Week Seventeen: Twenty Faces of Komen Columbus

Since this May 19, 2012 will be the 20th Annual Komen Columbus Race for the Cure, for the 20 weeks leading up to the event we are going to spotlight 20 individuals who have participated in the Race throughout the years. They come from all walks of life and may be survivors, volunteers, grantees, sponsors or advocates, but they’re all committed to the fight against breast cancer.

Week 17: The One Who Bridges the Language Barrier

Imagine being told you have breast cancer and are unable to speak English. The only words you can understand are “breast cancer.”

When Adriana de la Peña found out she had breast cancer, it was May 13, 2002 and she had not been living in the United States very long. She moved from her home in Mexico City, Mexico, to Columbus when her husband was offered a job. Finding out you have breast cancer is devastating enough, but for de la Peña, the language barrier compounded her fear of the unknown. It made her feel isolated. The news of her breast cancer and the language barrier was made worse when her doctors discovered a rare condition called Paraneoplastic Syndrome.

Adriana de la Peña with a friend she met through The Latina Breast Cancer Project
Adriana de la Peña with a friend she met through The Latina Breast Cancer Project

“This was very hard for me because I couldn’t understand much about what was going on with my diagnosis, treatment, exams, etc. I didn’t find any help, any information (written or oral), any support (except from my family and friends) in Spanish,” said de la Peña. “I know how lost you can feel if you are diagnosed with breast cancer in a country with a different language and culture.”While going through treatment and recovery, de la Peña vowed she would not let other Latinas feel so isolated and alone. Her experience fueled her determination to help others who found themselves in similar situations.

In her home country of Mexico, de la Peña is a licensed doctor. With her medical background, her breast cancer experience and a firsthand knowledge of the “gaps” that need to be filled when reaching out to the growing Hispanic population in central Ohio – de la Peña knew she could help.

She was working at the Ohio Hispanic Coalition when she learned about OhioHealth’s new program, the Latina Breast Cancer Project, and de la Peña immediately knew this was an opportunity she could not pass up.

De la Peña has been a project coordinator for The Latina Breast Cancer Project at OhioHealth since August 2007. The program is truly a bridge that connects the Latino community, one of the fastest growing minority groups in central Ohio, with breast cancer screening, education and awareness. The Latina Breast Cancer Project also has a hotline where Latina women can call in and get answers and guidance. On the other end of the phone is de la Peña offering her expertise, language skills and personal experience to these women. The program and its hotline, (614)-566-3957, are funded by a Komen Columbus grant.

“The program is necessary because it gives more confidence to the Latino community to find support, breast exams referrals, information and health services navigation in their own language with somebody of their own culture. Many women wouldn’t be aware about breast cancer, have a mammogram, or a clinical breast exam without this program,” said de la Peña.

Since the program began in 2006, the project has served more than 9,000 local women, answered more than 5,800 phone calls and linked at least 1,040 women to low-cost mammograms.

De la Peña says it bring her joy to help women in the community by empowering them with knowledge, giving them peace of mind and offering herself as someone to talk to when the diagnosis is unexpected.

According to American Cancer Society, breast cancer is the most common cancer diagnosed among Latino women, and is also the first cause of death for cancer among Latinas in the United States. De la Peña says she is grateful for OhioHealth and Research and Innovation Institute, for establishing the program and to Komen Columbus for funding the program for the last five years. She stresses that the need is great and it’s a vital program for the Latino community.

Adriana de la Peña teaching a class about breast health to Latina women in the community
Adriana de la Peña teaching a class about breast health to Latina women in the community

“The language is a huge barrier for Latinas to find the services they need, also they lack knowledge in how to navigate the health system in the United States. This discourages  many women to try to find the health services or support they need. I don’t want any Latina to feel lost – they should feel supported. That’s why this program is necessary.As a survivor, de la Peña remembers walking in one of her first Race for the Cures in Columbus. She recalls the overwhelming roller coaster of emotions she felt seeing other survivors walking, running together. She says one of her favorite memories was seeing and hearing the motorcycles at Thunder Alley.

“I saw all those motorcyclists for the first time, with their strong presence and wearing leather outfits and showing a friendly and supportive attitude, and with their motorcycles making motor noises and decorated all with pink ribbons flying in the wind…, I felt very moved and I cried with excitement.”

She is looking forward to seeing lots of pink in downtown Columbus on May 19.

“It’s wonderful to see so many people together in one place at the same time with the same purpose, to Race for the Cure.”

Join Adriana for the Race on May 19, there is still time to register .