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Friends, Family Network Key During Breast Cancer Treatment

Maria Linares was diagnosed with breast cancer five years ago. She credit her support group she calls "soldaderas" with helping her heal.
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HOUSTON, TX -- Maria Linares was diagnosed with breast cancer five years ago. After undergoing a partial mastectomy came the chemotherapy, which not only robbed her energy but also her ability to retain the “ever-so-present” element that characterizes many Latino mothers - the element of control.

The treatment left her so weak that at times, even putting on her socks left her breathless. For almost a decade she has been a member of a folkloric Mexican dance group. Her fellow dancers stood with her every step of the way during her fight.

“They became my soldaderas, my family who said ‘no, we are not leaving any dancer behind,’” Maria says.

The soldaderas were strong, graceful and determined to help their friend in one of the most difficult battles of her life. Maria’s affectionate term for her friends - “soldaderas” - borrows from the term women fighters were given during the Mexican revolution,

How did they help?

“Going to my house, washing clothes when I couldn’t do it myself, bringing me food when I could not cook for myself, which was very humbling. I cried,” says Maria, who has been cancer free for four years now.

Maria is lucky. Her cancer was detected early enough to give her the chance to survive it and not become a fatality statistic. According to the American Cancer Society, this year alone more than 539,000 women will die as a result of breast cancer. One in 10 will be Hispanic. According to the statistics cancer is the second most common cause of death in the U.S., second only to heart disease.

Doctor Mahdieh Parizi is one of the lead physicians at The Rose, a breast health care organization in Southeast Texas, which provides preventive and treatment options for uninsured women. She says the lack of access to routine health care examinations is primarily what makes Hispanic women so vulnerable.

“Women in our minority population, Hispanic and African American women, have higher incidents of breast cancer because of lack of access to care.”

The established medical protocol to detect and treat breast cancer, she says, has a proven record of saving lives.

Mirna Villegas, a working professional and mother of three girls detected a mass in her breast two years ago, but it took months to have it evaluated by a doctor. Her lack of action was a result of fear. But she admits it was also caused by wishful thinking that if she ignored it may just go away. It did not.

“From one day to the next, it just grew like a ball the size of a kiwi in my breast. I was just worried about it and I went to the doctor. It was cancer and they told me it was stage three at that time,” Mirna says.

The fact that she was absorbed by work and the duties of motherhood played a factor in not seeking treatment earlier. On the day that Mirna had the tearful conversation with her daughters - informing them she had the deadly disease - she says that's when it dawned on her. 'If I do not take care of myself, who is going to take care of them?', she thought.

“When I saw them crying, I told them I didn’t need that. I really needed for us to be strong to get through this,” she says.

Looking back, both Maria and Mirna believe that from their weakest moments they have emerged stronger, more determined and more vocal with all the women they know about seeking help and getting regular mammograms.

“We – mothers – are the pillars of the family,” says Dr. Parizi, “so if we are healthy, if we are taking care of ourselves, we really are taking care of our family.”

The Rose provides breast health care to women in 35 counties in Southwest Texas.

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