For Latinos with cancer, one support group seeks recovery among friends
Getting a cancer diagnosis is scary. But getting a cancer diagnosis without
being able to understand your doctor is even worse.
Maybe that's why,
according to the American Cancer Society, cancer is the leading cause of death for Latinos in the United States.
And why, once a month on Thursday nights, Spanish speakers gather inside
a conference room in St. Joseph's Cancer Center, Orange.
The group's name, Entre Amigos, comes from the Spanish for "among
friends." It's a cancer support group by and for Spanish speakers.
Each meeting brings a different doctor and dozens of patients across L.A.
and Orange counties, who often stay until late into the night asking questions.
Angela Acevedo Malouf, a nurse at St. Joseph's who has been running
Entre Amigos for five years, says Latino patients are more likely to take
an active role in their care if they feel understood.
"It’s nice when you are talking to people that knows your culture,
that knows the language, that are able to understand the feeling and the
thoughts that they have to process," Malouf said.
For Angela, time spent in Entre Amigos is a necessity born out of pain.
She says she's seen far too many Latino patients come to St. Joseph's
Cancer Center, often when it's too late.
"I cannot tell you how many times I see ladies coming, are all Latinas
coming — stage four. And I cannot feel more depressed, knowing that
there is so much out there," Angela said. "They are afraid to
say they are in need of this because they don't think they will be
entitled to receive any help."
One of those patients afraid to speak up was Rosa Hernandez, who was diagnosed
with breast cancer in 2014 and comes to Entre Amigos meetings with her husband.
"The first time I came, I was silent, I didn’t talk. But then
I saw everyone talking, and I began to speak, and I got support. It's
really beautiful," Rosa said.
Yes, hospitals are required to offer translators, and yes, in many ways
California leads the nation in programs designed to help patients like
Rosa. But despite healthcare programs for low-income and undocumented
patients, Angela says many Latinos remain fearful and alienated in the
process of cancer treatment.
At Entre Amigos, patients talk candidly about their process and ask questions
about the healthcare they need. Many come with children and spouses who
have questions of their own.
Except for Maria Sanchez Lona, who lives in Anaheim, and has been coming
to the group by herself for two years. The day she found out she had cancer
started like any other work day, until she felt dizzy.
"I didn’t feel any other symptoms, and after, about half an
hour later, the dizziness returned, and I fell on my back," Maria
said. "When I came to my senses; they lifted me up and sent me home.
I didn’t go home. I went straight to the emergency room."
It was there that Maria learned she had a cerebral tumor, and that it was
terminal. Doctors gave her six months to live. To make matters more difficult,
Maria is a single mom, supporting four kids back in Mexico.
"My family is not here because I came here by myself to find a better
life for my children," she said. "And when an opportunity presented
itself, I made the decision to come here."
What Maria didn't expect was cancer. Needing rigorous treatment, Maria
had to put off returning to Mexico. It's been 11 years since she's
seen her family.
"My family doesn’t know… They know that I have a cerebral
tumor, but they don’t know it’s terminal," Maria said.
When she was first diagnosed, Maria says she wanted to give up. But after
coming to Entre Amigos, she felt empowered to fight. Today, after chemotherapy,
surgery and 38 staples in her head, Maria's cancer is in remission.
"I’ve come here tonight with happiness to share my triumph over
cancer. I'm gonna keep moving, and I’m gonna stand on my own
two feet. This disease isn't the last stop," Maria said. "One
day I will see my children again. Just like I am overcoming cancer, I
am going to see my kids."
Entre Amigos doesn't keep data about which patients survive. In fact,
many patients don't have the success Maria had. But for Angela, Maria's
story reminds her how, with outreach and empowerment, more lives like
Maria’s could be saved.
"They come because they want to provide for their families, they come
because they want to look for a better way to live and succeed. But they
never think they are going to be at risk of getting sick," Angela
said. "But there is always, every day, need for education and need
for more information to our Latinos."
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