When I asked my mother, she said, “de esas cosas no se habla.” We don’t speak of these things.
Little did I know that telling her about my breast cancer diagnosis wouldn’t be the biggest trauma of that day.
I called her in Puerto Rico and was being careful of how I told her and my father the news. We don’t live nearby but we are close, very close, and I knew the news about their “nena” was going to scare and worry them. About ten minutes into the conversation, my mother told me that I should be strong and that it would be okay, because when she had cervical cancer, she got through it.
I couldn’t breathe.
“What do you mean, ‘when you had cervical cancer?’”
Then she added that my grandmother, her mother, also had cervical cancer.
She had never told any of us—not my older brother or my cousins. No one. I spent my entire life not knowing a critical part of my medical history. It turns out my story, while gut-wrenching, is not unique. As I discovered from my surgeon, it crosses cultural lines.
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“Frankly even just one generation above us they don’t talk about it and certainly the generation before,” explained Dr. Jeannie Shen, Medical Director of Breast Surgery at Huntington Hospital in Pasadena, CA. “So you will get this vague idea, like a reference to a ‘female problem.’
For the medical community, the focus is on getting women to share their medical histories with one another, regardless of culture or generation. Doing so can save lives, says Dr. Evangelia Kirimis, Oncologist and Assistant Clinical Professor, UCLA. “The sooner we break down these wall and people get more knowledge and education the easier it’s going to be to treat a lot of these cancers. People find strength in talking about it with one another and that raises awareness, too.”