Her husband always pressured her to go the doctor. But she kept postponing her check-ups, maybe because she was afraid of getting bad news.
Finally, to placate her husband, Reyes Cabrera agreed to go to a clinic. And the nightmare she had feared came true. Last January, she got a notice in the mail with the diagnosis that she had severe breast cancer and that there was evidence that she had cervical cancer developing in her ovaries.
“This has been very hard for me. In March I had to have a mastectomy and then I had to have months of radiation and chemotherapy. There have been days when I thought I couldn’t take any more,” says Reyes in a weak voice.
Reyes, who has lived near San Jose, Calif., for the last 20 years, adds that her ordeal has not yet come to an end.
“Soon I will do more tests to determine the cause of the cancer because there is no history of the disease in my family,” she says. “The doctors have said it is very possible that it might have started with me and, if appropriate, I will have my uterus and ovaries removed.”
The only thing that’s given her strength is her family, says Reyes, who is 38 and a mother of four. “My husband has been very good to me; he has been my support. If it weren’t for him, I wouldn’t have gotten the test. From the beginning he told me he wouldn’t leave me alone and he hasn’t. My children, who are 19, 16, 9 and 3 years old, have also helped me a lot to keep going,” she says.
According to Dr. Diana Ramos, assistant professor at the University of Southern California (USC), the support of family — especially husbands — is key not only to women’s recovery but also to prevention.
“When couples go to the doctor together, and men realize the importance of Pap tests to prevent cervical cancer, they generally support their wives to get these tests and it’s easier for women to take care of themselves,” she explains.
Ramos says that in her experience, very few men in the Latino community are still resistant to women getting Pap tests as a result of cultural prejudices.
“In general, women make the decision to go to the doctor to get tested. I’ve seen very few cases of men who stop them from doing this. It’s more likely that sometimes there’s resistance on the part of women because they don’t have health insurance and they think the test is really expensive,” Ramos says.
But the cost of a Pap test isn’t as much as they think. In some community clinics, it can be as low as $5 if the person doesn’t have sufficient funds. There are also programs like “Every Woman Counts” that offer the test for free.
Alejandra Casillas, a medical internist at University of California, Los Angeles’ Robert Wood Johnson Clinical Scholars Program, points out that many women don’t go to the doctor as much as they should because of cultural beliefs.
According to Casillas, Latinas are the least likely group to get Pap tests. A report by the Kaiser Family Foundation indicates that 10 percent of Latinas don’t get Pap tests at all and 30 percent let more than three years go by without getting a Pap test. As a result, the women most likely to die of cervical cancer in California are Latinas between 50 and 79.
“That’s why it’s important,” Casillas adds, “to raise awareness among men about the need to encourage and support their wives to get Pap tests.”
Although men usually support their wives when they are diagnosed with cancer, there are unfortunately some cases when they abandon them, says Claudia Colindres, who supports cancer patients and their families through the nonprofit organization Latinas Contra Cancer (Latinas Against Cancer) in San Jose.
Rosario N., who preferred not to give her full name and works as a hotel cleaner in Irvine, says her husband left her five years ago, after her uterus was removed because she had cancer.
“He left me because I couldn’t give him kids. I found out he married a younger woman and they already have two kids. It hurt me a lot what he did to me, but at the same time I think he wasn’t a good man because he never supported me in anything,” says the worker, who is originally from Guatemala.
Zoraida Cruz experienced a similar situation. Her husband of more than 24 years abandoned her when she found out she had cancer. “He told me it was my problem and he went back to Nicaragua, where we’re both from. I spent a lot of very sad, dark nights feeling utterly alone. The only people who helped me were my friends, because I don’t have family here,” says Zoraida, who lost her job as a result of the disease.
In addition to her friends, Zoraida, who is 57 and studied biology in her native Nicaragua, says she has been able to move forward thanks to the help of Claudia Colindres and reading some metaphysics books that have increased her self-esteem.
“I consider myself a very strong woman and I know I’m going to make it through this. The most important thing I’ve learned is that we women need to love ourselves.”
Maria Luisa Arredondo is editor of Latino California.
Editor’s Note: Cervical cancer is the second most common form of cancer among women worldwide. Maria Luisa Arredondo, editor of Latino California and a 2011 CMAF/Cervical Cancer Reporting Fellow, reports that men could be the key to prevention and treatment.