By Jessica González-Rojas, New America Media Commentary
NEW YORK–When I was 16, a health educator came to my high-school gym class, corralled the girls in the locker room and talked about breast health.
My experience that day proved fateful for me, and those memories came back this week with the unsettling news that the Susan G. Komen Foundation would end its support of Planned Parenthood clinics. The foundation then recanted that decision on Friday, a victory for thousands of women who rely on Planned Parenthood for breast cancer screenings.
The news of the Komen Foundation’s reversal draws attention to the underlying issue—the need for widespread access to breast cancer screening, especially by low-income women.
“My Heart Sank”
That day in school, we learned how to do a breast self-exam, and the health educator made us practice on the spot. When I asked about a hard knot I found in my right breast, she examined it briefly and said, “You should see a doctor.” My heart sank—could this be breast cancer? I am too young!
As a young Latina whose mother was a secretary with union benefits at a New York City hospital, I had access to premier health care. I quickly saw a doctor who was alarmed by the size of the lump, and before I knew it, I was laying on an operating table.
The surgeon removed a fibrocystic nodule from my right breast and, after a biopsy, I was relieved to learn it was benign. Thanks to very early detection, my breasts are healthy, and I am cancer-free.
As I look down on the scar on my right breast every day, I am thankful I had the education and the access to health care to remove the lump before it was too late. However, this is not the reality for most Latinas.
Latinas face some of the most serious challenges to accessing preventative health care, with potentially deadly results. Research conducted at the University of Louisville revealed that they are 20 percent more likely to die from breast cancer than white women, illustrating the dismaying health disparities that continue to plague Latinas.
Breast exams are therefore a particularly important aspect of preventative care for Latina women.
That’s why we at the National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health (NLIRH) were so alarmed to learn early this week that the Susan G. Komen Foundation had succumbed to anti-choice pressure and halted funding of Planned Parenthood’s breast-cancer prevention programs.
Free or low-cost clinical breast exams offered by providers such as Planned Parenthood are often the only health care services available to Latinas, and to low-income and ethnic women in general.
Latinas Twice as Likely to Die
Not only are Latinas more likely to die from breast cancer, but they are also twice as likely to be without health insurance. Nearly 40 percent of Latinas have no health insurance, while nearly 17 percent of white women are uninsured.
Breast-cancer screening rates for Hispanic women are also lower than for whites—69.7 percent compared to 72.7 percent—according to a recent study by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That difference may seem small, but each percentage point represents many lives.
On Friday, the Komen Foundation rightly reversed course and announced it would continue to provide funds to Planned Parenthood health centers.
With Komen funds, those centers have provided more than 170,000 breast-cancer screenings in the past five years. These funds will continue to support preventative care for thousands of the most vulnerable women across the United States, offered through the health centers they trust.
While the rate of breast cancer among Latinas is alarming, we are not sitting idly by. NLIRH recently launched its “¡Soy Poderosa!/I am Powerful!” campaign, which provides opportunities for the Latina community to organize and amplify our voices through nationwide civic engagement in 2012.
All women deserve access to breast-cancer screening services, and collectively we must be proactive in tearing down the barriers to care.
NLIRH continues to encourage Latinas to be powerful, as well as to seek preventative care and regular cancer screenings at Planned Parenthood or other health centers. Taking those steps could be lifesaving–I can personally attest to that.
Jessica González-Rojas is the executive director of the National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health, based in New York City, the only national organization working on behalf of the reproductive health and justice of the 20 million Latinas, their families and communities in the United States.