“If I lose my breast, I’ll lose my man.” The woman spoke to me without embarrassment or trepidation, but with the direct intention of wanting me to understand. I had just finished giving a lecture about women’s heath in Corpus Christi, Texas, hoping to encourage about 150 women – mostly Latinas - to become their own health advocate.
My talk was meant to empower women to assert themselves, particularly when talking with doctors, speaking up until their concerns were addressed. I had explained the importance of demanding explanations if they didn’t understand what was being said or done. It was their right. At the end, I asked women who had annual mammograms to stand. This woman had stayed sitting down.
The woman approached me immediately, compelled to explain to me why I had asked the impossible, my suggestion about annual mammograms was absurd. It was as though I’d directed her to skydive and she was trying to explain that she had no parachute.
The idea of a mastectomy was out of the question, the risk of losing her partner far, far outweighing the risk of cancer. “Besides, if I have cancer, I don’t want to know,” she declared.
“Yes, you do,” I insisted, fearing that this perfect stranger might die a horrible death. “With cancer, the earlier we catch it, the better the chance of survival,’ my pat answer falling on deaf ears.
My mind buzzed with so many questions as the words stumbled and bumbled out of my mouth. What about her? Is her value reduced to her bra size? Is she nothing without a man? And who wants a man like that anyway? Didn’t she understand this was a matter of life and death? Didn’t she think her life was worth more than fatty tissue with a nipple on the end?
I was talking to a wall. I can always tell…that glazed look that says, “I’m no longer listening; now you’re just noise.” And with that, she walked away.
I’ve thought a lot about that woman, wondering about the messages that shaped her self-worth. We were a long way from empowerment; a very long way.
At first, I wanted to be mad at the man, some self-centered bastard who would likely walk out on her if she was diagnosed - that is, after making her feel like a disfigured freak. In my mind, I saw a stereotypical machismo antagonist from Spanish novelas who treated her as chattel. This poor woman was his victim and I wanted to hate him.
The truth, of course, is that it was not the man but the woman who was responsible for her situation. She believed with great conviction that she was right, that her situation warranted the choice she made. She was not a victim of her husband but of her culture.
Like thousands of other women, she had received messages of body image all of her life. And she self identified with her physical body because it was the currency of her world. She chose a relationship with a man who reinforced her twisted sense of self. And, if she has daughters, she was shaping their values to follow the same pattern of sexualization.
We are prisoners of our own conditioning. Our values, our relationship to others and to ourselves, are all products of memories and experiences, lessons that began the minute we were born. As a society, we are compelled to measure every woman against a perfect model. It is the prism through which we compare our selves and all other women. For Latinas, that model is the product of the evolution of our ancestors as they walked across the Americas for thousands of years, hunting and gathering while feeding children from generous breasts.
That woman represented a bigger problem than the possibility of another mother or wife losing her breast . . . or her life . . . to cancer. She illustrated a distorted belief system in which she would be less without some body part, less beautiful or less of a woman or less sexy or just plain less. Irrespective of the risk, her choice was clear. She believed the magazines and rock videos and the GoDaddy commercials. It was her reality and we are part of it.
Don’t we live in a society enchanted with augmented bodies, cosmetic corrections of our individuality? Obsessed with the shell, aren’t we ignoring the spirit? We say we aspire to a higher self but do we truly act that way in the thousands of things we say and do every day?
I think often about messages I wish that woman had heard throughout her life. It’s always a bit different, but generally, my list goes like this:
- Honor your body, don’t idolize it. Know the difference. Your body is an amazing miracle. It is what gives your spirit a physical experience.
- Stay away from toxins. If you smoke, stop. Smoking is the single worst thing you can do to yourself.
- Don’t bargain with your health. Be proactive. Get regular check ups. With most diseases, waiting is a mistake.
- Be curious about yourself as well as about the world around you. Never stop learning. In every situation, ask yourself, “What can I learn from this?”
- Know that you deserve a supportive and loving partner who respects you.
- Do not give your power away.
- Know that you are worthy.
- Believe that everything you need already exists within you.
- Listen to your inner voice. It is your soul directing you to what you know is right but temporarily forgot.
Share this information with Latinas in your life. Start the conversation to help remove the stigma derived from our social unacceptability of breast cancer. Here are some sobering facts that you should care about:
Breast cancer is the number one cause of cancer death among Latinas.
Even though non-Hispanic white women are more likely to get the disease (one in eight), Latinas are 20% more likely to die from it. This is because only 54% of Latinas with breast cancer were diagnosed early stage, compared to 63% among non-Hispanic white women.
When the disease is diagnosed in Latinas, the breast tumors are larger than those of non-Hispanic white women, also attributable to fewer mammograms and delayed follow-up of abnormal screenings of women who already know they have a problem.
Even adjusting for disparities in access to healthcare, Latinas get a more aggressive form of the disease and at younger ages than non-Hispanic women, suggesting a genetic component that we don’t yet understand.
For those diagnosed later, survival is progressively more difficult or, for too many Latinas, not possible. This is why screening is critical.
Early detection can determine whether or not our mothers or wives or daughters live out their full story. You play a critical role in the life of these women - you can save their life.
When breast cancer is diagnosed in the earliest stage, the survival rate is 97%. Almost every one survives.
Tell every woman you know…for the love of women.
During her long career in technology, Annette held numerous corporate leadership positions with Fortune 100 companies where she championed development of minorities for upper management. She received the National Women of Color Technology Award for Enlightenment for her diversity achievements and was recognized by Latina Style and Vice President Gore as one of the most influential Latinas in American business. In 2000, she left her corporate work to devote herself to women's cancer causes. She published her first book, Outside The Lines of love, life, and cancer, to help others cope with the disease. She has also been published in Hispanic Engineer and several other media. Annette serves on the board of directors of the Ovarian Cancer National Alliance and founded the Ovarian Cancer Alliance of Arizona, for which she serves as president. Annette also writes for http://www.empowher.com/. She and her husband, Rich, live in Scottsdale AZ.