,” he said.