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Oregon Latinas More Prone to Advanced Breast Cancer

susan komen oregon
Credit susan komen oregon

When an Oregon Latina gets breast cancer, there is a significant chance that it will be more serious than breast cancer found among other women. A variety of groups are trying to do something to change that:

Proportionately fewerLatinas in Oregon get breast cancer, but 36-percent of Latinas who do get breast cancer have it detected at an advanced stage compared to 26-percent of other women. Thomas Bruner is former CEO of the Susan Komen Foundation of Oregon:

"Catching cancer earlier means chances are higher that you live and chances are higher than you live longer. Catching cancer late means people die. So, at the end of the day, it was clear to us that Latinas were dying unnecessarily."

Doctor Gloria Coronado knows that there are a slew of breast cancer risk factors, some of which may affect Latinas more than others:

"For example, the age that you have your first baby, whether you breast-feed or not, your use of oral contraceptives, your use of hormone replacement therapy, exposure to pesticides."

But Coronado, with the Kaiser Permanent Research Center in Portland, has found something that might surprise you:

"Those factors as a whole only influence your risk by maybe ten percent."

She believes the higher prevalence of more serious breast cancer amongst Latinas is related to getting screened relatively late.  And that, in turn, is partially drive by cultural factors. Coronado says there is an especially high degree of fatalism amongst Mexican and Mexican-American women:

"You're not gonna survive cancer, like a diagnosis of cancer means death or that it's God's will and so you don't need to look for cancer because you're either gonna get it or you're not gonna get it.  It's fate."

"I discovered a lump in my breast."

Cristela Daniel had been a clinic worker and now works for Komen. Despite what she found, she decided not to get screened, thinking the lump was fatal:

"I delayed seeking treatment because I was terrified because my great aunt had died of breast cancer and she was in her fifties when she died in Mexico and then my grandmother and my aunt had both undergone mastectomies."

Thomas Bruner says there's another cultural reason that Latinas don't get screened early:

"Latinas are often caregivers for the broader family so they're thinking more about the health of their husbands or their boyfriends or their children or their elderly parents first, and then they think about their own health later."

Komen's Oregon Latina Initiative has launched an educational effort designed to increase screening, including a campaign on Univision.

Latinas face another problem.  They are more likely to get a particularly aggressive form of breast cancer at an early age.  When Mayra Partida found a swelling in her breasts at age 27, right after having a child, doctors gave her antibiotics but no mammogram.  Her sister Daisy says Mayra died of breast cancer two years later:

"Her four kids are left without a mother, her husband was left without a wife, I was left without my sister because I believe it wasn't caught in time.  And that's why I would like women to be tested sooner. I want women to know that there are resources where they can go and get checked."

Free mammograms are available in all cities and large towns in Oregon including Eugene, Bend, Corvallis, and Newport, for uninsured and underinsured women.  That includes women who are undocumented.  But Alberto Moreno, director of the Oregon Latino Health Coalition, says screening is just the first step:

"Once you're diagnosed, there are almost no treatment dollars for these women who are   categorically ineligible.  My organization receives calls from community-based organizations who know of a woman who has been diagnosed with breast or cervical cancer but the hospital claims to not have the dollars to actually treat her for the cancer itself."

Kaiser Permanente is providing free breast cancer treatmentfor uninsured Latinas, including undocumented women.  However,  that program is restricted to parts of the Portland area.  It will soon expand to Salem.  For the rest of the state, hospitals say they provide some charity care, but a spokesman for the state health authority says undocumented women are not eligible for the state's breast cancer treatment program. 

Copyright 2014 KLCC

Jacob Lewin
Jacob Lewin is a veteran radio journalist whose work has been featured on Morning Edition, Marketplace, the Northwest News Network, and Oregon Public Broadcasting as well as KLCC-FM/Eugene .